How The Refugee Crisis In Lesbos Is The Holocaust Of The 21st Century
[Editor’s Note: This is an edited article covering the events of the 8th and 9th days (24th and 25th of October, 2015) spent by Merel Graeve in Lesbos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey. It is the site of one of the largest migrations since WWII, as an almost endless traffic of Syrian refugees escape from the (now four-and-a-half years old) Syrian civil war into Greece. Merel documents the efforts undertaken by local volunteers in attempting to help these refugees in the absence of any substantial aid from international bodies. Through her efforts, aid and funds are being channelled to the ground in Lesbos, where they can be put to immediate use to help the refugees. The crowd-funding initiative can be found here .]
After putting out an emergency call on Facebook, I woke up to hundreds of messages and comments from people wanting to help. I had to seek out the few organisations that were already established, and able to hit the ground running straight away. The best help came from CalAid [a London-based humanitarian organization], who straight away put a doctor on the plane to assess the situation the next day. They also brought aid which was delivered by a lorry to Camp Pikpa in the morning, containing big tents, clothes and other things. We set up a distribution point inside, and after filling the van with aid and tents we set off for Moria to round up volunteers and set up another tent. We set the tent up in the rain, in the mud, with a queue of waiting families nearby. As we are the only volunteers on the ground, people come swarming around us, asking for help and answers that we cannot give. When we finished setting up the tent, the two staff-members from UNHCR come to ask us for help in clean the trash of a few shelters down the road which should be able to house 50 families. For hours we pleaded with the police to let through the sick babies, the passed out women, the leg injuries: sometimes they let us go in, sometimes not. The majority of the refugees don’t speak any English, so I don’t even know what it is they need.
The torrential rain hasn’t stopped for 3 days. Every single person is drenched to the bone, all their clothes, their shoes stuck in the knee-high river of mud. Even as we help the families registering inside the gates, every single person is shivering. Pretty much every one of them is in need of medical attention. The woman from UNHCR grabs me and yells that they’ll be opening the gate for the next group of refugees. I see people squashed against the gate, I hear the sounds of crying and screaming: I know already exactly what will happen when we open the gate.
As the riot police remove the bolts, hordes of people run in. We make futile gestures to walk slowly but it’s no use, and she pulls me aside to step away from the crowd. But what unfolds in the next few seconds we knew already from previous experiences: people getting trampled, people piled on top of each other as they all try to push in. We rush in and I tug at the people stuck at the bottom, but it’s no use. Then, a strange smell and a quick sensation: tear gas. It burns my eyes, my throat, my face. People scream and run away from the gas. I run also, it is almost unbearable.
We run behind the bus, away from the gas. We stop, I bend over and spit. A little girl comes over to me and cries, I pick her up and we sit on a role of fencing wire in the corner as her family gathers around us. I hug the girl tight, stroke her face, and all together we weep. After 15 minutes, I know I have to go back in to help, I leave them behind. Inside is utter chaos. The people that made it in are trying to find shelter beneath the tarpaulin, with many families having become split up in the confusion: many children were split from their mothers who were still on the other side. The police trample all around them, shouting orders and hitting with their sticks. We try to re-unite them by pleading with the police. For the rest of the night, we try to dress the drenched babies that are coming in with the clothes from the van. Nothing fits, there are no jackets or shoes, but we try our best.
With a heavy heart, we call it a night. We call ambulances for the sick people: the doctor’s office closes at 12, so there is no help for anyone after that. A guy jumps into the back of the car and asks for a doctor: his foot is hurting. We drive to Kera Tape, the Syrian camp down the road, to see if there are any doctors, but there are none. His pain isn’t enough of an emergency for the hospital, and we are worried that if we take him there, they will just turn him away. He won’t be able to get back in because he’s not registered yet, and he cannot take a taxi. The man from UNHCR gives him two blankets, we give him some painkillers and then drive him back to Moria. With a heavy heart, I watch him walk back out into the rain.
We drive to Moria the next day. There is a relatively small amount of people waiting in the rain to get registered compared to last night. The dirt, the trash, the mud, the rain; the smell of urine and faeces; abandoned bags and tents are everywhere – the rain has destroyed not only people’s spirits but also the few possessions they have. We go inside, I go back out to the side gate, the bit I hate the most. The side gate is the area where all the desperate mothers and fathers hold up their fevered babies to me, and beg me to let them in. They don’t understand English so they don’t understand that I have no power to do anything: we’re all at the mercy of the police. I must choose which baby I fight for to get by the police, as they only give me so much credit with the number of people that can go through every day. Every person here is as desperate as the other.
Merel Graeve is a volunteer at the Lesbos refugee camp in Greece. Born in Holland, she lives in London and works in film. She writes daily updates on the refugee crisis from her experiences. This article has been compiled from 3 of her entries. Compilation and editing by Siddesh Gooptu.