The 2015 summer season on Lesvos was one which forced holidaymakers to question their perception of reality as days spent frolicking in the beauty of the Hellenic sun and sea were paralleled with the life, and loss of life, arriving on Sappho’s shores daily.
For those lucky enough to reach Lesvos, an additional 6.8km journey on foot is demanded in order to reach the island’s main city, Mytilene, for onward processing.
The parallel of life is chilling and the palpable evidence of cross-sea asylum seeking lines the streets in the form of fluoro orange life vests and deflated rafts.
Neos Kosmos ventured to Lesvos to discuss the reality with local islander and policeman Giorgos Zervoglou, who returned to the island from Athens in 2014 to aid the augmented influx of refugees.
Giorgos Zervoglou has served the Greek public as a policeman for seven years, with majority of his career spent in Athens.
However, after refugee numbers started to rise on Lesvos a year ago, Zervoglou returned to his homeland and is now an integral part of the asylum seeking process.
According to Zervoglou, Lesvos has always been a destination of refugees making the sea-bound trek across the Mytilene Strait, but “the past three months have broken new statistical grounds”, with Lesvos receiving 122,400 asylum seekers in 2015 alone.
Zervoglou explains the refugee receiving process of Lesvos by stating that sometimes around “2,000 refugees enter the island daily, the majority being from Syria and Afghanistan, with the rest coming from Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, other Asian countries and even as far as Latin America”.
Arriving by boat, refugees then head “straight to the Port Authority, where they are given a number that pinpoints when they entered the island”.
After processing at the port, around “600 people per day pass through one of the island’s refugee camps, Moria, and around 1,000 people through the second camp, Kara Tepe; a camp only for Syrians”.
Asylum seekers are held at the camps for roughly a day, where those residing within the campgrounds are provided with rooms, and basic necessities like a toilet, a bed, water and food.
Refugees, however, exceed the space provided by the island’s camps, with many refugees sleeping in tents outside the campgrounds, and many who have received their papers sleeping at the port, waiting in patient anticipation for the arrival of the ferry that will take them to Athens and a better life.
Regulations aside, Zervoglou spends time with refugees in order to hear their stories and to engage in an important step towards humanising the struggle for survival.
“Many times I strike up conversation and they tell me about the reality of war in their country.
“They tell me about bombs, about losing their parents or siblings. In general, they are just looking for a safe place to live without jeopardising their lives and the lives of their families.”
Amplifying the sheer reality of the refugee crisis even further, Zervoglou explains that “the saddest thing [he has] seen was in February when it was really cold and a pregnant woman and husband arrived by boat”.
“The woman got hypothermia from the boat ride and lost the baby. The man collapsed at Moria upon hearing about it.”
The present situation in Lesvos presents many hard-hitting statistics, facts and stories, which, with just one trip to the island, intensely humanise what it means to seek asylum.
Ironically, on an island and in a nation state that has been crippled by economic defect since 2008, spirits are charitable, and many citizens are selflessly giving clothes and food to the refugee camps.
According to Zervoglou, “very few people hate refugees, most citizens feel for them”.
But perhaps the most ironic sentiment presented by the reality of present day Lesvos is one which arises with comparison to the Australian federal government’s most recent proclamation; that it will accept 12,000 extra refugees affected by conflict in Syria and Iraq.
In a possible bid to match the humanitarian spirit showcased in countries like Greece, Italy, Germany and Austria, 12,000 displaced mothers, fathers and children will be eligible for permanent resettlement in our peaceful state.
However, for a land 58.6 times the size of Greece, this number seems dismal.
In fact, these statistics make Australia’s humanitarian declaration relative to only six days of life on Lesvos, almost belittling the crisis that has been labelled by Labor MP Bill Shorten as the “greatest peacetime refugee crisis since the Second World War”.