Just as Greece appears to have successfully stemmed the flood of undocumented migrants crossing the land border with Turkey, a new influx of migrants and asylum seekers has started arriving on its eastern Aegean islands.
European border agency Frontex estimates the islands have been receiving about 200 migrants per week since the August launch of an operation that deployed an additional 2,000 police officers to the Greek-Turkish border. “There is some displacement effect,” said Frontex press officer Ewa Moncure, who added that a smaller number of migrants was also attempting to reach Europe via Bulgaria.
Although Greek territories, the islands are just a few kilometres from the Turkish coast, and are reachable in the right weather conditions by smugglers in even flimsy inflatable boats. The route, however, is much more perilous than a land crossing and has already resulted in fatalities. During just one incident in September, involving a boat that struck underwater rocks and sank just off the Turkish coast, 61 migrants died, including 31 children.
The new wave of sea arrivals is creating a headache for local authorities, who have been instructed by their superiors in Athens to detain all the migrants but have little capacity to do so.
The government has announced plans to open reception centres for migrants on the islands of Chios, Samos, Lesvos and Rhodes, but for now police station cells are overflowing, and some of the migrants are sleeping in parks and port areas, waiting for the police to issue them a deportation order that gives them seven days to leave the country.
“This document does not really provide them with a legal status, but without it, they can’t buy a ferry ticket to the mainland,” explained Ioanna Kotsioni, an Athens-based migration expert with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who recently visited three of the islands to assess detention conditions.
“For now, there’s no vulnerability screening or proper reception facilities,” said Kotsioni. “Medically speaking, there are no services and the cells are overcrowded. Families with children are usually prioritised for release, but the general line is that everyone is detained, in some cases for a month or more.”
Lesvos, the largest of the islands, has received between 400 and 500 migrants in the last two months, many of them Syrians, but also Afghans and other nationalities, according to Antonios Safiadelis of the Lesvos Coast Guard. Safiadelis is the local coordinator of Operation Poseidon 2012, a joint effort by the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex to respond to the new trend in sea arrivals.
Safiadelis said most boats containing migrants were apprehended at sea. Those still in Turkish waters are encouraged to turn around, while those already in Greek waters are brought to the port in Mytilene, Lesvos’ main town, where they are fingerprinted and registered before undergoing a basic health check and being turned over to the police.
But not all of the boats are intercepted. On a recent night, a rubber dinghy bearing 23 Syrian refugees came ashore on Lesvos’ north coast. The driver sped away, and it was not until the following morning that the arrivals discovered they were in Greece.
“We thought he’d take us to Italy,” said 23-year-old Emmad Saeed*, who had risked the journey with his parents, two younger brothers and large extended family, to escape aerial bombardments in his village in north-eastern Syria by President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.
Saeed was well aware that Greece’s severe economic crisis had made the country less than welcoming to migrants and asylum seekers. “Greece can’t offer us anything so we’ll go from here, but how we don’t know,” he told IRIN.
In the sleepy village of Skalochori on the Greek island of Lesvos, a group of 23 Syrian refugees are eating a hurried meal of donated fish and bread before a police van arrives to detain them.
After a five-hour hike, Saeed and his family reached the village of Skalochori, where they rested for a few hours and ate a meal organized by the local priest while waiting for a police van to carry them to the police station in nearby Kalloni.
With a budget of only 5.50 euros per day to feed each migrant, the police are relying on donations from locals to supplement meals and provide other necessities. But sympathy for the migrants is starting to wear thin, said Konstantina Sklavou, a consultant with local NGO Synparxi, which is organizing donations and advocating for the establishment of more appropriate reception facilities.
“If the numbers keep increasing, the minority who are hostile may grow, especially if there is no proper way to receive them,” she said, adding that the extreme-right political party Golden Dawn, which has grown in popularity during the financial crisis by exploiting anti-migrant sentiment, is about to open a local branch on Lesvos. So far, only one apparently racist attack has occurred – against two Afghan migrants who declined to press charges – but Sklavou fears the presence of Golden Dawn could aggravate the situation.
A return to old ways
For Lesvos and the other Aegean islands, the influx of migrants is not new; it has only restarted after a hiatus of nearly three years. Until the end of 2009, the sea route was favoured by smugglers, and detention centres were in operation on Lesvos, Samos and Chios Islands. According to Kotsioni of MSF, the dramatic shift from the Aegean route to Greece’s land border with Turkey at the beginning of 2010 coincided with the conclusion of a de-mining programme in the area.
Groups like MSF and Synparxi do not want to see the old detention centres re-opened. Conditions at the Pagani Detention Centre in Lesvos were so poor that human rights groups successfully lobbied for it to be closed down in November 2009. “There should be dignified reception facilities that take care of vulnerable groups and screen for persons in need of international protection,” said Kotsioni.
No one is sure if the flow of migrants to the islands will continue. Much depends on what happens in Evros, where the ramped-up border police presence has just been extended for a further two months. And as winter approaches, the Aegean will become more difficult to navigate.
“By November, we will have rough seas, and if they hit a rock and fall in, most [of the migrants] don’t know how to swim,” said Safiadelis of the Coast Guard.
*Not his real name