Originally posted March 14, 2016
Lesbos Greece, by Dr. Bill Dienst
After being part of an advance team sent to the Greek-Macedonian border this past week to scope out the situation of 20 thousand refugees stranded at the border, we are back in Lesbos for a few days more. Salaam Cultural Museum is now planning to deploy more of its resources to the border at Idomeni.
The situation here on the North Island of Lesbos has cooled down. The Turkish Coast Guard and NATO Naval forces have effectively cut off refugee boat crossings in Zone 1 on the North end of Lesbos where we are assigned. There are still significant numbers of crossings on the South part of the Island near Mytilini, but they are currently well staffed with medical and humanitarian volunteers there. So we will be moving some of our medical operations to the Greek Mainland, to where we can now be put to better use.
Today, I will take this time to reflect on information we received last week from the UN High Commission on Refugees.
Boat arrivals to Lesbos have been down; on March 8th, 20% down from the daily average of 1500 arrivals per day recorded the previous week. In spite of this, the populations in Moria and Tara Kepe Camps near Mytilini are still growing, mainly due to a slowdown on refugees leaving for Athens. The capacity in these camps is being built up to house a population of 6500, up from the current population of 4000.
Tickets for refugees to get to Athens and beyond are now being rationed. There are reports of tickets being scalped and sold at inflated rates. There are also reports of fraudulent counterfeit tickets being sold which have no value; some claiming direct ferry passage to Idomeni. The only problem is that Idomeni is inland from the sea by more than 50 kilometers and no ferry can get there. But refugees who fall for these fraudulent sales do not know that, and more of their remaining meager funds are being squandered by these ripoffs.
UNHCR believes that if the capacity at Moria Camp exceeds the 6500 currently allocated, more ferry tickets will become available and ferry traffic for refugees will be increased, with ticket sales acting as a “spigot” to allow any overflow in refugee populations to Athens.
Meanwhile there are negotiations and proposals between the EU and Turkey to have refugees sent back to Turkey. An agreement on this is pending in the next few days.
There are multiple social problems affecting the refugees that have now become apparent. First of all, the problem of separated families. In many cases, the father of a household left several months ago, arrived in Northern Europe, became somewhat settled, and then called back home to his host country and invited the rest of his family to come. So the wife, children and sometimes the elders set off and after a long ordeal, make it to Turkey or Greece, only to be stranded halfway between their relatives back home and their husband-breadwinner in Northern Europe. We have heard a few tragic stories of family abandonment by the father in Germany in some of these cases.
Then there is the fact that 40% of the current arrivals are children. For many children, there is an absence of a safety net. The ones who are traveling with both parents, or one parent, are relatively lucky. There are also children who are traveling only with extended relatives: aunts, uncles, etc. Then there are children traveling with no direct relatives at all: perhaps only with neighbors or people who are from their same village. Theses situations are being dubbed, “extended-extended families.”
There are teams of pediatricians and social workers in Greece trying to figure out how to handle children who seem to be on their own. In some cases, children are sent to children’s boarding houses in Athens. But these are “open” facilities; that is, these children are free to leave if they choose to do so. This then puts them at risk for predators: human trafficking, sexual enslavement, etc. Children’s rights organizations and Europol are now getting involved in efforts to handle this.