In the second week of April, 2019 I had the opportunity to visit the refugee camps in the Greek island of Lesbos. The island, situated in the beautiful Aegean Sea, is the third largest island of Greece and due to its proximity with Turkey has been at the forefront of the European refugee crisis since 2015. Though numbers have dropped, refugees are still arriving and the island currently hosts two of the largest camps in the Aegean, namely Moria and Kara Tepe. Of these two, Moria has a reputation of being the worst refugee camp in the Europe.
My research focuses on the management of refugee camps and the impact on host communities. For this type of research it is essential to visit refugee camp sites and surrounding areas. I previously visited the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh which is the most populated refugee camp in the world. I also gained some understanding of the management of the refugee crisis in Germany by visiting the workplace of a camp manager near Göttingen, Germany. This visit to Lesbos island including the Moria and Kara Tepe camp sites was fruitful in gaining more knowledge and insight.
Lesbos, sometimes spelt as Lesvos, is commonly known to the Greek people as Mytilene. Mytilene is also the name of capital of the island. Population of Lesbos is about one hundred thousand of which thirty thousand live in the capital. Moria is named after a village of that name which is around 40 minutes distance by car from Mytilene. Kara Tepe is closer as it is about 15 minutes driving distance from Mytilene. Neither of the camps is as big as the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. Access to both is restricted and it is impossible to visit them without prior permission. Moria, from the outside, looks like a high security prison. However, the refugees are allowed to leave the camps and return within permitted time period. Moria camp has the housing capacity of 3,000 though currently houses about 5,000. Many refugees registered at the Moria camp live in shelters outside of the camp boundary.
Kara Tepe, on the other hand, has about 1,500 refugees and they all live within the camp boundary. Kara Tepe camp has been specifically designed to be a family friendly camp. It looks really like a family friendly place from both inside and outside. I have seen children playing in both camps. Most refugees are now Afghans, though I have seen some refugees who looked like they are from Africa. The refugees mainly arrive in Lesbos by boat from Turkey and the most popular crossing point is the Northern tip of the island which is about six kilometres by sea from Turkey. From that arrival point, it is about a day's walking distance through hilly roads to the Moria camp. Apart from Moria and Kara Tepe, there are some other small refugee settlements and a good number also live in the Mytilene town.
Lesbos is an island of breath-taking beauty and the surroundings of the camps are no exception. The island depends on olive oil, fishing and tourism. There are many olive trees near the camp sites. It is obvious that the establishment of the camps resulted in the destruction of some very old olive groves. I personally have seen a number of destroyed tree trunks. The islanders are really proud of their heritage of the olive trade. I believe the destruction of olive groves were not taken lightly by them.
The islanders are very friendly and helpful. If you ask for help from them, they will help you. As I have told, at the initial stage they extended support to refugees by providing food and water. However now many are worried and there are reports of some demonstrations against refugees.
Why this shift? I do not see it as an exception. Similar things happened during the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh. The people of Bangladesh were initially very supportive and provided aid to the refugees. However, unrest is now on the rise, particularly within the host communities surrounding the camps. The problem is the overwhelming focus on the refugees by the media and humanitarian bodies, and not taking the views of hosts into consideration. The host communities help and suffer as it happened in Bangladesh and Greece, but when they want to express their views they are not given the opportunity. Sometimes they are quickly labelled as racist and xenophobic. It is not helpful and marginalises people with genuinely good intentions. It is therefore essential to have dialogue with hosts and put them at the centre of the agenda for the refugee crisis management.
A common perception regarding refugees in Europe is that they are mainly economic migrants. I have heard the same in Lesbos. My view, based on what I have observed in Lesbos, is that they are not generally economic migrants. I have seen many refugee families with small children during my visit as well as young single male refugees. Just think how far they have travelled to come to Lesbos! The majority that I have seen looked like they came from Afghanistan. After covering that land distance, these families had to take boats to arrive in Lesbos. Unless compelled to do so, a family is not likely to make such an arduous trip with small children. For single male refugees, that journey can be often a family decision. A family invests in the individual who they perceive to have the highest chance of success. Thus young males are normally first to migrate. Again a family will not make that decision for an arduous dangerous journey unless compelled to do so.
The refugee crisis is a global problem. What I observed during my visit is possibly a lack of communication and mutual understanding between parties. There needs to be more open dialogue allowing exchange of views and ideas to find common grounds. The participation of host communities needs to be ensured in the management of crisis. Although this may not eradicate the problem completely, I believe it will help to reduce the communal tension surrounding refugee crisis management in various parts of the world.
Dr Mehdi Mahmud Chowdhury is Senior Lecturer in Economics, Bournemouth University, UK.
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