Islanders
LESBOS, KOS

We do believe that no man is illegal

Migration crisis

In the years 2015-2016, the largest number of refugees arrived in Europe since World War Two. Amongst them, there are immigrants from North and East Africa, Near East (including Syria), Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – the areas where wars are being waged and people are being persecuted. The member states of the European Union are obliged to provide shelter to the people applying for a ‘refugee’ status (in line with the Geneva Convention). This law, together with the economic situation and the fact that all the borders within the EU are open, make Europe an ideal destination of the dramatic and often extremely perilous wanderings of the refugees.

Faced with high numbers of migrants, the European Union found itself lacking suitable procedures of accepting refugees, which in turn resulted in chaos and decline in member states’ willingness to provide aid to asylum seekers. That led to decline in solidarity within the Union with regard to the impending crisis. The largest number of refugees turned up in the border states, such as Greece and Italy, as well as Turkey which is a non-EU country, thus posing a major problem for their governments.

17 October 2015. Three elderly women, clad in traditional black, are sitting on the bench and feeding a baby with a bottle. The baby’s mother, a refugee, is standing next to them. This image was preserved on camera by Lefteris Partsalis, a Greek photographer. A few months later, the photo illustrated an article on the residents of the islands on the Aegean Sea being shortlisted as candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The islanders of Lesbos, Kos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes and Leros welcomed a majority of the 900,000 refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015. Before the governments admitted that the wave of immigrants is growing, the fishermen, medical doctors and local activists saved the lives of the immigrants and took them into their care, even though they themselves had been affected by the economic crisis for years.

“Our aim was to create a place in which the migrants would not be treated as criminals.”

When hundreds of refugees squatted at the police precinct in Militini on Lesbos in September 2012, the Village of All Together organisation issued a request to the Town Hall for permission to use the summer camp buildings. The ‘village’ in Neapoli began to function with the help of volunteers. The clothing, the food, courses in Greek and English were offered by the residents and organisations active in the area. The village housed thousands of refugees – some for a couple of days, some for almost a year. “We do believe that no man is illegal. […] We attended trials against the citizens who offered refugees a lift to the cities, while the law requires them to cover large distances on foot.”

Piles of used life jackets on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo: PAP/PA

Owing to the pact between the European Union and Turkey and closing of the Balkan Trail, the situation in Greece, and especially on Lesbos, changed dramatically. Approximately 60,000 refugees found themselves in the atrocious conditions of transit camps.

The islands, a symbol of solidarity, became the place of lost illusions, but their residents passed the test of humanity, even if for the sake of simple gestures.

“A refugee was trying to feed a crying baby. One of the elderly women asked her, in Greek, to pass the baby to her. Judging by the woman’s body language and miming, the mother understood what she meant and handed the baby to her,” the photographer accounts. The elderly lady is feeding the baby tenderly, and the mother is standing beside her, smiling.

Greek women feeding a baby of a refugee. Photo: Partsalis Lefteris
Migration crisis

In the years 2015-2016, the largest number of refugees arrived in Europe since World War Two. Amongst them, there are immigrants from North and East Africa, Near East (including Syria), Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – the areas where wars are being waged and people are being persecuted. The member states of the European Union are obliged to provide shelter to the people applying for a ‘refugee’ status (in line with the Geneva Convention). This law, together with the economic situation and the fact that all the borders within the EU are open, make Europe an ideal destination of the dramatic and often extremely perilous wanderings of the refugees.

Faced with high numbers of migrants, the European Union found itself lacking suitable procedures of accepting refugees, which in turn resulted in chaos and decline in member states’ willingness to provide aid to asylum seekers. That led to decline in solidarity within the Union with regard to the impending crisis. The largest number of refugees turned up in the border states, such as Greece and Italy, as well as Turkey which is a non-EU country, thus posing a major problem for their governments.