Lesvos: Empower both islanders and asylum seekers to defuse tensions

‘If all violence is tragic, this violence proved tragically self-defeating.’

Women and girls protest conditions at the Moria reception centre on the Greek island of Lesvos on Thursday, 30 January.
Women and girls protest conditions at the Moria reception centre on the Greek island of Lesvos on Thursday, 30 January. (Annika Schlingheider/TNH)

Violence broke out in Lesvos earlier this month when asylum seekers from Moria camp, marching peacefully toward the island’s capital of Mytilene, met a concerted police response. Such clashes reflect a fundamental flaw in Europe’s migration policy: it holds frontline states responsible for managing arrivals but denies affected communities the tools to control the outcomes of this policy.

It is understandable for asylum seekers to demand dignified reception conditions and, likewise, for local communities to want security and stability in their homes. Unless these two communities are empowered to control the fates they share, further tension will be difficult to prevent or reverse.

I have spent four years in Greece working with various NGOs, and worked in Lesvos from January 2018 through the spring of 2019. The situation on the island – where the Moria camp, intended for 3,000 people, hosts almost 20,000 – was unsustainable long before the recent violence.

For years, asylum seekers have sheltered in containers or tents through searing summers and freezing winters. Families routinely wait in line for hours to receive food that is sometimes inedible, and struggle to access educational, legal, or medical support.

As far back as September 2018, poor sanitation – in the form of insufficient hygiene facilities and garbage collection – prompted regional health inspectors to mandate the camp’s closure, absent immediate reforms.

Families also live in constant insecurity. Since the end of 2019, two fatal stabbings have taken place in Moria. Medical responders have documented severe mental health effects on adults and children alike.

The situation is grievous for local communities as well. Lesvos’ population of 100,000 includes more than 20,000 refugees, a higher proportion than almost anywhere else in the world, save Lebanon, Jordan, and other frontline Greek islands.

The strain on local infrastructure is evident. For years, raw sewage drained continuously from Moria camp to Moria village, one kilometre downstream, until the camp’s sewer was connected to the regional waste-processing plant in 2019.

“If there are human rights, if Europe defends these rights, then please stop this suffering. If not: Deport us! Deport us!”

Hospital staff on the island work wonders, with limited resources, to keep up with overwhelming numbers of vulnerable patients presenting complex conditions. Limited access to educational and mental health support make it difficult for asylum seekers to integrate, leaving yawning gaps between recent arrivals and host communities.

‘A women’s hell’

On Thursday, 30 January, about 100 women from Moria held a peaceful demonstration in Mytilene. Brandishing signs with messages like “Moria is a women’s hell,” they denounced with dignity the indignity they felt.

Community leaders in Moria then planned another protest for Monday, 3 February. As they neared Mytilene, however, they walked headlong into a line of riot police, eventually fleeing back toward Moria amid clouds of tear gas.

"We did not come for bread, water, clothes or money,” said an Afghan father amid the violence. “We came so our children can have an education and live. This is my daughter and I want her to live. I did not live for 40 years, but they have to live, so they can feel the meaning of life. If there are human rights, if Europe defends these rights, then please stop this suffering. If not: Deport us! Deport us!

If all violence is tragic, this violence proved tragically self-defeating. On Tuesday, 4 February – one day after the heaviest clashes – several dozen asylum seekers gathered in Mytilene to chant “People of Lesvos, we are sorry.” Asylum seekers in Lesvos are aware that their presence causes disruption. They neither wish it, nor wish to perpetuate it. They only seek enough control over their own lives to reduce this disruption.

In the aftermath of the protests, tensions rose considerably on the island. Inciteful posts by far-right groups circulated online, calling on locals to arm themselves against a supposed invasion. Local police arrested seven men near the Moria site a few days after the protest, wielding clubs and allegedly intending to assault asylum seekers.

Not since April 2018 do I remember tensions between the asylum seeker and local communities flaring up to this level in Lesvos.

On that occasion, Afghan asylum seekers living in Moria had staged a weeklong sit-in on one side of Sappho Square in Mytilene, protesting conditions in Moria and the hospitalisation of a man whose cardiac condition had gone undetected by medical services in Moria.

On the evening of Sunday, 22 April, a large group of extremists gathered at the side of the square, eventually becoming violent. Over several hours that night, individuals from this group threw bottles, bricks, and flares at the demonstrators, while trying to push through a police cordon deployed to hold them back.

I spent that night, alongside Greek and foreign colleagues, trying to keep tensions from escalating further – hiding bricks out of sight, for example, fearing that demonstrators might lose their cool and throw them back – and helping escort injured demonstrators between two local cafés that, at considerable risk, opened their doors to serve as improvised field clinics.

That demonstration, nearly two years since, denounced conditions in Moria much like those of today: insufficient shelter, pervasive insecurity, inadequate food and hygiene, overcrowding. At the time, the camp population was 9,000.

Nearly two years on, that population has more than doubled, without services changing for the better.

Give locals a voice

Local communities are also justified in feeling aggrieved.

Coming on the heels of a long and painful economic crisis, the refugee crisis battered tourism in Greece’s Aegean islands and strained infrastructure and services.

Just a few days prior to the early February confrontations, the local community had iself staged a peaceful demonstration demanding relief from the strain of accommodating more asylum seekers per capita than any other European region – save other Aegean islands. Community members who feel left behind deserve to be heard. Amid last week’s incidents, their voices have only been further drowned out.

Over four years in Greece, I have seen first-hand the effects of migration policies that hold frontline communities responsible for asylum seeker arrivals, without empowering them to control the fates they share.

For years, local organisations, public officials, NGOs, and the people of Lesvos have made huge efforts to take responsibility for conditions on the island. When their efforts have been given space to thrive, promising results have followed.

Each year since the summer of 2017, over 100 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children living in Mytilene – enrolled in local schools and receiving tutoring support from Gekko Kids – have succeeded through consecutive school years: each year, Gekko students graduate onto the next school year by the dozen, some of them at the top of their classes.

Asylum seekers in Greece have overcome tremendous adversity to get where they are; their resilience is worthy of admiration. With the right support, they can overcome their circumstances, form communities, and integrate – and help make Europe more whole.

Year after year, families living in Moria have endured harrowing conditions with stoicism. Their demands are simple – security, access to basic services, an efficient asylum process: a modicum of control.

Over four years in Greece, I have seen first-hand the effects of migration policies that hold frontline communities responsible for asylum seeker arrivals, without empowering them to control the fates they share. The shortcomings of these policies were evident long before last week’s incidents.

For five years, the asylum seeker and host communities in Lesvos have each met difficulty with dignity. It is long past time that Europe’s migration policies empower them, rather than overlook them – asylum seekers and Europeans alike.

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