In a weekend mission to the main EU entry point for nearly 450,000 refugees and migrants so far this year, United Nations High Commission on Refugees chief António Guterres witnessed the improved humanitarian response mounted by Greek local authorities and civil society while criticising the continued lack of a large-scale and effective European response.
Assessing conditions on the Greek island of Lesvos, the main landing spot for tens of thousands of people taking smuggler boats from the nearby Turkish coast, Guterres said European governments had yet to match the “gigantic effort” that the island and its people had made in trying to cope with the huge influx.
“It is amazing that on a small island, you are managing, whereas in a big Europe, with half a billion people, they are finding it so difficult,” Guterres told Lesvos Mayor Spyros Galinos and other Greek officials. “We are always saying this crisis is manageable at the European level, but to be manageable, it needs to be much better managed.”
Without a Europe-wide approach and an effective strategy in dealing with the influx, Guterres warned, criminal networks would continue to thrive. “When states are not able to organize the orderly movement of refugees, smugglers take charge, exploiting people further and adding to their suffering,” he added.
Describing his island as frontline, Mayor Galinos said: “the main issue is not the numbers, but the lack of a European policy to respond.” Nevertheless, he said, Greeks would continue to do whatever they could to address the crisis and combat smugglers, “who not only exploit the people, but who put their lives at continuous risk.”
“Above all, we are all human beings,” the Mayor added. “We must all recognize the position of these people because we might all find ourselves in this situation one day.”
UNHCR has deployed an emergency team to Greece and now has some 120 staff in the country to support the government in its effort to address the continuing crisis. The island of Lesvos, with a population of 95,000 people, has received over 220,000 people in nine months – 160,000 in September alone.
The majority of the refugees and migrants arriving on Lesvos are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The rest, about 5 per cent, are migrants and refugees from about 20 countries as varied as India, Bangladesh, Togo, Niger, Columbia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The Greek Coast Guard on Lesvos receives up to five distress calls a day and set out to rescue people in overcrowded boats.
Deputy Harbour Master, Antonios Sofiadellis, a leader in the Greek Coast Guard effort that has saved an average of 400 refugee and migrant lives every day, said that more people are being packed onto the flimsy boats these days – around 60 when 50 used to be the limit.
“The engines are very cheap and the smugglers don’t care that they don’t know how to operate the boats. This is something no country in Europe has faced. If we weren’t there to rescue them, half or more than half would drown. The boats capsize, some fold, when the floor breaks.”
Mr. Guterres also visited the north of Lesvos, where most refugee boats land. The beaches were strewn with hundreds of bright orange life jackets and deflated rubber boats, soaked shoes and pieces of clothing. Some 1,050 people had arrived overnight and volunteers helped them to an assembly point nearby, where they found food and a warm place to sleep in a large UNHCR shelter.
Some Syrian refugees he met told him they had fled directly from Aleppo, Damascus or Homs. Other Syrians said they could no longer make ends meet in neighboring countries amid cuts in humanitarian aid and restrictions on work. Most people said they felt now was their chance to find safety in European countries where refugees were welcome.
Original story by By Melissa Fleming, Lesbos, Greece for UNHCR, edited for length.