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Leros, Greece: refugees’ daily life on the island, a reportage

Leros, a sleepy island in the Aegean, harbors one of Greece’s five refugee hotspots. The island is famous for its volcanic topography, rationalist architecture, and fascist Italian occupation – and it’s only miles from Turkey. The refugee camp sits on the ocean’s edge- an otherwise picturesque coastline that draws tourists from around Europe during sweeter summer months. The camp opened in March 2016 with the capacity to hold up to 980 residents. Today, the camp is dangerously overcrowded. There are nearly 3,200 refugees on the island, over 1,000 of which are homeless.

To protect themselves from bitter temperatures and days of unrelenting rain, they’ve inhabited a sprawl of abandoned buildings surrounding the fenced camp. These dilapidated buildings once operated as a mental asylum, until the asylum was exposed for embezzlement and human rights abuses in 1989. The buildings are still littered with rusty bedframes and faded Greek medical documents. The roof is caving and the floor is covered in broken glass. There is no electricity – nor toilets, showers or garbage bins. The police regularly raid the buildings and confiscate or destroy homemade heating systems. “It’s hard to survive”, I was told by so many of the building’s residents.

As refugees continue to arrive, Lerian locals are losing patience. People who once offered their support – providing hot meals, volunteering their time – have grown frustrated. Their frustration, largely at the Greek government’s lack of a plan and the EU’s broader lack of support, is misdirected at refugees who stumble through heavily accented English to buy groceries. Local Facebook pages post hateful comments and send refugees threatening messages.

“Why you came to Greece?” asked Facebook account ‘Leros Island Greece’ to a young Palestinian man.

“You think that the Germans or the English will keep on giving you money for nothing? You are not welcome in Europe as we all know, you just playing the pawns of a nasty game against the European Union.”

The gruesome living conditions and hostility of locals has culminated in despair. Karim, a 22 year old from Mosul, Iraq, spent months sharing a tent with other young Iraquis in the derelict structure behind the hotspot. In the past two weeks, he and two of his Iraqui tent-mates opted for voluntary deportation – carried out by the International Organization for Migration. Their decision to return to Mosul shows us to what extent we’ve failed asylum seekers. “We escaped war and made it to Europe only to find this.” But this is what Europe wants. This is why they don’t make it easier, or more humane. Deterrence is the goal.

This article isn’t meant to point only to the inefficiencies of the Greek government. While we must hold the Greek government accountable for creating and maintaining a plan, we must also recognize the efforts of Greek nationals who’ve worked unremittingly in cooperation with international volunteers and aid workers since 2015. Their work is invaluable and thankless – and has often isolated them from their own Greek communities amid rising political tensions.

Above all else, Greece should not bear sole responsibility. As the crisis worsens, the EU is loosening its grip, deferring responsibility to a small, economically unstable country with the world’s most dangerous border. The EU’s ignorance is deliberate and the remote geography of the Greek islands makes them an expedient place to hide asylum seekers, completely out of sight and contact with most of Europe. But the EU should be doing more – we should be doing more. Now more than ever, it is our collective responsibility and moral obligation.

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Savanna Stern

Savanna Stern is one of the Field Coordinators at Echo 100+ camp in Leros, Dodecanese, Greece.

Note: Portolago in Leros was built by the Italians in the Thirties. In the Eighties part of the buildings were used for people with mental health issues. For a historical perspective on Leros read Antonello Battaglia, Rome La Sapienza Univeristy, here.

leros manicomio, by Alex MajoliAlex Majoli, an italian reporter, photographed the asylum in the Nineties and it was closed shortly after for  inadequacies.

To help ECHO100Plus volunteers active in Leros, Samos, Athens, Ritsona and Vathi you can make a donation or consider joining as a volunteer. All the information you need is here on the ECHO100Plus website. Echo is an Austrian no-profit association founded by Gabriella Dixon, Catharina Kahane, Marysia Miller-Aichholz, Gabriella Herberstein, Gaia Schwarzenberg and other generous ladies.

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