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Life In A Refugee Camp On Lesvos

Photographed by Stephen Cuss
Editor's note: Martina Lanfranchi is a volunteer at a refugee camp on Lesvos. She wrote about her experiences and observations for Refinery29 UK. The views expressed here are her own.

It's 6.30am. We hear yelling from the sea and the sound of an engine. A boat just arrived, filled with people; men, women, children, infants, adolescents and the elderly. They are soaking wet and full of tension. Some are yelling and some are crying, while others celebrate or thank their Gods. Some faint from shock.

These are the reactions of those who have survived a two hour near-death experience, making it to a safe and welcoming place – Skala Sykamnias, on the island of Lesvos, Greece

After helping the arrivals get off the boat safely, our group of volunteers escort them to the self-organised reception camp of Platanos, where dry clothes, basic medical care, snacks and warm tea await. The travellers share with the volunteers a moment of support and solidarity. They are exchanging words, stories, smiles and pictures, gaining back some of their wounded dignity and hope.

As one Afghan refugee puts it: “It is nice to be treated like a human being again. Anyone whose heart beats for humanity cries in the face of this situation.”

For the time being, these people look relaxed and almost happy, but their dangerous trip is far from finished.
Photographed by Stephen Cuss
Volunteers meet first boat of the day next to the Platanos camp
The daily schedule in Skala Sykamnias begins like this. Small rubber boats, filled to the extreme with 50 to 70 people, will be arriving throughout the day and night along the 8 kilometre coastline of northern Lesvos, from Molyvos to the Korakas lighthouse. Lifeguards and volunteers from all over the world will run after boats to help the travellers arrive and get off safely, providing basic needs and medical treatment. A walky-talky system has connected rescue teams and volunteers to coordinate rescues on the sea and volunteer presence upon arrival at the camp.

The arriving travellers tell us that, on the other side of the sea in Turkey, they have been waiting for days, hiding in the forest, sitting on cold buses with no food, water and sleep, and experiencing harsh treatment from people smugglers. When the passageway is clear, they are put on the boats with a randomly selected driver – usually the last person getting on the boat – who is told to follow the lights on the other side, or the mountains during the day time.

They know that many before them have lost their lives in this crossing, but the idea of staying behind looks worse.
During my time volunteering at Platanos, I've heard many different reasons these people might be seeking a new life, from war to poverty, hunger and unemployment, to a lack of adequate healthcare. People are coming over from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa. In the moments we share together at the first reception camp, before they leave for the transit camp, we speak about other dangerous border crossings they have already experienced, like the crossing from Iran to Turkey.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 1,000,573 people reached Europe across the Mediterranean – mainly arriving in Greece and Italy – in 2015. The average daily arrivals from Turkey to Greece stood at 2, 186 in January 2016, say the European Commission, with a total of more than 100,000 migrants reaching Greece since the start of this year. "Over 413 migrants and refugees have also lost their lives during the same period," reports the International Organisation for Migration, "with the Eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece continuing to be the deadliest, accounting for 321 migrant deaths."

The number of people displaced by war and conflict is currently the highest seen in Western and Central Europe since the Balkan crises of the 1990s, when several conflicts broke out in the former Yugoslavia.
While fences and deportation, violence and imprisonment are part of the reality for people arriving in European countries, at arrival in the camp of Platanos, from what I saw, refugees are being taken care of. They are accepted as equals from people they do not know, who do not ask for anything in exchange, and who care that they have everything that can be provided to continue their long trip.

The camp was created in early October 2015 by people who arrived from Athens after a summer of providing the best possible help they could to the large amount of refugees arriving in the capital. It has since been one of the best organised and most competent camps of first reception on the northern shore of Lesvos, handling up to thousands of arrivals every day.

The number of migrants reaching Lesvos began to fall after November 2015, when an agreement was made between the EU and Turkey to control the number of refugees crossing to Europe. Due to its geographical position, Turkey is a major first reception and transit country for migrants, with more than 2.5 million asylum seeker and refugee arrivals.

The €3 billion agreement (since upped to €4 billion) – known as the “Refugee Facility for Turkey” – states it aims to ensure that the needs of refugees and the host communities are addressed in a comprehensive and coordinated manner. It involves visa obligations for arrivals in Turkey and an EU-Turkey Readmission Agreement for persons residing in the EU without authorisation. The agreement also involves Turkey reinforcing the interception capacity of boats from the Turkish Coast Guard in cooperation with EU member states.

In my opinion, and from what I have gleaned talking to refugees on Lesvos, this agreement is in contrast to the reality of people fleeing their countries, their needs and goals, putting them at further risk as the more closed and controlled borders create less possibilities to flee war, persecution and lack of opportunity.
I'm told that the conditions for refugees upon arrival in Lesvos were worse before I arrived here to volunteer. Refugees arriving on the northern and eastern shores were walking for days to reach the Frontex registration centre in Moria and Kara Tepe, on the opposite side of the island in the south. Here, they were packed in camps like sardines, sleeping outdoors, unprotected from the heat of the summer and the dirt, and allegedly experiencing police attacks whenever tension occurred.

During this time, the only people standing by the refugees or giving them aid were individuals from the island and local Greek teams who were trying to cover the void in the reception of the refugees. During the summer, the first local and international NGOs started to settle on the island, gather funds, and begin setting up a humanitarian response. At first, response was set up with boxes of clothing and food by the shore, tents and stable structures started being built and organised, along with transit camps between the north shore and registration, and buses and minivans for transportation.
Though this situation has vastly improved since then, with a high quality of care in the camps, the problems are far from solved. People are getting arrested at sea, rejected at registration, or having to continue their journey to the north of Europe by their own means or with the help of smugglers. These are just some of the stressors refugees continue to face, and cannot be undone by the work of any groups assisting them upon arrival.

The refugees talk about their hopes to practice their professions or continue with their interrupted education in the countries of northern Europe where they aim to resettle. But then as they see the news and the new agreements between the EU countries being made, they ask us terrified questions like,“What's next?” They fear the borders closing one after the other, and racism rising all over Europe with reports of brutal attacks against refugees.

These people – who have just dodged the threats of hypothermia and drowning as they've crossed the channel to Turkey – who have just rejoiced in finding the right size of dry clothes and shoes – are wondering what lies ahead. I didn't know what to say to a mother of five children when she asked me if she is ever going to find a proper school and a safe neighbourhood for her children. For now, such a question remains unanswerable.

Photographed by Stephen Cuss