Lesvos, 14 January, 2017 – the snow is melting, but the weather forecast is for another cold spell for Greece. The following is an attempt to get across what has been happening on Lesvos in the last ten days.
Snow storm in Greece, including on Lesvos! Of the 6500 refugees currently on the island, 3500 have been living in tents in the so-called hotspot Moria. None of them have been evacuated. Snow gets into the tents, onto the beds, onto blankets, into clothes – there is nowhere to dry off or to warm up.
While photos start spreading on social media, the UNHCR and NGOs try to rent hotel rooms in order to evacuate people from their tents.
However, the president of the Lesvos hotel owners association, Periklis Antoniou, re-iterates the organisation’s decision from three months ago not to rent out any rooms to refugees or to NGOs. The Syriza MP for Lesvos, Giorgos Pallis, has tried unsuccessfully to change that decision.
The hotel owners justify their policy saying that if they rented out rooms to refugees, then Lesvos would no longer be a tourist destination but a giant registration centre. This is the same organisation that made sure that the “Hope Centre” could never open and instead was even fined €10,000. The “Hope Centre” was a derelict hotel in Eftalou. Philipa and Eric Kempson, together with hundreds of volunteers, had spent months renovating it in order to turn it into refugee accommodation – all the time paying rent to the owners. Anything seems justified to prevent refugees from getting too close to the tourists.
International volunteers initially wanted to create a blacklist of hotels that refused to rent out to refugees so that no one would accidentally enjoy their summer holiday in the company of racists. Instead, they are now creating a whitelist with hotels that defy the ban.
The day before the snow hit Greece, immigration minister Mouzalas proudly announced that there were no refugees living in tents any more. Then the pictures went around the world and immediately a ban on taking photos in the hotspot Moria was issued, and journalists – who had never been able to access the centre anyway – were officially banned.
The local NGO Iliaktida, tasked by the UNHCR with finding hotel accommodation, managed to find room for 400 people. Fortunately, not everyone in the hotel business is racist, and sometimes money talks louder than political persuasion, as the example of a hotel in Thermi shows which only weeks before had hosted the Golden Dawn fascists.
Due to the weather and the fact that cars couldn’t go, only a small number of people were able to reach their hotels on that day. But while the hotel association insists on its racist policy, the local education department suggests opening empty school buildings, and calls on teachers and parents to welcome refugees. Finally a moment of warmth in these cold times.
A few months ago, it was Spiros Galinos, the mayor of Lesvos, who also supported the idea that hotels should not rent out rooms to NGOs for refugees. But since he and the mayor of Lampedusa have been awarded the Olof Palme Prize (a prize awarded for work against racism), he wants to save his reputation as the mayor of solidarity. There has been a public call to alert the prize committee to Galinos’ previous racist views, so he announced that he would donate the prize money to the fishermen of the village of Skala Sikaminias who had lost their boats in the storm the day before – the same boats that had saved thousands of lives in the last two years. The fisher folks had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. This way the mayor can save them and his reputation at the same time.
Meanwhile immigration minister Mouzalas is back pedalling on his earlier statement. He meant that on the mainland no refugees were living in tents, of course on the islands the situation was really bad. In his view, it’s all the fault of the hotel owners who are refusing to let to refugees. However, we know that the situation is as bad as it is mainly because Mouzalas had interpreted the EU-Turkey agreement to mean that no refugees should be transferred from the islands to the mainland. On one morning Mouzalas tries twice to fly to Lesvos. The first plane gets to Mitilini, but can’t land due to fog and returns to Athens. He then tries a helicopter, which also fails to land. Maybe it’s a sign of the gods that he is not welcome there.
The government decides to send a navy ship to Lesvos to provide accommodation for 500 people, so they say, while the cold spell lasts. The ship arrives the next day, but instead of 500 it only has capacity for 250. But not even that many people are keen. The refugees are afraid to board a ship, scared that they will be taken to Turkey. A justified fear, because for years navy ships have been secretly taking refugees from the islands to the prisons in northern Greece, from where they were taken back to Turkey.
On 13 January, one of the regular deportations to Turkey is taking place. Ten refugees are on board. Left behind is only Mohamed A. from Egypt who has been on a hunger strike since 13 December to protest his deportation.
Frontex calls for tenders to lease ships for two years to do these deportations on a large scale. The conditions are that the ships must be covered, a doctor must be on board, staff are prohibited from publishing anywhere what happens on board and the seat covers have to be plastic. The Frontex unit for deportations has just been increased by 600 staff.
A psychologist from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) offers sessions against burn-out for volunteers and NGO staff. An insult for anyone who knows that the IOM has been part of organising the “voluntary return” trips, as the deportations are cynically called, since 2013.
The EU publishes figures that show how much money Greece has been given to administer the refugee crisis.
Amnesty International is collecting signatures for a petition to allow those who are being reunited with their families to leave quickly.
And the UNHCR itself publishes its concerns for the health and safety of refugees in Greece.
At the same time, it is announced that from 15 March onwards, refugees will again be returned from other EU countries to Greece under the Dublin accord.
If all those who have been waiting for months for a decision on their asylum applications were accepted by the countries where they have family, and if the European countries would live up to their promised relocation figures, things would be very different.
So, remember the white list of hotels when you book your accommodation on Lesvos, so that the others know that their racism affects their business more than the temporary stay of people who are fleeing.
The snow is melting on Lesvos. Life goes on, but I am afraid that it will be ice cold, even in summer.