Life on Lesvos

Life on Lesvos
March 23, 2016 Lori Stanciu

European March for Refugee Rights demonstration on Lesvos, February 27, 2016

Christen Dobson, Programme Director of Research and Policy at the International Human Rights Funders Group, has recently spent some weeks volunteering on the Greek island of Lesvos, which remains the major transit point for thousands of migrants and refugees trying to cross into Europe. Here is her account on life in Lesvos.  

True or false?

“No ferry tickets for refugees, by an order from the ministry of Aegean Sea.”
“They say that the reason the border is closed to Afghans is that Afghans had a fight at the border.”
“People have to pay in order to pass from the fast track process even if they are a vulnerable case.”[1]

These are just a few of the false rumors that had circulated among refugees passing through Europe over the past month. They sounded improbable at the time, but are less shocking than recent true events: On February 21st, Macedonia closed its border with Greece to all Afghans. Videos have been released showing members of the Turkish coast guard hitting boats of refugees with sticks.[2] And the European Union deal with Turkey wherein all “irregular migrants” arriving in Greece on or after March 20th who do not apply for asylum or whose claims are rejected will be sent back to Turkey has just come into effect.[3]

A quick look at the present situation:

  • Since January 2015, over 1 million people have arrived in Greece by sea or land seeking asylum. Over 4,000 people have died or gone missing trying to reach safety in Europe.[4]
  • The great majority are Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis fleeing war, violence, and persecution
  • 40% of those who arrived in February 2016 are children [5]
  • Over 12,000 refugees are currently residing in Idomeni after Macedonia closed its border with Greece, without adequate access to clean water, food, shelter, or health care [6]

The deal struck between the European Union and Turkey to address what is commonly referred to as the “migrant crisis” should be of significant concern to all of us. This agreement holds that Turkey is a “safe” third country for refugees, even in light of numerous rights violations and violence against civilians during security operations in the southeast and increasing crackdowns by the Turkish government on freedom of information and expression. Arguably it is not. [7]

In addition, while Turkey has ratified the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it still retains a geographic limitation that only people fleeing as a consequence of “events occurring in Europe” can be given refugee status. Turkey has granted “temporary protection” to more than two million Syrians, yet refugees continue to face challenges fulfilling their labor and education rights.[8]

The deal also states that for each Syrian returned to Turkey, another Syrian will be resettled in the EU, and priority will be given to those who have not tried to enter the EU without legal status. This resettlement plan is also capped at 72,000 people. [9]

During a few weeks spent volunteering in Lesvos in February, I heard many personal stories about fleeing from violence and persecution in Syria. I heard stories about the inability to meet the basic needs of one’s family due to a lack of economic opportunities in Turkey and abuse at the hands of employers. I heard stories from people who faced exploitation at every step of their journey.

At the same time, I heard expressions of hope and resilience. Hope to be reunited with family members already living in Germany. Hope to live without fear of barrel bombs. Hope to reside in the safe, human rights respecting Europe that they believed exists.

I also met many Greek people from Lesvos who have provided ongoing support to refugees since the first arrivals, even while struggling with their own economic insecurity. Moreover, I had the opportunity to work alongside a vibrant community of volunteers, many young Europeans committed to engaging their own communities to alter xenophobic and racist mindsets and their own governments to ensure safe passage and access to services for refugees upon their return home.

Many of the refugees I met are possibly trapped in Idomeni, residing in squalid conditions or are blocked from their end destinations further along the Balkan route. What will the compromises that the EU has made mean for them? What will the agreement mean for their family members still in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey?

Over the past few days, things have changed quickly in Lesvos. Moria, the reception centre where asylum seekers were registered and received assistance and from which they were able to freely depart, has become a detention facility. Both UNHCR and Médecins Sans Frontières have suspended their activities in Moria as they refuse to participate in mandatory detention and the return of people in need of international protection. According to Marie Elisabeth Ingres, MSF’s Head of Mission in Greece, “We took the extremely difficult decision to end our activities in Moria because continuing to work inside would make us complicit in a system we consider to be both unfair and inhumane. We will not allow our assistance to be instrumentalised for a mass expulsion operation and we refuse to be part of a system that has no regard for the humanitarian or protection needs of asylum seekers and migrants.” [10] Other humanitarian aid agencies are beginning to follow suit. [11]

Volunteers have also reported that two self-organized solidarity camps that have provided food, clothes, shelter, medical care, and other services are having to close.

How this deal is implemented remains to be seen. What we do know is that the terms the EU has agreed to raise significant human rights concerns. We also know that actions taken by Greece and Turkey in just the first few days since the agreement went into effect do not bode well for guaranteeing fair and efficient asylum procedures for all. Moreover, in light of the scale of rights violations in Turkey, we should take the Turkish government’s assurances that all returned asylum seekers will be treated in line with international law with a truckload of salt.


[1] Rumors Issue 10. 18 March 2016.
[2] “Video Shows Migrant Boat ‘Hit’ by Turkish Coast Guards.” BBC. 12 March 2016.
[3] “Migrant Crisis: Amnesty Hits Out at EU Over Turkey Deal.” BBC. 19 March 2016.
[4] “More than 1 Million Refugees Travel to Greece Since 2015.” 16 March 2016.
[5] UNHCR Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean.
[6] “Refugee Children Hold Signs Saying ‘Sorry for Brussels’ at Idomeni Camp.” The Independent. 23 March 2016.
[7] “Turkey: Zeid concerned by actions of security forces and clampdown on media.” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. 1 February 2016.
[8] Roth, Kenneth, Salil Shetty, and Catherine Woollard. “Say No to a Bad Deal with Turkey.” Human Rights Watch. 17 March 2016.
[9] EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016.
[10] Greece: MSF Ends Activities Inside the Lesvos “Hotspot.” 23 March 2016.
[11] Kinsley, Patrick. “Refugee crisis: key aid agencies refuse any role in ‘mass expulsion’” The Guardian. 23 March 2016.


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