An incident with a Belgian volunteer on the isle of Lesvos is the youngest case in a series of incidents where islanders try to chase refugees and aid groups of their islands. “Our safety just couldn’t be guaranteed anymore, so we had to cease our operations”, an MSF worker reports.
Last weekend an ecological volunteer from Belgium wanted to moor in a harbor on Lesvos, but things went wrong. Some of the locals made it very clear they were not welcome. “The situation was very aggressive”, says the young volunteer. She is on the island to clean up garbage. Since the influx of refugees increased last summer, a lot of trash was left on the beaches and in the sea.
A few local Greeks started yelling at them. They could not enter the bay, but they had to find a place to go ashore. A few hundred meters further up the coastline they tried again, at a small dock. But there as well were angry Greeks waiting for them waving and shouting in anger. They had to leave immediately. “There wasn’t any physical violence at that moment, but they were furious”, states the Belgian ecologist.
“The Greeks are traumatized”
The incident is symptomatic for a greater problem on the Greek islands. The local population is worrying. Tourist season has begun and there are no more tourists coming in. Since the EU-Turkey Deal of March 20th, refugees can no longer pass through and more than 8.500 from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan are stuck on the isles. The maximum capacity of the region, as estimated by the UN»s refugee agency UNHCR, is 7.450. On Lesvos the refugee centers have a capacity of 3.500 and they are pretty much full.
A local restaurant owner testifies: “The population of Lesvos is traumatized, people fear that come winter they will not be able to feed their children or pay their electricity bills”.
That leads to grim situations on different islands. With (a small) part of the population the frustration turns into anger and even violence. In Leros, an Island 220km south of Lesvos, dozens of international volunteers had to leave the island after threats. From Lesvos too the first reports of physical incidents arise.
A volunteer working with Doctors without Borders (MSF) has witnessed three incidents in the past month. A while ago he went swimming with a group of unaccompanied minor refugees. When they arrived at the beach some of the locals uttered racist slurs: “We don’t want these blacks here!”
“Our safety could not be guaranteed anymore”
Other incidents were worse. “In the morning of July 18th we had salvaged two boats with refugees and according to the instructions of the Greek coast guard we brought them to the Molyvos harbor. That was a very bad decision of the authorities”, according to the MSF worker. That is a tourist port. As the boats full of refugees came ashore, restaurant and bar owners came out.
“They yelled that they didn’t want anything to do with those refugees. They threatened to sink our boats”, the aid worker continues. He thinks the authorities handled the whole situation all wrong.
The third incident took place a week after and was even worse. A mob of about fifty tough guys was waiting for the salvaged refugee boats. “They knew we were coming, there is almost no other option then someone from the authorities had notified them” says the MSF worker. When the refugees and aid workers tried to go ashore, they were pushed violently back in the boat. Bystanders that did not agree with the angry mob, wanted to film the situation were physically threatened.
“Eventually it was not possible to go ashore, also because neither the coast guard, nor the police intervened” says the MSF-volunteer. “After this episode MSF decided to cease our search and rescue operations around Lesvos. Our safety just couldn’t be guaranteed”.
No sailing tomorrow
With the Belgian ecological volunteer things got heavier, then screaming and shouting as well. After being chased from the dock the volunteers decided to go back out on the sea, to think things over: «We felt disbelief, we were startled» the Belgian women said. They had just left the harbor when a hothead amongst the locals jumped in his boat to start the chase. He circled around the volunteers’ boat so they couldn’t go anywhere. All the while making waves that made their ship rock very hard. “At times we thought the boat would capsize”.
Soon a coast guard ship arrived. But Greek authorities didn’t do much to counter the aggression. They had not come to help the ecologists. Their assailant had called the patrol himself to arrest the group of volunteers. They were detained for three hours at sea. In the burning sun water soon ran out and some of them were feeling uneasy because of the heat and the thirst. When they asked why they were being detained, no clear answer was given. “We were quite choqued”, the Belgian says. “The only goal of our project is to clean up the island, so why were we treated this way by inhabitants and by the authorities? It’s a real shame because Lesbos is such a beautiful island and most people have been nothing but friendly and hospitable”.
The press office of the Lesvos police hung up the phone when asked to comment on these incidents. The coast guard wasn’t able to comment either.
At the moment of writing, the ecological project of the Belgian volunteer has gotten official permission to continue their work. The questions remains; how the locals will react. “We won’t be sailing tomorrow. We have to let things sink in first.”
The sources of this article wanted to remain anonymous for safety precautions. Their contact information is known and verified by the author.
Written by Willem De Maeseneer from Greece, he writes for the collective of journalists The Caravan’s Journal