In part three of my Greece Refugee Crisis update, I want to begin by explaining the circumstances that led to the aid worker evacuations and NGO withdrawals that happened on Lesvos in February 2020. Overall, the Greek people on the Island of Lesvos have been wonderfully sympathetic to the refugees. But the crisis has dragged on for years and the islanders have been left shouldered with a situation well beyond their means to cope with on their own. Their local services like buses and healthcare are strained with 15,000-20,000 extra inhabitants on an island that only supports a population of 80,000 people. The refugee crisis scares away the tourists the island depends on for income. They are frustrated and out of patience with a government that they see as keeping the “problem” of refugees contained on the outer islands at the islanders’ expense. Some islanders are hostile to the new arrivals. They feel most people arriving nowadays are not legitimate refugees but opportunistic migrants. As desperation and overcrowding in the camp grows, so does crime. Some locals also see the NGOs as profiting off the situation and believe the NGOs are attracting more migrants to the island by their very presence. That has made these people view aid workers as part of the problem.
So, due to a convergence of events, years’ worth of simmering frustration over the refugee crisis finally reached a boiling point, right when I had hoped to be on the island doing ministry. Turkey announced they would no longer restrict people from crossing into Greece -threatening a new flood of crossings not seen since 2015. In addition, the newly elected Greek government announced they would build new, more permanent closed facilities on the outer islands in which to contain the refugees. They claimed this would help prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus (which had not yet reached Greece) by limiting the refugees’ movement. But the locals were not going tolerate any more permanent facilities being set up on their island. They had had enough.
As soon as heavy equipment arrived at the island to begin construction of the new camp, locals rioted to block the unloading of the equipment, and then against the actual construction project itself. Local vigilantes also set up roadblocks on the way to the current camp and roamed the island looking to attack any foreign-looking people who might be aid workers or journalists. Some aid workers and off duty riot police were attacked and injured in separate incidents. Volunteers had to either remain at the camp if they were there or shelter in place in their hotel rooms for several days for safety. As soon as it was safe to leave, they headed straight for the airport and left on the next available flights. Services in the camp were suspended and some organizations completely pulled out. I exchanged emails with a non-Greek individual who had lived on the island for years, and even they were afraid to leave the house to run errands in their own town for a little while. The government was able to defuse the situation by removing the riot police they had imported in from the mainland and they abandoned their plans to build a new facility. NGOs have been able to return to serving the camp, but the pandemic is curtailing the availability of international volunteers. Obviously, no one from the United States can get there right now.
The good news is there has been some progress in reducing the overcrowding on Lesvos. As of August 2020, authorities have been able to relocate at least 5000 people out of the camp on Lesvos. Some of those refugees have been transferred to the mainland and a number of unaccompanied minors have been taken in by other EU nations. There is also an EU program in progress offering to send home asylum seekers who no longer want to wait for their asylum process to finish. This offer is only open to certain nationalities who are residing on the overcrowded outer islands like Lesvos. Their cases are evaluated to see if it is even safe to return home, and their return is overseen by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). They are given 2000 Euros and put on a flight back to their home country. This is a much more favorable outcome than being deported back to Turkey if their asylum request is rejected. The goal of this repatriation program is to send home a total of 5000 volunteer returnees.
Now for the bad news, beginning on September 8th, and series of massive fires have destroyed the camp over a period of a couple days. The camp is in ruins, its infrastructure gone. It is believed that the fires started as part of a protest due to the lockdown measures enacted in response to Covid-19 finally having made it into camp. Before the fire, there were 35 confirmed Coronavirus cases in the camp and the authorities were allegedly beginning to bring in new fencing to completely close off the camp. Thankfully, no one appears to be killed by the fast-moving fires, but at least 12,000 people are now without shelter and many lost what little possessions they had. For the last several days, residents of the camp have been sleeping on ground in the streets and in olive groves and parking lots. I have read that some local businesses cannot even open their shops because they have so many refugees sheltering in the spaces in front of their businesses. The NGOs are scrambling to do what they can to distribute basics like food, water, and diapers but it is difficult because people are scattered everywhere with no organization. The individuals infected with Covid-19 that were in quarantine in camp also had to flee the fire like everyone else and their whereabouts are unknown.
The authorities have declared a state of emergency on the island and the government flew in emergency tents. They are setting up a temporary new closed camp in a new location. The new site can hold up to 3000 people and so far, 600 people have elected to move in after taking a Coronavirus test. The most vulnerable populations are granted priority in getting relocated into this new camp. The thing to remember however, is that neither the locals nor the refugees want a new, permanent, closed camp on the island. That is what triggered all the earlier unrest. Both groups want the asylum seekers to be taken off the island completely and are protesting the direction the fire response is taking. In reaction to the reluctance many asylum seekers are showing in moving off the streets and into the new temporary camp (that they fear will be nothing but a permanent prison), the authorities are threatening to only process the asylum claims of those who are willing to reside in the new camp. Of course, this camp is not big enough to house everyone and the plan to house at least another 1000 people on a passenger ferry looks like it has been scrapped due to local opposition. So, there are still thousands of people without shelter for which the immediate housing problem has yet to be solved.
The magnitude of the fire has caused the EU to have to address the festering problem of a faulty refugee migration strategy. The border countries of the EU, like Greece, are taking on a disproportionate amount of the burden of managing the influx of people trying to enter the EU. Ten EU nations have agreed to take in a total of 406 unaccompanied minors, due to this emergency, but there are no plans to relocate anyone else off the island as a response to the fire. A new EU migration pact was going to be announced on September 30th but now, due to the fire, it is being moved forward to September 23rd instead. Whatever the details of this new pact are, it must be approved by the EU’s 27 heads of state for it to work. Germany supports Greece’s plan to create a new, closed reception center and wants EU agencies to directly handle asylum requests to speed up the number of claims that can be processed- thus taking some of the burden off of Greece.
So, what can you do? You can pray for peace so that the countries these people are fleeing become safe to return to. You can pray for the EU leadership that this situation will motivate them develop a better, more humane migration pact that is more equitable to the border countries. Pray for the negotiations and planning that are no doubt underway at this moment. You can also pray for the aid workers who are doing their best to serve people in the middle of very chaotic situation. Pray for the locals on Lesvos whose home has become an ongoing disaster zone. And pray for the thousands of refugees, who are huddled along roadsides and in parking lots, who have no idea what the future holds in store for them. And finally, pray that the spread of the Coronavirus does not get any worse in the midst of this disaster.
You can also give money to help replace the items lost in the fire. GoFundMe.com is hosting a fundraiser to benefit EuroRelief called “HelpM____NOW” to help meet the immediate needs of the refugees impacted by the fire. EuroRelief is the NGO that our SPC mission teams worked under while at the camp.
Well, that concludes my mission update. Thank you for all your prayers and support!