From Tourists to Refugees: The Story of Lesvos
Before the island of Lesvos, Greece became synonymous with the Syrian war and refugee crisis; it had its own colorful history not least, 81 BC when the capital city of Mitilini was besieged by Roman forces; including Julius Caesar. Mitilini stood accused of revolt against Rome and aiding and abetting pirates of the region.
In 2015 and 2016, Lesvos was besieged again, but this time by tens of thousands of people, fleeing war, violence, and economic instability in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. After crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, they arrived in Lesvos, often after harrowing evening crossings. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees 489 people went missing on the Mediterranean in the first four months of 2018.
During 2015 Lesvos, and its population of 85,000, played host to more than five hundred thousand migrants and asylum seekers; nearly half of all the migrants who transited through Greece on their way to destinations in northern Europe. Assuming that their boat didn’t run out of fuel, the motor didn’t fail (a rarity in winter), and they weren’t intercepted by the Turkish Coast Guard, asylum seekers and refugees would be met on the beaches by local volunteers.
Aid organizations flocked to Lesvos, including the International Rescue
Committee, but it was the islanders themselves who led rescue and relief efforts. Eric and Philippa Kempson, long- time British expatriates, and Melinda McRostie, a Greek-Australian restaurant owner, initially led the volunteer response.
Though Lesvos was quick to aid those reaching Lesvos’ shores, the influx of thousands of people a day placed immense strain on the island’s economy, which is primarily agricultural, as well as on Greece, which after the EU bailout was under strict austerity measures. The island’s tourism fell to naught and thousands of Greeks suddenly found themselves out of work.
The influx of refugees drastically decreased after the EU and Turkey signed an agreement in 2016 to close the so-called Balkan route. Though the beaches aren’t covered in discarded florescent-orange life jackets, as of March 2018 there were still 5,300 refugees stranded at the Moria refugee camp on Lesvos (built to house 2,000).
The situation on Lesvos remains largely forgottenbytheinternationalmedia,even though several cast members of Game of Thrones visited the Moria Refugee Camp in June 2016. Though other natural disasters and wars have taken the front pages of the world’s papers, stories of hope filter out: Maria Makrogianni, who fed refugees, over 300,000, out of her taverna for free.
Rachael Wright is a Colorado native with degrees in Political Science and History from Colorado Mesa University. She is a devoted tea drinker, Manchester United fan, wife, and mother. She lives near Denver with her fantastic husband and daughter and very full bookshelves.
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