From Turkey to Greece and back again: Lesbos migrants brace for deportation
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For well over a year, the Greek island of Lesbos has been on the frontline of the migrant crisis. Now, those left behind on this remote outpost of Fortress Europe are dreading their expulsion back to Turkey.
reporting from Lesbos, Greece
They came on rickety boats, drenched to the bone and so packed they couldn't even sit. Hundreds perished in the Aegean Sea, named after a mythical king who drowned in its waters. Those who made it onto Greek soil are now holed up inside the Lesbos “hotspot” - a Eurocratic euphemism for what is to all effects and purposes a detention centre. All have one fear in common: that Europe sends them back from where they came.
Will they deport us? Send us back to Turkey? To Syria? Why don't they open the borders? A frenzy of anxious questions greets us as we walk up to the tall metal fence that circles the camp of Moria, a sinister name for what is increasingly turning into a sinister jail. Journalists have no access to the facility, but Greek police close an eye when we address the migrants of all ages who cling to the barrier, desperate for news about their fate.
They are mostly Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis. Some have been moved here from other camps on the island. Others missed a midnight deadline on March 20, after which all newcomers from Turkey are liable to be deported if they fail to apply for asylum in Greece or their application is rejected, according to the controversial deal adopted by the European Union and Turkey on March 18th, 2016.
Mohammed, a native of Damascus, says he arrived on the evening of the 20th, but only registered at Moria three days later – meaning he missed the deadline. He hails from Yarmouk, the Syrian capital's unofficial refugee camp populated largely by Palestinians. After five years of war, Yarmouk is now a field of ruins. So are the great cities of Aleppo and Idlib, which Mohammed travelled through on his way to Europe.
He says police inside Moria told him he could apply for asylum in Greece, but nowhere else. Like most people who aimed for the shores of Europe, fleeing war, persecution and poverty, Mohammed has no such plans. He hopes to make it into Europe's wealthier north, where he could find a job. “Greek people are good, they fight for us,” he says. “But they told me you can't find work here.”
One for one
Mohammed crossed the narrow stretch of sea between Turkey and Lesbos on a small boat laden with men, women and children. He counted at least 40 people on the tiny vessel, measuring 9 metres at best. Last year, more than 700 people died attempting the crossing. EU leaders claim this is why they concluded a deal with Turkey last month to sever a migrant trail that has seen more than a million people enter Europe last year, about half of them Syrians fleeing war.
Under the widely decried deal, migrants arriving on the Greek islands must be individually assessed by the Greek authorities, backed by EU staff. Anyone who does not apply for asylum will be sent back, as will anyone whose claim is rejected. All nationalities are likely to be deported. For every Syrian migrant sent back to Turkey, one Syrian already in Turkey will be resettled in the EU – though Europe has made it clear it will take no more than 72,000.
Implementation of the deal has presented Greece with a massive logistical challenge. The country's cash-strapped government has had two weeks to build or upgrade detention facilities, deploy thousands of staff to process asylum applications, and empty the islands of those who registered prior to the March 20 deadline. It is still waiting for the arrival of some 2,300 European agents to help implement the accord.
Meanwhile, Greece's parliament has approved an urgent bill bolstering its migration and asylum services, and activating a 2013 European directive which says that migrants cannot be sent to a third country where they face danger or discrimination. Conveniently, EU countries had earlier rushed to reclassify Turkey as a safe haven for refugees, despite numerous reports of Turkish authorities forcibly returning Syrians and other nationals to their home countries, where they face persecution.
'I'm Syrian. They won't send us back'
On Friday, Turkish authorities said deportations of illegal migrants back to Turkey would begin as planned on Monday, April 4. An EU source confirmed the “target date”. Another spoke of 500 expulsions. A spokesperson for the UNHCR, the UN's refugee body, told FRANCE 24 as many as 700 could be deported. Perhaps from Moria, or from one of the other “hotspots” hastily set up on the Greek islands that face the western coast of Anatolia. Nobody knows for sure, but the arrival in Lesbos of a C-130 military plane has reinforced suspicions that the island which received the greatest number of migrants will also be the first to witness their expulsion.
Ahmed, a resident of Aleppo, is confident he will not be deported. “I'm Syrian,” he explains. “They won't send Syrians back. Never!” He was hoping to arrive before the midnight deadline when he crossed the sea early on March 20. But he had to wait several hours before registering in Moria, and the paper bar code tied around his wrist says he arrived on the 21st.
Like Mohammed, Ahmed declined to give his full name, for safety reasons. He is travelling with his wife and three children, aged between 5 and 12. Under international law, it is illegal to detain children. It is also illegal to detain asylum seekers. But officially, Moria is not a detention centre – though many NGOs now dispute that claim.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has suspended activities at the centre to avoid being complicit in an "unfair and inhumane" agreement. The UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have also voiced concern and scaled back activities. Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the UN's human rights chief, has blasted Europe for detaining vulnerable individuals and failing to provide adequate guarantees that each asylum seeker will be granted individual assessment, access to a lawyer, and a right of appeal. He has warned of a “deeply problematic knock-on effect in other parts of the world”.
According to the UNHCR's spokesperson in Lesbos, around 1,700 of Moria's 2,500-strong population have sought asylum so far. Their application is pending. The spokesperson confirmed that there was a shortage of lawyers and legal advisors. He also said there was not enough food to feed the whole camp, which is operating well over capacity and sees new arrivals every day.
Outside the facility we meet Sham, a 19-year-old Pakistani who sneaks out of Moria every day to fetch something to eat, using a hole in the fence. He says the food in the camp is scarce and “not edible”. It is so bad some 200 fellow Pakistanis, who are kept in a separate part of the camp, started a hunger strike on Thursday. As he speaks, Sham draws a plan of the camp in the sand and pulls out his mobile phone to show us a picture of a large heap of food dumped in a corner.
The young computer science student is something of a veteran in Lesbos, where he landed in late February. He is also an example of the many hurdles and dangers asylum seekers face on their way to Europe. Sham left his native Punjab, near the Indian border, in early January but was kidnapped in Iran, beaten and used as a pawn to extort money from his family. Two large scars on his left arm bear witness to his ordeal.
Sham says he tried to register with Greek authorities on several occasions soon after his arrival, but was told that the process was not open to Pakistanis. “The policeman told me, 'If you keep coming I will arrest you and send you to the Turkey',” he says. When he finally succeeded, it was March 24 and the EU-Turkey deal had come into force. Now he's stuck in Lesbos.
As a Pakistani, Sham runs a greater risk of being deported. His nationality has slipped down the refugee social ladder. Countries north of Greece now consider virtually all Pakistanis as economic migrants. Even Afghans, whose country has been rocked by war for much of the last 35 years, have been “downgraded”. Many feel they are being sidelined in favour of Syrians.
Lying just 15 kilometres away, the Turkish coastline is clearly visible from Moria. It is a constant reminder of the threat that hangs over those trapped in this remote outpost of “Fortress Europe”. The narrow stretch of water in between has become a highway for Greek and Turkish border patrols, NATO ships and the multinational fleet deployed by Frontex, Europe's border agency.
Watching this surreal scene, it feels as if Lesbos has gone back to the days of its most illustrious son Barbarossa, the 16th-century corsair-turned-grand admiral of the Ottoman fleet, whose mere name inspired terror from Cyprus to Gibraltar. His father was a Turk of Albanian descent, his mother the widow of an Orthodox priest. Five centuries later, Lesbos is once again a crossroads of the Mediterranean's many diasporas.
The formidable deployment of force has reduced the flow of migrants, but failed to stem it. On Lesbos and Greece's other frontier islands, asylum seekers continue to arrive by the hundreds each day. “If there's going to be more bombs, there will be more refugees,” says Lena Altinoglou, an English teacher and native of Lesbos.
She runs the Pikpa refugee shelter, just south of Mytilene, the island's main town. Her camp, which is operated and funded by local and foreign volunteers, is one of the few whose population hasn't been transferred to Moria. They are all vulnerable cases, including pregnant women and people with disabilities or psychological disorders. At Pikpa, they have access to personalised medical care, interpreters, and suitable accommodation. The children have enrolled in the local school, while many adults take evening classes to learn Greek or English.
Altinoglou says she has been heartened by the locals' response to the crisis. “I was expecting a backlash when hundreds of migrants put up tents in the port of Mytilene, but there was none,” she says. “It shows people are tolerant here.” But Europe's response offered no such comfort. “I don't understand how Europeans can fail to feel ashamed,” she laments. “Find me one European who wouldn't flee his country if it was destroyed by war!”