LESBOS, Greece — At the Kara Tepe refugee camp, a recent arrival named Ahmed talks about his plans for the future. “I want to go to Germany or Amsterdam,” says Ahmed, who asked that his real name be concealed out of concern for his family back home in Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS. “In Raqqa, I had a nice house, a car, and they took everything from me. They even killed my cousin,” he says, pulling up a cell phone photo of the man and breaking down in tears. Ahmed had arrived the previous day at Kara Tepe, a squalid makeshift collection of tents, trash, and flies that has housed around 700 refugees at any given time since the main camp a few kilometers away became overwhelmed. Kara Tepe is the kind of camp that could exist in conflict zones in many parts of the world, but it’s not in a conflict zone: it’s in Greece, on the Aegean island of Lesbos.
Since the beginning of this year, Greece has seen a dramatic increase in the arrival of migrants. Although the country has been in the news most recently for its debt crisis and its contentious role within the EU, a different kind of crisis is also brewing. According to UNHCR, over the past eight months nearly 124,000 refugees have crossed into Greece from Turkey. Most are Syrian and Afghans fleeing violence at home. For many of them, the aim is to relocate to any place inside Europe where they can get a job and start a new life. They typically enter the EU through Greece’s eastern Aegean islands, and in particular Lesbos, Kos, and Chios. The island of Lesbos has been the most heavily burdened, with up to 1,000 refugees arriving per day. Lesbos’ population is just 86,000, and nearly as many refugees have passed through the island in the past year. With little help coming in from the EU or international organizations, this has put an immense strain on local resources.
According to Eric Kempson, a British expat who’s lived outside Molyvos for the past 15 years, the rate of refugee arrivals has increased dramatically since May. Every day, Kempson and his wife Philippa watch boats full of men, women, and children stream past their home on the northern coast of Lesbos. “Up to 17 boats arrive here every day now,” says Kempson, who posts daily updates about the situation on his YouTube page and leads volunteer groups to the two refugee camps near Mytilene, the island’s main town. Other Lesbos residents have also taken the initiative to help. Melinda McRostie, the owner of The Captain’s Table restaurant in Molyvos, runs a program that coordinates donations for refugees. She says tourists are mostly responsible for sending in clothes, baby items, money, and food. To monitor the situation, she maintains a Facebook page, “Help for Refugees in Molyvos.”
Mytilene, where many refugees end up, is nearly 40 miles away from where most boats land. New arrivals typically walk the mountainous route to Mytilene, often at night as daytime temperatures rise to dangerous levels during the summer. In late July, Doctors Without Borders began providing buses to bring refugees to Mytilene, and more recently, UNHCR began to do the same. The island’s bus and taxi services had refused to take them, and under an anti-human-trafficking law, private drivers risked arrest for giving refugees a lift. Once in Mytilene, refugees are processed and given a document that grants them refugee status in Greece. During this 6-month grace period, they are allowed to stay in the country and apply for asylum.
Many, however, do not apply for asylum in Greece, knowing that the country’s declining economy doesn’t bode well for job prospects, and that under the Dublin III treaty, they must apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in. As a result, refugees often aim to bypass the asylum process in Greece and be resettled in countries in northwestern Europe, such as Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden.
At the Kara Tepe camp, refugees typically spend between a few days and two weeks before being sent off to Athens. Ahmed had only arrived the day before. Until just a few weeks ago, the camp lacked proper toilet facilities, and the refugees lived next to mounting biological and material waste. Thanks in part to volunteers, the toilets and showers are now functional, and the tents have been moved away from the filth.
Over the past several weeks, a volunteer group led by Eric Kempson has been overseeing cleaning at Kara Tepe and acting as a liaison with Doctors Without Borders. “This is pretty squalid,” says Joel Hernandez, a volunteer aid worker who came from the US to help. “This is not what you would expect in Greece, in a country of the European Union, in the developed world,” he says. “What will change this is for the international community to get involved. For the EU and humanitarian NGOs to deploy a substantial relief operation,” he adds.
UNHCR is also calling on the EU and the Greek government to do more to tackle the refugee crisis. In the midst of a crippling economic decline, Greece’s ability to deal with the influx has been limited to simply processing the refugees and increasing the frequency of ferries from Lesbos to Athens so as to prevent a crippling pile-up of people on the island. In a press conference at the end of July, UNHCR’s Europe Bureau Director Vincent Cochetel compared the crisis to a natural disaster, saying that the response needed to be stepped up, and that Greece hasn’t increased its capacity to house refugees in six years.
That same day, in an address to parliament, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras defended his government’s response to the refugee situation. He said that Greece was planning to build more reception centers throughout the country, and to stem the crisis he urged other EU member states to assume their share of the burden. But without a political solution, for Greeks, there is little to do but wait and try to help. “I just don’t know what will happen,” says Dimitris, who owns a small hotel outside Molyvos, and did not provide his last name. “We give the refugees bottles of water as they walk down the road to Mytilene, but how many more of them will pass through before we completely run out of room for them?”