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Thousands of arriving refugees overwhelm Greece's island villages

Nicole Trian | Stranded in the heat on the main road in Molyvos, migrants wait for buses to Mytilene
Text by: Nicole TRIAN
11 min

Thousands of refugees have washed up on the idyllic beaches of the island of Lesbos in recent months, tipping its small villages to the breaking point. More than 2,500 people arrived on the island within just a few hours on Wednesday.


in Molyvos, Greece

While in recent days tens of thousands of migrants have become stranded in parts of Europe due to intermittent border closures across Germany, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, the sea route between Turkey and Greece remains porous.

In the picture perfect village of Molyvos, the continuing surge of arrivals has turned the island – foremost a tourist destination – into a de facto migrant outpost. Here, many migrants take their first steps onto European soil.

Locals have witnessed them kiss the ground, cheer, cry, take selfies and even sing as their boats landed on shore. Some don’t know they are on an island, and fewer still can tell you they are in Molyvos.

For many of these small villages where the boats first land, the burden of the thousands of arrivals fleeing conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Asia is causing deep fissures within their communities.

In the doorways fronting narrow cobbled pathways that wend upwards towards a byzantine castle – and in cafes, shops and huddled on stone benches shaded from the searing September sun – locals in and around Molyvos speak unceasingly of the metanastes (migrants).

From sunrise to sunset, they keep a running tally of boats, arrivals, rescues and even deaths.

The population of the village peaks at some 1,500 during the summer and drops to around 1,000 for the rest of the year. But locals now fear that without EU intervention, the migrants will soon outnumber them as tourists take leave of the island ahead of winter.

Unable to cope

The Molyvos school community has found itself at the centre of the crisis.

Outside the school grounds, migrants gather en masse both day and night, waiting to board the few buses for Mytilene, where they’ll be registered and shipped to Athens. They sleep rough, arms and legs splayed over the road, and hang their clothes on the fences lining the street. There are no toilets and sanitation is poor.

Last week, parents – worried about the health and welfare of their children – met in the town’s community hall to discuss whether to close the school until better arrangements can be made.

Portable toilets had earlier been brought in to address sanitation issues but were immediately towed away as a resounding majority of locals protested against the measure. Many were concerned that it would turn the area into a permanent reception site. Or else, that if they yielded to the growing demands of Europe’s migrant crisis, the island would become a permanent transit zone into the EU.

Niki, a mother of three from Eftalou, says that – like many other parents – she wants the migrants moved away from the school.

“We didn’t expect so many people to come here,” she said.

“Activists who come here think, ‘The local people don’t want the refugees’ – it’s not like that. We’ve had refugees for more than 30 years. We are all refugees from Izmir, Istanbul – so we know, because of our grandparents, and most people from Molyvos understand what it is to be a migrant and are sympathetic.”

“What else do you say – 'Stop the boats? Stay in the sea?' They want to pass – so we must help them to pass.”

Hoping for EU help

With so few buses available, some migrants resort to riding illegally in taxis or privately owned cars. In a few cases they can be charged up to €100 but are more than willing to pay. Others, failing to jostle for a seat on the buses – mostly young able-bodied men – continue their journey to Mytilene by foot.

The 67 kilometre stretch from Molyvos to the Lesbos capital Mytilene is testament to the overwhelming influx, as are the beaches off Eftalou, Skala Sikaminias and Agios Dimitrios, where migrant boats – an average of six on each beach – land every day.

Litter is strewn everywhere. Plastic bottles, abandoned shoes, clothes, nappies and sheets have turned the island paradise into a dumping ground. Charred branches, the remnants of fires lit by migrants to generate warmth during the long evening walks to Mytilene, pose an additional hazard.

Two locals quickly left a café in Molyvos after they were called to put out a fire near a farm on Thursday night.

Thanassis Andriotis, who is tasked with overseeing the town’s operational services, says they are unable to cope with the mounting detritus. Five waste collectors work across five towns, including two at the grounds of the school.

As the political representative for Molyvos, he receives daily missives from locals worried about the town’s future.

He wants more cooperation between local authorities, police and NGOs; more buses; and a third refugee centre to get migrants off the streets.

Lesbos already has two migrant camps, Moria and Kara Tepe. But the question of where to locate a third reception centre has bitterly divided Molyvos and its neighbours.

In nearby Petra, protesters conduct a 24-hour blockade at the entrance to a disused military base, the proposed site for a new migrant centre.

Until now they have succeeded in stopping workmen and the military from entering the site, which they say is unsuitable for both the migrants and the communities that surround it.

“Petra and Molyvos are tourist places,” said the group’s spokeswoman, who wished to remain anonymous.

“It won’t do anyone any good – neither the migrants nor us. It’s a 12 kilometre walk from Eftalou to here for them, and this is a 10-year-old building with no sewer, no water – even the windows are broken.”

They have raised their concerns with the mayor of Lesbos, Spyros Galinos, and refuse to end their blockade until another site is found closer to where the boats land.

While the military site hasn’t been definitively shelved, Galinos said they are considering other sites, possibly privately owned land, although it would need to be leased by the government.

From the mayor’s offices in Mytilene, journalists, politicians and locals patiently wait to seek his counsel. They come bearing the grievances of an entire island.

Thrust into a global crisis, Galinos, nevertheless, remains confident that somehow a “European” solution will prevail. He has submitted a proposal to the EU supporting quotas to enable the shared distribution of migrants across EU member states.

“European solidarity is needed, not just stopping everyone from coming to Greece,” he said.

“It is absurd that Greece has to carry the burden alone, given the austerity measures that have been dictated to us by the EU itself.”

Tourism on the decline

Back on the other side of the island, Aphrodite Mariolas and her husband Panayiotis have been helping the countless migrants who land on the beach outside their hotel.

“We give them water, bread, cheese or bananas – most of the time they don’t want to eat because they’re in shock. Some are in a very poor way, and we try to get them medical attention.”

“We’ve had some arrive without engines – only oars – and it took them six hours to get here,” Mariolas said.

“When the Syrians arrive they immediately ask where is the camp or police – they want to be registered.”

“But there are also all these different nationalities – from Nepal, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan – fleeing their countries and taking advantage of these routes to reach Europe in an illegal and easier manner.”

Passports, identity cards, UNHCR-issued documents are among the first possessions to be discarded by non-Syrian migrants. Mariolas shows me a pile collected by some of her guests.

“They (the migrants) tear them up to assume a new identity when they arrive.”

She said that the uncontrolled mass migration is taking its toll on Molyvos. Hotel bookings are already on the wane, with some likely to close before the end of this year’s tourist season.

“We’ve had people leave the hotel earlier [than planned] – they can’t handle it, it’s too upsetting for some of them,” Mariolas said.

Reservations for 2016 are being cancelled. It’s a significant blow for an economy already destabilised by an intractable debt crisis.

UK tourists Steve and Julia Welch have been coming to Molyvos every year since 1984. They refer to it as a paradise. Last week they pitched in to rescue a boat full of migrants that was drifting without a motor.

“In the UK they see what’s happening on TV and we know people who won’t come to holiday here because of the migrants,” Steve Welch said.

The couple said they had witnessed a stressed taverna owner helping guide scores of migrants out of his shop as waiters tried to serve holidaymakers.

Europe is absent

In the village centre, or agora, a shopkeeper cries as she ponders an uncertain future for Molyvos. She sketches a map with arrows pointing away from Turkey to Greece and up to northern Europe.

“Why are they coming here, when they want to get to here?” she asks, pointing to the rest of Europe. “Our work is our life. We are suffering. For the first time, we feel fear. We don’t know who these people are – or if some want to do us harm.”

It’s a fear not altogether unfounded. Mytilene’s own statue of liberty was vandalised last month with an Islamic State group flag. And riot police have clashed more than once with migrants at the city’s port.

Mariolas observed that it would be very naive to believe that all the people arriving on Greek shores are innocents.

“I can’t understand why Europe isn’t here,” she said. “This is the ideal way to enter Europe without being checked.”

Greece has attracted criticism for not doing enough to protect its borders, with Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic in recent days calling directly on the country to “stop the pipeline”, a reference to the flood of migrants.

But locals feel abandoned by the EU and their own government. Echoing the sentiments of Mayor Galinos, they say that Greece – staggering under the burden of its own debt and now a humanitarian emergency – is ill-equipped to handle the crisis without outside aid.

“They’ve been asleep,” Molyvos’s elected official Andriotis said of the EU’s inaction. “There is no European union; Europe is absent right now.”

Winter is coming

With the arrival of winter, the narrow stretch of the Aegean between the Turkish coast and the beaches off Molyvos will become more perilous. But a UNHCR spokesperson in Greece told the EUObserver on Friday that even winter might not deter the migrants.

Should more refugees risk the journey, they will need shelter from the cold away from the streets. Since the start of the year, more than 200,000 migrants have arrived on Lesbos. But according to aid agencies that figure could rise to well over 200,000 before the end of 2015.

Most of these will likely pass through Molyvos.

Andriotis speaks calmly, although he is visibly weary from the daily chorus of constituents pleading for a swift solution.

“The common opinion here is that we do not want a detention centre to be opened in a tourist area. Right now, tourists are here and we are not outnumbered, but when everyone leaves we will eventually be outnumbered by those migrants arriving.”

The children of Molyvos still show up for school, although parents are keeping vigilant.

According to Mariolas, closing the school would be a bad example.

“This is a perfect way of planting the seeds of racism in our children,” she said. “I will not allow for this situation to affect how I live my life or they theirs.”

Even during the wartime occupation, as another parent put it to her, they didn’t close the school.

“We are under siege – but it’s a peaceful siege. For now.”

The surge of arrivals has turned tourist destination Molyvos into a de facto migrant outpost

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