From the little fishing village of Skala Sikamineas in northern Lesbos you have a good view of the Turkish coast less than 15 km away. Even when the wind gets up and riles the water, there are still refugees crossing in inflatable dinghies with outboard motors, mostly at night. There are descendants on this part of the island from an earlier refugee influx at the end of the Greco-Turkish war, when Turkish forces entered the city of Smyrna in 1922 and Greek and Armenian residents crammed the waterfront for days waiting for boats to get them to safety. In a report for the League of Nations on 18 November 1922, Fridtjof Nansen reckoned the number of refugees ‘already within the frontiers of Greece’ at ‘not less than 900,000’. The Northern Aegean islands and the mainland port of Piraeus were common destinations for those who were lucky enough to leave Turkey by sea. This history gives the inhabitants of Lesbos a perspective on the current refugee crisis that is now much harder to imagine in island communities such as the UK. Before the NGOs arrived in force in 2015, when thousands of refugees were arriving daily, rescuing people in danger was a matter for local people, especially fishermen, and the overstretched Hellenic Coast Guard.
Figures for arrivals in the Mediterranean this year are nowhere near as high as they were in 2015, when more than 200,000 people pitched up by sea in September alone. At the same time, Greece has been sidelined: even though 28,000 refugees arrived there in 2017, events in Italy have been more dramatic, with numbers from North Africa reaching 118,000. Still, Lesbos, like the islands of Samos and Chios, is feeling the pressure, and the tolerance that typifies Skala Sikamineas, where many of the migrant boats have landed, can’t be taken for granted. Somewhere in the village there must be doubters and dissenters who mistrust the NGOs based here. Not the family across from me, beating their olive trees with bamboo poles to get the last of the fruit to fall; not my neighbour just below, clearing the threads of hibiscus from her lemon tree; not the owners of the café on the harbour who recently suggested that night-time arrivals could come in and huddle round the wood stove while they wait to be driven to a UNHCR transit camp above the village.
But Lesbos has seen a sharp fall in Greek, Turkish and northern European holiday-makers, who used to pack the tavernas in summer. The coup attempt in Turkey had a hand in the dismal tourist revenues for 2016, but European hotel bookings for the three key months of the season were also down by around 60 per cent. Everyone knows why this is.
The commitments that Greece as a whole has had to make to newcomers from the Middle East, North Africa and further afield are exacerbated in the Northern Aegean: accommodation facilities on the islands have turned into detention centres since the deal struck by the EU with Turkey came into force last year. The agreement means that Turkey must hold onto would-be asylum seekers in return for a liberalised visa regime for Turkish nationals visiting the EU, and generous disbursements – around €6 billion. (There’s also a clause about the ‘resettlement’ of Syrian refugees in Turkey to EU countries, but this is a slow process and affects only a fraction of asylum seekers.) Crucially, it allows Greece to send people back to Turkey if their asylum claims are unsuccessful. Until the deal was implemented, many asylum seekers could move off the islands onto the mainland in a matter of days or weeks. But since last year they have been kettled on the islands while their asylum claims are deliberated, in the hope that numbers can be thinned down by deportations to Turkey. There are probably 15,000 asylum seekers on the Northern Aegean islands, and to date – 16 months into implementation – around 1200 have been sent back.
Deportation faced obstacles in the Greek courts, and in European and international law. But in September, the country’s supreme administrative court, the Council of State, ruled that two Syrians could be sent back without their asylum claims being heard, on the grounds that Turkey was a ‘safe third country’. That is a flattering description. First, the 3.4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are there as ‘guests’ under a temporary protection regime, which could change with geopolitical shifts in the region. Second, Turkey applies the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees only to asylum seekers from Europe. (Since the Cold War ended this has made no sense, but it may become relevant for refugees persecuted by Europeans in the future.) Third, changes in Turkish law on ‘foreigners and international protection’, introduced after the coup attempt, make it easier to send asylum seekers back to their countries of origin – or a third country – or simply deny them entry.
The dismal circumstances of asylum seekers on the Aegean islands are hard to blame on Turkey, which hosts the highest number of refugees in the world, not all of them Syrian. Their troubles began in the places they set out from and are being compounded by EU member states. Greece is squeezed between the global south, projecting populations northwards, and the capitals of Europe, whose resistance to migrant inflows from third countries is growing. Since last summer, this has meant putting the brakes on family reunification and requesting that asylum seekers be sent back for the Greeks to deal with: France, Germany, the Netherlands and of course the UK have been among those calling for transfers of this kind.
The night before I left Lesbos, four boats arrived after dark, landing south of Skala Sikamineas. They contained more than two hundred people, mostly Syrians and Congolese (DRC); the capacity of an inflatable dinghy with an outboard motor, crewed by the migrants themselves after a brief training from smugglers, ought to be around 15. That night a Frontex vessel was patrolling as usual, and Nato had a warship in the reach; the Turkish coastguard was out. But asylum seekers can still get through the surveillance net to cross the maritime border into Greek waters. About sixty of the arrivals were brought by road to the transit camp above the village. Around noon the following day they boarded the bus that would take them to an inland EU ‘hotspot’, where asylum procedures are supposed to work more smoothly and efficiently with the help of EU officials on site.
But Moria camp is a disaster. Built to accommodate 1500 people, it holds more than 5000 in trying conditions, and some have moved onto open land beyond the walls to build little shelters in a strange mimesis of the Calais Jungle. Near the entrance in spray-paint: ‘Welcome to prison.’ It’s not that that people aren’t free to come and go from the confines of the camp, but they are stuck on Lesbos, the camp is an hour or more on foot from the main city, Mytilene, and winter has already set in. The physical hardships of the camp, the overcrowding, the intermittent riots and strong reactions from the Greek police are all prison-like symptoms.
The mayor of Mytilene has complained to Athens that it is responsible for turning the islands into ‘concentration camps’. Conditions in Moria hint at a deterrence strategy that has fallen into place by chance, giving shape and substance to the European sentiment that migrants and asylum seekers will have to learn about boundaries the hard way. As if they didn’t know already. With the arrival of the winter solstice, the militant mayors on the islands have convinced Alexis Tsipras to move people to the mainland. But how many? Those who benefit from this opening – and look to head north – will have no illusions about the cultures they’ve already encountered at arm’s length in a complicated bureaucratic maze, hastily designed by functionaries in Brussels who keep adjusting the pathways in response to pressure from Europe’s electorates. Sooner or later, back may be the only way to go for an asylum seeker reaching Europe’s common border. Will Europeans regard that as a success?