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“The snow ruined our international image” – but what about the refugees?

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.

JOURNEY BACK TO LESVOS 3: EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT – AUGUST 2015

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Here you find the documentation: Doku-Mitilini-Journey-back-to-the-borders-2015

2017 just started – and the documentation of our journey back to the borders 2015 is ready.

It is more then one year later now – and what happened in 2015 already became history. When we read now, the texts and the pictures of 2015, we read it also to understand our own history.

A lot has changed since then, especially on Lesvos. After the EU-Turkey-deal and the closure of the Balkanroute, 60.000 people got stuck and are blocked under inhuman conditions in Greece. They are blocked from continuing their journey into another future. Lesvos, the island of solidarity has changed into the island of the trapped. Most deportations to Turkey are carried out via Lesvos. We will soon document what we experienced in October 2016.

Again there is the plan to build new detention centres on the Aegean islands, not much hope for a positive change this year. Even more resistance is needed and the history of the struggle for freedom of movement should be made public.

The border was never open – and it was never closed. Also today, under very difficult conditions, people manage to continue their journey and to arrive. Today, in times where EU-migration-policy again means mainly deterrence and deportation, we need more then ever another, a welcoming Europe, safe places where noone will be asked for a passport, but is just a friend among friends.

OUR EUROPE DOESN’T NEED BORDERS,

INSTEAD IT HAS OPEN DOORS AND PEOPLE CAN ARRIVE ON REGULAR FERRIES, LIKE EVERYONE ELSE.

Impressions from Mytilene – October 2016

When we returned to Mytilene in October 2016, during the same week the citizens of Lesvos finally did not receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their courageous support of refugees both at sea and after arriving on their island. Everywhere in the media still reviews of the last year – and not much about the changes and the current situation.

We returned to the place that we had visited only a year earlier, in October 2015, and our memories of that time are still fresh. We want to reflect on the transformations that we witnessed and share some of our impressions.

At the shores, October 2015

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On the shores of Lesvos, October 2015. Photo: Fishinwaters

What happened in 2015 along the shores of Lesvos was extraordinary. Many of the boats that landed on the beaches in the north and the south-east of the island had to be assisted. They were welcomed not only by the local residents of Lesvos, whose laudable efforts gained attention worldwide, but, latest from August 2015 onwards, also by people from all over the world, who came to Lesvos to help. In summer 2015, more and more initiatives became involved also in rescue operations, including anarchist groups from Athens, life-guards from Spain, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who cooperated with Greenpeace, a German boat from Sea-Watch, and many others. Activists from Denmark and Spain were later criminalised for their courageous effort to save lives at sea. At that time, push-backs and violence at sea seemed to have disappeared in this part of the Mediterranean. Through the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone we were in contact with more than 1000 boats in the Aegean Sea. In the majority of the cases, we worked in close cooperation with networks composed of Syrian and Iraqi activists, who accompanied thousands of boats via WhatsApp and other digital technologies. At the same time, many people drowned in the waters before the northern coast of Lesvos in October 2015. Without all of these solidarity networks, many more would have lost their lives. While the crossing was still risky, and many suffered severely on the boats, it was clear that once they had overcome the sea, their journeys ahead would be less dangerous. Their movements opened the Balkan route and most of the people we had met last autumn arrived already weeks later in Germany and Sweden. October 2015 was the peak of the ‘long summer of migration’.

At the shores, October 2016

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Inside Korakas Lighthouse. Photo: Marily Stroux

We can still see and feel the remnants of last year. When we went to Korakas in the north of Lesvos, to visit the place of the memorial-plaque which we had erected there in 2010, there still is a watch-post run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in cooperation with volunteers from Lighthouse relief. Inside the lighthouse, there are still remains, left behind during the time of so many arrivals.

In the beginning of 2016, authorities began to pressurise activists and volunteers working at the beaches to get registered with them. Since then, only NGOs who cooperate closely with the coastguards and Frontex are allowed to be present there. Nonetheless, some others remain present, such as the Greek NGO ERCI in the south, and Proactiva Open Arms, the Spanish life-guards, in the north. Boat-arrivals have significantly decreased since the borders to Macedonia were closed and since the EU-Turkey deal forced those arriving on the island to remain there, in unbearable conditions and continuously threatened by deportations back to Turkey. NATO warships patrol the entire coast. While they hardly ever intervene directly, their radars will detect a lot of the movements at sea, and once detected, they alert the Turkish authorities to intercept the boats. Interceptions and transfers back to Turkey occur daily. Those who finally make it across report that they had to attempt to cross the sea several times until they made it. Some of our friends from Izmir, who join us on Lesvos, give us impressions from Basmane/Turkey, where up until the beginning of this year, thousands passed through hotels while waiting to go to Cesme or other places, to then get onto the boats from there. Basmane now is a quiet place. No life jackets are sold in the shops. Today’s crossings are prepared in a completely clandestine fashion. Nothing is visible anymore, which means also that sea crossing are becoming increasingly dangerous.

 

Moria, October 2015

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Outside Moria, October 2015. Photo: Salinia Stroux

Exactly one year ago, in October 2015, it was the time of the highest number of arrivals that Lesvos had ever seen. At its peak, 10,000 people reached the island in one day. In October 2015 we spent days mainly near Moria, mainly at night. Back then, the so-called “hot spot” was officially opened, during a time of heavy rainfalls. We were there while the UNHCR and all official NGOs had declared the area too dangerous for their staff. During these nights, only activists and volunteers, mainly women, tried to carry unconscious people out of the mud, covering at least the smallest babies with blankets. The situation last October was described as a humanitarian catastrophe. At the same time, we witnessed then already how EU border regime was trying to re-establish its control. In a common statement between Welcome to Europe and WatchTheMed Alarm Phone, we analysed and described the situation.

Moria, October 2016

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Outside Moria, October 2016. Photo: Marily Stroux

100 cars wait in a line, and all sorts of international NGOs work inside the overcrowded “hot-spot”. They keep it running, in close cooperation with EASO, Frontex and the Greek Police.

The prison became its own world, with its own rules, a machinery of separation. In the ‘inside’ of the inside, all those are detained in this closed part of the camp who newly arrived and wait for registration. Latest after 25 days, they will leave to the ‘outside’ of the inside, to the open part of the camp. The unaccompanied minors are detained in an own section of the prison and longer, for their own ‘protection’, until a place in a youth accommodation is found for them, sometimes months later. Detained are also all those who are “ready to be deported”, and, in another closed section, those who have in desperation signed the agreement to be “voluntarily returned” to Turkey. In every corner of the camp you feel how the management of this self-created crisis has turned into a huge business. While volunteers are still present, everyone who enters, even the open part of the camp, is registered properly with one of the NGOs. It is forbidden to take pictures. It is forbidden to distribute information. Three of us got controlled by the police when distributing the Welcome to Greece guide. The refugees stuck in Moria keep asking desperately about their future – and there are few answers to all their questions. Apart from those who have families in other EU member states, there is no legal way to leave the island. They are fed up with so many NGOs passing by while nothing changes afterwards. Nearly every day there are outbursts of violence – among different ethnic groups, often related to the use of the limited space in the overcrowded camp. Regularly there are also riots. Twice, Moria was burning already – but there seems to be no response, hardly any signs of solidarity, and so these upheavals end with several arrests. What we found particularly depressing this year was witnessing how the suffering of refugees seemed to be produced in such an “ordered” fashion. This technocratic system of dispersed violence becomes ever-more difficult to contest. There still is violence, but it seems more invisible now. NGOs present there create the illusion of assistance and support, but they have become part of a system that covers up the ways in which it administers and reinforces the misery of all those who are denied the possibility to find the protection they so urgently need.

 

The harbour of Mytilene, October 2015

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Mytilene Harbour, October 2015.

Over the last years, we took uncountable pictures at the harbour of Mytilene! Farewell pictures of those who left, who were excited to take the next step toward their desired final destination. Welcoming those who are in transit means wishing farewell to them, and hoping to meet soon again, hopefully in a safer place somewhere in Europe. For us, the harbour of Mytilene was a symbol, one crucial leg in the journeys of thousands.

The harbour of Mytilene, October 2016

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Mytilene Harbour, October 2016. Photo: w2eu

Fences surrounding the harbour have destroyed this Aegean point of arrival and farewell. It is not a lively space anymore. Police and Frontex are everywhere. There now are strict controls at the entrance leading to the ferries leaving for mainland Greece. Police vans carry prisoners from the mainland to be deported back to Turkey from here. At the end of our journey back to the border, the friends who joined our travelling group from Athens could not board the ferry to return on Saturday morning. Just as all those who have official registration papers which allow them to travel inside of Greece, they were denied the right to board the ferry, simply because the checking of their papers had to wait until Monday – and then again to Tuesday.

Ferries not Frontex acquires another meaning when ferries are used by Frontex to deport.

This was the island of welcome – will it now transform into the island of deportations?

This question concerns to all of us who have been part of welcoming networks.

We wish the residents of Mytilene the strength to resist being eaten out and spat out by the EU’s politics of closure and of denial of protection. The wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have not ended, they keep on raging. Pakistan and Iran are not safe. People from Eritrea and Ethiopia continue to flee from the oppressive regimes. Somalians run from recruitment by Al Shabab. And so many people have to leave their countries of origin because they cannot survive without the ability to find an income.

As long as this suffering continues to exist all over the world, and is created and reinforced by EU policies of exploitation, we cannot be silent when Europe closes its gates.

For the Freedom of Movement for All!

Lesvos turns into a deportation hub to Turkey

Uprisings in Moria on 24th October, EASO-containers burned down once again

Already for weeks, tensions on the Aegean islands run high after the Greek government announced to open three more so-called “hot-spots” only for “pre-removals” on the islands of Lesvos, Chios and Kos. They are, in fact, deportation prisons. Local residents and municipalities oppose these plans. At the same time, the atmosphere within the camps is boiling over. After months of waiting, the entire time threatened to be deported to Turkey, people have repeatedly protested against the imprisonment in inhumane conditions. It has been announced that, from November onward, weekly deportations to Turkey for 200 persons each time will take place, coordinated by Frontex. This would turn Lesvos into a deportation hub.

Noborder Protest in Mytilene. Photo: Marily Stroux
Noborder Protest in Mytilene. Photo: Marily Stroux

Continue reading Lesvos turns into a deportation hub to Turkey

Frontex’s Prison Island Lesvos: Apartheid in the tourist paradise

Since 2013, Welcome to Europe (w2eu) and Youth Without Borders (JOG) organise journeys for young refugees, to make it possible for them to return to the place where they had first reached Europe: The Island of Lesvos/Greece. This year, the ‘back to the border’ journey turned into a horror trip, especially, for all of us who were without European identity cards. Twice, the police and coast guard didn’t let us take the ferry to Piraeus (Athens) and leave the island as they said they had to re-check the asylum seekers cards for their genuinity – a paper issued by the Greek government itself. We observed dozens of people who were pulled out of the passengers queues at the airport while providing for passports or Greek aliens documents and dozens more who were unsuccessfully trying to leave from the island from the port along with us even though some of them were living and working in Greece for years. Continue reading Frontex’s Prison Island Lesvos: Apartheid in the tourist paradise