By Ggia – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Case

  • It is September 2018 and Marios Andriotis Konstantios, Senior Advisor to the municipality of Lesbos in Greece, receives a phone call from Martijn Vroom, the Mayor of Krimpen aan den IJssel in the Netherlands. The two have been in contact since the refugee crisis in 2015. Both have experience hosting refugees: Krimpen was one of the first Dutch municipalities to offer emergency shelter to refugees arriving in the Netherlands, while Konstantios dealt with thousands of refugees arriving in his municipality in Lesbos. But it seems like the crisis is not over yet 

    Overcrowded to breaking point and with a shocking rise in violent incidents, the refugees in Camp Moria in Lesbos feel constantly unsafe (Appendix A). Doctors without Borders reports an “unprecedented health and mental health emergency” in the camp, and says that child refugees in particular “are increasingly attempting suicide, self-harming or having suicidal thoughts” [2]. The constant fear, combined with the experience of traumas and sexual abuse, accelerates mental health deterioration, say medical experts. Some people have been living in the camp for two years [3].For 9000 migrants in Moria, the Greek health ministry has provided only one physician [4]. Although 1350 refugees were transferred to the Greek mainland in August, some 115 new refugees arrive every day, compared to 85 last July [5].

    On the phone to his counterpart Konstantios, Vroom gets to the point:  “Look, I know Lesbos is really struggling, trying to house thousands of refugees on the island. I get that you have to deal with structural problems – international, European, national and local. The circumstances are difficult. But Mario, can you explain the crux of the story so that we can do something? I mean, what do we need for a viable and positive solution? And how we can we prevent a similar safety and security crisis in the future? Winter is approaching fast, and the lack of sanitation is appalling. So how can we offer short-term relief on one hand; and on the other hand, as I imagine we’ll have to deal with forced replacement crises in the future, let’s think in solutions.” [6]

    Konstantios hesitates before coming up with an answer to Vroom’s almost impassioned appeal because he knows all too well how complex the situation is. So many actors involved – the EU, the Greek government, NGOs – and each with its own priorities and obstacles. What one party does will have consequences for the other, all trickling down to impact the life of people fleeing their countries. But it’s worth a try…

  • In 2015, Europe was surprised by a large influx of people from Northern African and Middle-Eastern countries who sought refuge from war, incredibly unstable regimes or unsafe living conditions in their home country. The war in Syria especially led to an influx of Syrians seeking refuge and safety in neighbouring countries and in Europe (The Refugee Project), but large numbers of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan also tried to reach Europe [7]

    Although refugees were by no means a new phenomenon in Europe and global refugee crises occur more often (EarthTime), the crisis seemed to be loaded on Greece’s shoulders (with boatloads arriving in a constant stream), and got too big for Greece to handle. Lesbos, a Greek islands near Turkey, became a hotspot[a]for the refugees arriving in Europe; it was simply overwhelmed. In 2015, the island had 20,000 refugees waiting to be rehoused [8].

    A number of significant events and issues influenced the influx of refugees into Europe and Lesbos specifically from 2015 onwards (Appendix B):

    • 2015: In 2015, more than a million people in total crossed Greece, moving from the Aegean islands to mainland Greece, and from there, to other northern and central European countries [9]Their preferred route was the so-called Balkan Route (explore the routes in “Resources'). Then Hungary built a razor-wire fence at their Serbian border to stop them.[b]A photo of a drowned Syrian boy on a Turkey beach shocked Europe and became a symbol of a human plea for European countries to help. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, announced that Germany would have an open-border policy for the refugees. Many European countries suspended the Schengen system[c]by setting up border controls [10].
    • 2016: The Balkan route was officially closed. Because of that, many migrants got stranded in Greece. More than 5000 people lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea in the hope to reach a safe haven. In March 2016, the EU-Turkey deal is signed to decrease the influx of refugees.[d]
    • 2017: Italy struck a deal with Libya for returning migrants and criticised NGOs for picking up boat refugees from the sea. Populist and anti-immigrant parties in Europe consolidated their position in some EU member states, while migrants are sold off at slave auctions in Libya.
    • 2018: Fewer people arrived in Italy whereas the Western Mediterranean Route saw a threefold increase. Refugee camps on Greek islands started becoming overcrowded, and squalor and violence reach breaking point.

    [a]Read more about the ‘hotspot approach’ in the section about the European Union, in “Explore the Stakeholders”.

    [b]Three main routes (western, central, eastern) in which the Eastern Mediterranean Route through the Greek islands experienced a peak of almost 200,000 people arriving in September 2015 (Appendix G).

    [c]The Schengen system enables free movement of people without border controls within the internal borders of the Schengen zone, and first came into being after the Schengen Conventions in 1985. In 2018, 22 EU member states plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein were part of the Schengen zone. 

    [d]For a summarised explanation on the deal, check out the section about the European Union, in “Explore the Stakeholders”.

  • A Simple Solution? 

    The stakeholders involved in the refugee issue on Lesbos all have different incentives, backgrounds and goals in this issue. Because of the different levels of politics, organisations, and people involved (e.g. international, national, local) the situation is complex and there might not be an obvious solution, at least this is what many people on different levels vocalise. However, the safety and security of the refugees in Lesbos, first and foremost, is at stake here. What do you believe needs to be done in order to alleviate the situation in Lesbos and the ripple effects related to it? And who is going to pay for it? 

    The Lesbos Story Continues… 

    Although the scale of the refugee crisis in Europe has declined in terms of numbers since 2015 (Appendix F),the issue is ongoing, with little expectation of being resolved at the time of compiling this case. In 2019, the crisis in the camps on Lesbos appears to be spreading to another Greek island, Samos. In April 2019, the Dutch NGO Movement on the Ground announces that it will expand its mission to Samos [60]. There are reports that the refugee camps on this island are similarly overcrowded, hosting 2-3 times their capacity [61]. Also, Greece has been met with criticism for legally underperforming on the EU-Turkey deal [62]. Meanwhile, as far-right political parties, such as Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, continue to gain momentum in the polls, [63] the EU has been drawing on data and metrics (Appendix G) showing that the refugee crisis is over, as a counter argument to anti-immigrant political agendas.