Lesvos, An Island on Fire

By Grainne Farrell

In 2015, the Greek islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Kos became home to thousands of refugees crossing from Turkey by boat, hoping to reach Europe. Former military bases were set up into emergency response camps, with aid organisations and locals rushing to provide food, shelter and medical care. Locals on the island could not have been prepared for what was about to unfold on their islands; these emergency response camps would not be temporary, they would become permanent structures that would continue to grow as the numbers steadily increased. The island of Lesvos saw the arrivals of the largest number of refugees, with over 379,000 people arriving on Lesvos between January and November 2015[1]. Many of those arriving were hosted in Moria camp, Europe’s most notorious refugee camp. The official capacity of the camp is 3,100 persons[2]. By early summer of 2019, the numbers in Moria had steadily decreased to roughly 8,000 persons. Then, at the end of summer, all of the islands saw a dramatic increase in new arrivals crossing from Turkey once again. By March 2020, the number of inhabitants living in Moria is over 20,000 meaning that the camp is over 6 times its official capacity[3]. The situation on the islands is the worst it has ever been, with conditions inside the camp deteriorating as a consequence of poor sanitation and massive overcrowding.

Photo credit: Zsuzsánna Fodor

The island of Lesvos has approximately 80,000 inhabitants[4]. Like the rest of Greece, it suffered massively during the financial crisis. It does not have the resources, capacity or the funding to handle the current situation[5]. Large parts of the local population have, since 2015, stood in solidarity with those arriving on the shores, providing emergency aid, and advocating for the closure of the inhumane camps. However, there is a strong sense of exhaustion amongst the locals, refugees and aid workers on the island due to the ongoing situation and the lack of adequate response from political leaders to implement any real change. For years, there have been continuous calls for the closure of Moria camp, and an immediate transfer of refugees from the islands to the mainland and other European countries.

Five years later, the same calls are still being made. When the government announced its plans for the creation of pre-departure centres on the islands, the reaction from the local population was understandably one of anger and disappointment[6]. Protests rang out across the islands, with locals protesting that they did not want a centre that would be a ‘prison for souls’ to exist on their island[7]. In the early hours of Tuesday, February 25th 2020, multiple units of riot police were sent from Athens to Lesvos, tasked with supporting the construction of the centres. The following days, heavy clashes and protests erupted across the island, as the locals pushed back against the government’s plans[8]. For forty-eight hours, Lesvos went on strike.

Following intense clashes between some locals and police, a partial retreat of the riot police was announced. In the following days, a small minority of locals took to the streets, attacking NGO workers, refugees and local Greeks who stood in solidarity. Volunteer cars were attacked, their houses were targeted and ‘police checks’ were being conducted on cars, looking for NGO workers inside[9]. The anger about the current situation appears to have been completely misplaced; it is not the aid organisations, the refugees nor the locals who stand in solidarity who are to blame for the situation. Instead, it is our political leaders, who have mostly stood silent on the sidelines as they watched the situation in Greece unfold.

Photo credit: Zsuzsánna Fodor

The atmosphere was extremely tense, NGOs began to evacuate volunteers from the islands and were forced to temporarily suspend their activities[10]. Armed vigilantes began patrolling the coastline of Lesvos and also the land close to Evros on mainland Greece, with reports of refugees arriving on the shore being attacked and harassed[11]. As the attacks continued, other locals began to speak out against what was happening on their island, condemning the acts of violence being committed against those who stood in solidarity[12]. These violent attacks are not representative of the local population of Lesvos, who have been standing in solidarity since 2015. They are the actions of a small minority of people, but their actions have had grave consequences for aid operations on the islands. Alongside the spike in violence on Lesvos, Turkish president Erdoğan announced on Friday, February 28th 2020 that Turkey would no longer be closing its borders to refugees hoping to reach Europe[13].

Overnight, almost 30,000 refugees were reported to have made it to the Greek-Turkey border. Greece sent heavy reinforcements, and those now trapped at the border are victim to heavy tear gassing[14], arbitrary arrests and reported beatings[15]. Refugees had been used as pawns by Turkey in its political games; they were now trapped, as Turkey would not let them back in, while Greece would not let them cross. In an attempt to curb arrivals, Greece announced it would suspend asylum applications for one month for those who reached Greece, in breach of international law[16]. Those who arrived at Lesvos after March 1st 2020 were held at the port of Mytilini, before being transferred to a Navy vessel on March 4th. New footage released shows a group of approximately 500 prospective asylum seekers on board the vessel, in cramped conditions with their right to apply for asylum still denied[17].

Since the opening of the borders, heavy clashes between Greek and Turkish forces continue. Both sides are heavily tear gassing one another[18] as thousands of innocent people trapped in the middle are allegedly being used as political weapons. In response to the situation at the border, Ankara announced it would be filling a lawsuit against Greece at the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of refugees[19]. It seems that all of our political leaders have forgotten that the real issue is not the EU-Turkey deal, it is that thousands of innocent people who are trapped at a border crossing, unable to reach safety. Whilst is it important that as European citizens we stand in solidarity with the refugees and locals on the Greek islands, we also must use our voices to call for change at a policy level.

  • We must call on our government leaders to facilitate and support the immediate transfer of refugees from the Greek islands to the mainland and other European countries. Greece’s asylum system is heavily overburdened, they cannot handle this situation alone. All European countries must take responsibility.
  • The right of refugees to claim asylum must be recognised and upheld.
  • Acts of violence towards vulnerable persons and attacks on NGO workers and organisations must be condemned and those who have committed such acts must be held responsible.
  • An immediate ceasefire of the violence being committed by European backed forces at the Greek-Turkey border must be implemented immediately. Thousands of people are trapped in heavy clashes at the Greek-Turkey border. They must be transferred to safety.
  • The immediate closure of all refugee camps on the Greek islands in combination with the emergency implementation of laws which prioritise the safety, protection and well-being of refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe.

Our leaders must combine providing protection, support and safety for those who are at Europe’s borders with paving the way for peace and stability in their home countries so that people do not have to flee in the first place.


[1] https://www.unhcr.org/5645ddbc6.pdf

[2] https://www.ft.com/content/013d95d6-54d3-11ea-a1ef-da1721a0541e


[4] https://www.google.com/search?q=number+of+inhabitans+on+lesvos&rlz=1C1CHBF_enIE718IE718&oq=number+of+inhabitans+on+lesvos&aqs=chrome..69i57.3593j0j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

[5] https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/lesvos-centralized-migration-management

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51204084

[7] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-51204084

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/25/police-and-protesters-clash-on-greek-islands-over-new-migrant-camps

[9] https://www.lesvosnews.net/articles/news-categories/astynomiko-reportaz/binteo-epithesi-se-meli-mko-sti-mytilini-espasan-ohima

[10] https://www.rte.ie/news/world/2020/0304/1120264-lesbos-greece-turkey/

[11] https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2020/03/06/vigilantes-greece-migrants/

[12] https://www.lesvosnews.net/articles/news-categories/anakoinoseis-foreon/oi-giatroi-esy-lesboy-gia-tin-apanthropi-symperifora

[13] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-turkey-migrants/europe-is-nicer-migrants-head-west-after-turkey-opens-border-idUSKCN20M0KK

[14] https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2020/02/29/evros-border-greece-turkey-migrants/

[15] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8082767/Migrants-claim-stripped-beaten-Greek-police.html

[16] https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2020/03/02/unhcr-greece-asylum-suspension/

[17] https://greece.greekreporter.com/2020/03/11/hundreds-of-migrants-crammed-together-on-greek-navy-ship-off-lesvos/

[18] https://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2020/03/04/evros-migrants-turkish-police-teargas-video/

[19] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/greece-condemned-ill-treatment-refugees-held-ship-200311075441360.html

The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.

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