Conditions are horrific at Greece’s ‘island prisons’ for refugees. Is that the point?
The deterioration has occurred even though far fewer refugees are arriving on now than at the height of the influx to Europe in 2015 and 2016.
The first thing you notice is the smell: the stench from open-pit latrines mingling with the odor of thousands of unwashed bodies and the acrid tang of olive trees being burned for warmth.
Then there are the sounds: Children hacking like old men. Angry shouts as people joust for food.
And, finally, the sights: Thin, shivering figures drinking water from washed-out motor oil jugs. A brown-haired girl of no more than 3 clutching a fuzzy toy rabbit and smiling as she repeats to all who will listen, “I love you. I love you.”
For years, the turquoise-ringed vacationer’s paradise known as Lesbos has been on the front lines of Europe’s struggle to contain its part of a global refugee crisis. But conditions at the Greek island’s vastly overcapacity, razor-wired main camp have rarely if ever been as bad as they are now.
The deterioration has occurred even though far fewer refugees are arriving on Lesbos now than at the height of the influx to Europe in 2015 and 2016.
That seeming paradox has led aid workers, island officials and human rights activists to a disturbing conclusion: The appallingly bad conditions are no accident, but rather the result of a deliberate European strategy to keep people away.
“There’s no reason why 5,000 people in a camp in Europe cannot have access to basic shelter, health care, toilets and hot water,” said Aria Danika, Lesbos field coordinator for the aid group Doctors Without Borders. “The fact that they have to endure this tells me it’s part of a broader plan.”
That plan, she said, comes down to a single word: deterrence. And the message being sent to asylum seekers by the camp’s Greek operators and European Union financial backers rings clear.
“ ‘Don’t come here, or you’ll be stuck on this horrible island for the next two years,’ ” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
“It’s urgent that people be transferred to the mainland,” Cossé said. “But they don’t want to do that.”
European leaders, acutely sensitive to challenges from the far right and to popular opinion that has swung against refugees, have made no secret of their desire to stop people from reaching the continent.
Ever since the E.U. inked a deal with Turkey in March 2016 to send those who arrive on Greek shores back across the sea, E.U. officials have warned people that paying a smuggler to make the treacherous voyage would earn them only a return ticket, not a new life in Europe.
By some measures, the strategy has worked. Arrivals on Lesbos and other Greek islands averaged 2,500 a month last year, compared with the 10,000 who made landfall on Lesbos in just one day at the height of the crisis in October 2015. Drownings in the Aegean Sea have also plummeted, to 45 last year from nearly 800 in 2015.
But in other respects, the deal has not gone according to plan. The number of people sent back to Turkey, for instance, has dropped into the low dozens per month as asylum seekers appeal rejections and rights groups challenge the legality of turning away those in legitimate need of protection.
Meanwhile, Greece once ferried people off the islands and to the mainland for processing but has sharply cut back. The result is more than 7,000 people stranded in limbo on Lesbos, more than double the island’s capacity to house. Newcomers still arrive daily. Thousands more live on other islands also well past their maximums. And many are stuck for months — or more.
Qamar Ahmad, a Pakistani who is a member of the persecuted Ahmadi minority, arrived in Lesbos just as the E.U.-Turkey deal was kicking in.
[They’ve escaped war and crossed the sea. Now Europe wants to send them back.]
He’s still there, living with a dozen others crammed on a plywood frame beneath a leaky tarp, and with no indication of a departure date.
“All my legal papers are in Greek, and I can’t understand them. They haven’t told me when I’ll get answers,” said Ahmad, 22, who studied physics in Pakistan.
The contrast between the Europe he expected and the one he’s experienced still shocks him.
“We’d seen on television that Europeans were protecting the law and fighting for refugees,” said Ahmad, slim with a neatly trimmed beard and a knit cap too thin for the January chill. “But when we got here, we found that no one is looking out for our rights.”
Meanwhile, as we approach another winter , conditions for the refugees trapped on the Greek islands are destined to become ever more dire. Lessons following last year’s incidents of severe frost bite and deaths from hyperthermia remain unlearned.
(Myrto Papadopoulos for The Washington Post)