The transit island

The transit island

We are in the middle of the storm here in Lesvos, right in the epicentre of the refugee stream towards Europe. The primary entry point of the Garden of Eden a.k.a. the EU. And at the moment we are in the eye of the storm, an awkward and dangerous silence. All the turbulence spinning around us, across the water in Turkey, in the centre of the island in the mega camp of Moria. We are not sure what is happening, but it will start hitting us soon.


As full as the camp was yesterday it is deserted today. In the tent next door the boxes full of baby socks and blankets are waiting to meet new refugees. The Dutch medical tent has a waiting room outside, now filled with waiting volunteers. In the back of my head voices start whispering if I am here in vain, if we should pack up the camp and move to another island perhaps. There are rumours about new laws criminalizing volunteering, about marine ships who arrest any refugee they see and EU plans in the making. If we already feel like the plaything of the politicians, how unsettling must these rumours make the refugees feel?


Let me explain a bit more about their journey here. In their home country they often have to escape on foot through the mountains to safer territory. They walk for hours if not days carrying what little they could afford to take with them. They cross the borders illegally and make sure they do not end up in one of the mass refugee camps. Somehow all the people we meet have survived this so far. The next thing is to find a safe passage from Turkey to Greece. On the opposite shore the shops will sell life jackets on every street corner and hustlers pick up anyone looking refugee-ish. You can buy a ticket for about 750-2000 euros, depending on the weather conditions and your nationality. Afghans for example get discounts and in return crappier life jackets and slots. They will guide the people into the jungle and have them await an appropriate moment. I have spoken to an Afghan man waiting for 3 days without food or water. I have seen life jackets with nothing but bubble wrap inside and children wearing nothing but inflatable Nemo toy jackets. They are told the trip takes them 25 minutes, but the 12-kilometre journey usually takes several hours. They have to walk into the water until their waist and are soaking wet the entire trip, crowding together with too many people. And the boats they arrive in are the worst. A local of Lesvos put it like this: “Their boats are only good enough to be coffins.” If the Turkish coast guard catches them they are imprisoned and the smuggler goes free. If they make it across they still face rocky cliffs and panic, the latter making them their own worst enemies. Sometimes a boat capsizes when all people lean one way towards help when they are just minutes from being saved. On shore, if we have spotted them and are able to guide them towards a clear beach, we meet them with instructions, emergency blankets and transportation. We will guide them towards the nearest transit camp where they will get clean cloths, hot coffee and medical attention. On Lesvos people are transferred as soon as possible towards camp Moria, the central holding camp. A former prison guarded by policemen with shields and sticks and still surrounded by high fences and barbed wire. Welcome in Europe.


We all know Europe is divided about the human thing. They can’t seem to agree on what should happen. The people of Greece, of Lesbos, the ones I have met are not divided at all. The refugees are human and in need of help, we care for them. What happens later is not their concern; their concern is to stop dead people washing up in their back yards. The local shop owner said: “If there is no war here, why do we see dead people on the shore?” It was simply unbearable to him.


When asking about the effects of the crisis I have not heard one person complain about their own fate, their concern was with humanity, and with the island. They hate to see their beloved island be polluted by the waste of ripped open rubber boats and thousands of life jackets. Imagine a massive pile of life jackets and multiply this by a thousand. You end up with a junkyard containing over 500.000 jackets, it is so big you can swim in it, which I sort of literally did. Mixed in with the orange mass are items of clothing and personal belongings. Baby shoes, a ripped ID card and a fancy coat are there for the taking. It seems surreal, almost like an Auschwitz exhibition.




The locals also hate to see their odd set of guest closing their eyes to the beauty of the island and blindly focussing on the negative. I suddenly felt less guilty about my hours in the sun staring over the water or looking up at the starry night and visiting their castle and taking pictures of the island. Lesvos and its people are wonderful and I would invite you all to please consider spending your summer holidays here.

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