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Lesvos 2020 - A retrospective on the developments on the island over the past few months

Interview with an activists from Welcome2Europe

During the first week of March, the situation on the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea escalated. On Lesvos, right-wing and racist groups propagated that the island should be "Greek" again. People were suddenly on the streets, barricades were built to prevent NGOs from doing their work, refugees and helpers were threatened by the far-right, cars were vandalised, and institutions were attacked. The ship Mare Liberum and its crew were also targeted, as fascist groups attaked the ship and prevented it from safely docking at port for many days. Seemingly overnight, the international public showed a short-term interest in this place. Lesvos has long been one of the most important escape routes to Europe but this fact had disappeared from public perception until then. But now it is May and the world has again forgotten about what is going on here, because the only topic worth discussing in the news is Coronavirus. Around the world, people are doing their best to stay healthy and still, which is not possible for migrants on Lesvos. Over 20.000 people live in Moria and other camps, where people are forcedly way too close to each other in confined spaces and without proper sanitation. The EU border policy of externalisation is the cause of this catastrophic situation and the resulting conflicts. The situation here can only be changed if the migration policy of the European states changes, as well as the EU approach to foreign policy. Europe is, of course, partly responsible for the wars and economic crises from which many of these arriving migrants flee. Just as the escalation of violence on the island cannot be explained merely as a local and localized issue, explaining it as a short-term event would also fall short of the truth. In order to look back on the whole year 2020, although the developments go back even further, we asked an activist from the Welcome2Europe Network a few questions for further clarification on what she thinks has led to the current situation on the island.

How would you explain the developments of the last few months?

It was an interplay of the politics of the new conservative government and politicians of the Nea Dimokratia, who are in power and maintain relations with local racists, but also with so-called outraged citizens, who now dare to take power to the streets. The mayor of Mytilini thanked these people and the judiciary first watched several racist attacks before they finally reacted and got active after two weeks. The racists took advantage of the success of the entire population in resisting the construction of the prison for new arrivals, which the government had tried to enforce with police violence. The racists used this moment to act on the street against refugees, solidary parts of the populations, and NGOs.

Which actors have played which part? How has the discourse changed?

There is a long-established hatred for NGOs by right wing groups, which has been maintained and strengthened by the new government and its media. Although NGOs have been permitted to register at the local ministry for years, it was decided at the beginning of this year that these registrations were no longer valid, and everyone must report to the ministry in Athens within a very short period in order to maintain their legal status within Greece. This is an impossibility for many of the more than 90 NGOs on Lesvos, which come from abroad and cannot get to the ministry in Athens at such short notice. Besides that, lists of which NGOs had received money from the Greek government were published in the media, and most of them were unknown Greek NGOs that were never present on the ground, at least not on Lesvos. At the same time, the media, which is majorly aligned with Greece’s New Democracy party, only speaks to the government’s position, which criminalizes NGOs and distorts the reality of the situation on the ground. Unfortunately, many NGOs have already withdrawn themselves from Moria and the island after the uptick in hate-based attacks, leaving the migrants with fewer resources and support in a time of a global pandemic. The reluctant departure of many NGOs has not been offset by needed government intervention. All the money that has been flowing for years through the NGOs into the local economy for (high) rents for houses and apartments, rental cars, food, which many people deliberately buy locally, material, hotels full of Frontexians and journalists... nobody talks about these profits. Refugees are often portrayed as enemies and it is claimed that they are not refugees, but all migrants, although the numbers prove the opposite. It is fairly common that clueless people will spread theories like: Afghans are not refugees, only Syrians are. Or mainly men are arriving to Lesvos. For both examples, official data of the UNHCR shows the opposite: people from Afghanistan very often receive refugee status considering the war taking place there, and more women and children arrive than men. Even Greek ministers spread such lies in public, and thus perpetuate this hatred, which is based on false information.

Which events were decisive?

The joint resistance by different parts of society against the attempts to enforce the construction of the new prison by police force was decisive and successful. This made the fascists and racists believe, strengthened through the resistance of the many, that they can now take everything into their own hands. They reacted with road blockades around Moria, attacks on refugees, NGOs and cars, and then further road blockades. They have been cheered on and encouraged by the mayor and have not been stopped by the justice system for far too long.

How do you think this situation will evolve?

For years the situation has been like this. We tend to think that it cannot get any worse, but it is still getting worse. Therefore, I have no idea what will come next. My imagination cannot face this reality.

Do you see any perspective?

My dream is that all islands in the Aegean Sea (Lesvos, Chios, Samos) together with the Turkish cities of Izmir, Aivalik, Dikeli, can lead a peaceful coexistence. I dream that one day the sea in between is no longer a grave but a connecting sea, a bridge. And that people on the move can go and stay where they want and can quickly build a new existence to become an equal part of society as soon as possible.