The Current Situation on the Greek Islands

The Current Situation on the Greek Islands

Skala Skamineas, a quaint fishing village on the North Shore of Lesvos, Greece, has become a true testimony of grassroots humanitarian organizations keeping resolve to aid refugee and migrant arrivals.

Ongoing Journeys of Migrant and Refugees

Skala Skimineas sits approximately five miles south of the Turkish coastline, separated by a stretch of the Aegean Sea. However, the journey to get to the shore of Skala Skimineas is brutal. Once enduring the migration to Turkey from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, refugees are often compelled to turn to smugglers who organize travel to the Greek Islands. Human smuggling is the only option for refugees, due to closed borders, deteriorating humanitarian situations, and the absence of legal pathways to safety. Smugglers charge upwards of 1000 euros per person to squeeze dozens into dinghy boats and drift them off into the Aegean Sea.

The route is often taken in the cover of darkness, crossing the five miles stretch of the Aegean Sea. The journey is dangerous, and the waters could be rough. There could be a storm. The dinghy could be caught by the Turkish coast guard and the refugees returned to Turkey. The dinghy could capsize. The lifejackets provided by smugglers could be fake and stuffed with styrofoam. There is much for refugees to fear while fleeing to Europe in search of safety and protection.

The Role of Grassroots Humanitarian Organizations

Since many of the international organizations have left the Greek Islands in 2016 following the EU-Turkey deal, the responsibility has fallen on smaller non-profits, with considerably less funding, to provide humanitarian assistance to migrants and refugees. Refugee Rescue and Lighthouse Relief are the sole organizations remaining as a friendly face to greet refugees on the North Shore of Lesvos. Refugee Rescue provides the only humanitarian Search and Rescue boat, named “Mo Chara,” on the North Shore of Lesvos — an area where thousands of people are still arriving each year fleeing conflict and persecution hoping to find a Europe that is open, accepting and compassionate.

View from Lesvos Island to the Turkish coast (photo by Emily Ervin).

Due to lack of funding and support by the international community, these organizations run primarily on volunteers. These grassroots organizations work tirelessly to provide an all-hands-on-deck approach to meet the needs of refugees when the first arrive to Skala Skimineas.

Refugee Rescue and Lighthouse Relief maintain spotting operations to keep watch along the coastline, and work alongside partners to provide emergency relief for those that have just arrived. These organizations work hand-in-hand to spot migrant vessels from lookouts in the mountains above, initiate search-and-rescue operations with Refugee Rescue’s Mo Chara crew often being the first on the scene to take migrants aboard, meet refugees with a land crew who welcomes them to shore, and then provide immediate aid and protection, including warm tea and blankets, clean and dry clothes, and a safe place to stay at the UNHCR transit camp.

Seeking Asylum on Greek Islands

Refugees do not stay at the transit camp for long. Greek Authorities quickly relocate refugees to larger camps on the south of Lesvos where people can file their claim for asylum. In Moria Refugee Camp, over 8,500 people are crammed into a space that has capacity for 3,100. Refugees aren’t allowed to leave the island to mainland Greece until their requests for asylum are processed by the Greek Asylum Services, which is understaffed and takes months to process requests. The Greek reception system is failing to protect the volume of refugee and migrants which are seeking asylum, leading to overcrowded camps with horrid conditions and insufficient staffing. Unsuitable conditions in the camp leads to despair, heightened sexual and gender-based violence, lack of sanitation, insufficient drinking water, infestations of mice and rats. Children are re-traumatized by the inhumane conditions, and without safety and security promised leads to spikes in mental illnesses, including thoughts of suicide from children as young as 10 years old. At times essential services, such as children psychologists and physicians for vulnerability assessments, may not be available for months.[1]

Need for Complementary Pathways

These gross violations of international law are happening on Europe’s doorstep. Seeking asylum is a human right and therefore safe passage should be guaranteed. Those seeking international protection should not have to risk their lives by enduring this dangerous crossing at sea. Refugees fleeing conflict and instability in their home country, are owed the ability to seek safety and protection in a humane and dignified manner. While grassroots humanitarian organizations provide emergency relief to those arriving, there is an urgent need for the international community to prioritize complementary resettlement options for refugees which prevent these perilous journeys from occurring.

Emily Ervin, Refugee Pathways


[1] Oxfam. “Vulnerable and Abandoned.” January 2019