Let me set the scene: Lesvos, a sunny island paradise, where hills of green meet the turquoise waters of the Aegean. Locals flock to the beach, where they can sip on Frappe’s while lying comfortably under the shade of a straw umbrella. In the distance, colourful tents splay across a backdrop of desperation and poverty, as refugees in the tens of thousands, struggle to get through each day. Beaches once popular to the locals, are now being avoided, as a result of becoming the new bathing hot-spots for the asylum seekers.
It is common knowledge that the island is now overflowing with one of Europe’s largest number of refuge-seeking migrants, all who took the 10km journey across the Turkish border into Greece. We hear the stories everyday about the struggles they’ve faced to get there and we sympathise. I myself spoke to a young man named Ahmed, who wouldn’t have been older than 30. While sitting at a local café in the island’s capital Mytilini back in July, I was approached by Ahmed, during his frantic search for a patron who spoke English. With broken english he tried to explain that he was looking for the closest Western Union (which at the time was closed due to the Greek bank-crisis), in order to receive some money his family had sent over from Syria.
“I’ve been walking for days, and I have only a little bit of money left”, he said, deeply flustered when I told him that the banks may not open for a while. Being just a little curious, I couldn’t help but ask questions about his situation back home, after all there’s nothing quite like a first hand account.
“I have come from a refugee camp in Syria”, he started. “There was rubbish everywhere, sickness everywhere, people were hungry, so I came here to find something better”.
It was a simple statement, but one which certainly tugged at the heartstrings. Fast-track nearly two months to late September, and the situation for these refugees is not much better. They still find themselves living in tents on the side of the street, surrounded by poor living conditions, and hunger. Their numbers are growing, and the opportunities of making their trip to Athens, in the hopes of eventually reaching a safe-haven such as Germany or the UK, are becoming more scarce.
Yet in the whirlwind of recent events, as Europe comes to terms with trying to effectively handle this mass migration, the voice of the locals has gotten lost in the picture. The refugees are becoming restless, they are rioting and protesting across the island, and as a result are causing many locals to rethink their position on asylum seekers.
“At first I felt so sorry for them. I would see them walking the streets from the mountains up North, all the way down towards Mytilini. Many had little children on their shoulders, and some had nothing at all but a small backpack”, says local woman Despina Xtenelli.
“Now though, the situation is out of hand. They are causing trouble, and I am afraid for myself and my family. My daughter just started high school, and I fear her walking home alone in the afternoon to get home. A very large number of them linger around the schools, and wait for the kids to come out so they can set up camp on the grounds. Not to mention the fact that we keep hearing on the news of more women and young girls being raped on the island by the foreigners!
“They also start fires at night to keep warm, especially now with the cooler temperatures coming in”, she continues on to say. “A lot of the time they are not controlled. I am so afraid that they are going to burn down the island if they’re not careful”.
The locals are fairly divided on the situation, some arguing for the government to get the situation under control, while others arguing that it is the responsibility of the people to help these individuals through tough times.
“This situation is not in the hands of the refugees, and it was never their intention to come here, but circumstances have forced them too”, says Mytilinian local Angeliki Lika.
“My family came here decades ago looking for a better life and when they did they were greeted with open arms by the local community. Where is that same level of humanity now? It is our responsibility to be good Christians and look after the people who seek our help”, she argues.
While it is easy to blame the refugees for their unorthodox behaviour, I feel this is a much larger reflection on the European Unions capacity to handle the asylum situation. These people are frustrated, and they feel neglected, and as a result they will do what they feel is necessary to get attention. The EU need to act faster, and more effectively before the problem gets out of hand.
If there is one thing I must commend though, despite being in the midst of a triad of economic, political, and social crises, the Greek locals are holding strong, even if they are the last priority on the agenda.