Ongoing conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean and the opportunity of an easy gateway into Europe has made Lesvos a steppingstone for refugees fleeing war zones and poverty.
The proximity of the Turkish coastline to Lesvos has, through a throng of social media, enticed a steady stream of refugees entering the island in search of refuge.
The local authorities of the island are overwhelmed.
The local residents were at first heartbroken in the light of the human suffering; however, this has turned to regret and disgust as a large number of refugees are taking advantage of the good nature of the residents.
Some 1.2 million refugees have crossed into Greece since 2015.
Lesvos, located in the eastern Aegean, is only 12km to the Turkish coastline at its closest point and this has created an opportunity for many to take advantage of.
The Turkish government has adopted an open-door policy to put pressure on the European Union (EU) in its dealings with them.
The Greek government has taken a host of steps in response to the Turkish government’s policies, including deploying military and coast guard forces to the border, suspending asylum applications and vowing to deport those who enter the country illegally.
This, however, is too little too late, “the horse has bolted”.
Some Greek residents, meanwhile, have taken matters into their own hands by forming civilian patrols aimed at stopping the flow of migrants.
In Lesvos, an interim makeshift camp designated for 3,000 people has grown around the small town of Moria which recently housed up to 15,000 asylum seekers. They are free to move about in the community with few restrictions.
Lesvos is a holiday destination for many who live overseas, such as us here in Australia and many have family homes where we stay during our time in Greece. Unfortunately, due to the global COVID-19 restrictions, tourism has disappeared from Lesvos for the time being.
These refugees, however, opportunists that they are, have taken to breaking into these properties and making themselves at home.
The local police are at their stretching point.
Local politics and divisions between the two local municipalities need to be set aside for the good of the island.
Descendants of Lesvos now living in Australia have watched with distaste and disappointment as the events have been evolving on the island.
We as Australians cannot comprehend the ineffectiveness of Greek local and national authorities in processing the refugees to move them on to their next destination.
But we are also amazed and angered at the reckless behaviour that some of these refugees have adopted, breaking into homes, desecrating churches, and even cutting down olive trees, the symbol of Lesvos.
In late January 2021, it was revealed through local media channels that the Greek government has secured €16 million in funding to support the establishment and construction of facilities to house refugees while their applications were being processed.
The conditions surrounding this funding and the proposed type of construction is still unclear to the local communities that are directly impacted by the creation of purpose-built facilities for fleeing refugees.
What is known is that 6000 sq m near the town of Moria has been earmarked for this facility, again without consultation with the local residents and the municipal authorities. It seems that the planning is in the advanced stage of design and construction.
For the locals and those outside of Lesvos who have an attachment to Lesvos, it is hoped that the proposed centre is a transient facility that will process refugee applications and then move these people on to their next destination. In no way should it be a permanent or semi-permanent arrangement.
The proposal to temporarily house refugees in purpose-built temporary accommodation is a good move by the government, however, this must be supported by efficient and timely processing of applications to help move people on to their next destination. Lesvos has had difficulty in accommodating, and will not be able to fully house the influx of refugees.
This announcement brings some hope to alleviate the problem of overcrowding, malicious damage, theft, and the constant fear the locals have in not knowing who is living among them.
We, who reside far from the frontline of Lesvos, watch the news as it trickles out of the island.
These events as they unfold and the uncertainty of the future outcomes, has seriously discouraged investment and support in the island economy by those Lesvians living overseas.
Living in Australia, we have expectations as to how refugees are treated and managed with respect and dignity, however we also expect the refugees to treat their next stepping stone also with respect and appreciate the assistance of the local people and the government authorities of Greece.
- Andrew Tsounis (Secretary), Dimitri Barmakellis (President), Pan Lesvian Federation of Australia and New Zealand -15 February 2021