PIRAEUS/LESVOS – Eight migrants emerged from an olive orchard on mountainous Lesvos in broad daylight on Monday, thrust themselves into a busy thoroughfare and urgently broke into a sprint.
They were less than three miles from a detention facility in Mória – a re-purposed Greek prison laced with barbed wire, where refugees are now indefinitely held after smuggling themselves across the narrow strait from Turkey – and they were running in the opposite direction.
The prison here is Greece’s harsh response to a crushing tide of migrants, over half a million last year, which traumatized an island of 86,000 residents and cast it as a symbol of the Syrian refugee crisis. An agreement between the European Union and Turkey, which allows the EU to return every unregistered refugee arriving on Greek shores for one documented in Turkish camps, has largely halted that flow.
But “everyone has the sense this is just a break,” said Vasilis Sanna, a former cruise ship worker and Lesvos native. He sat alongside the owner of a deserted Molyvos café, typically packed this time of year with loyal tourists from Germany and Norway, who nodded his head in agreement. “It’s all everyone talks about here anymore.”
The EU-Turkey deal is working at the moment, but Lesvians harbor suspicions over how long it will last. Thousands more refugees are parked right across the sea, an hour’s ride away in a rubber dinghy, on beachfront property critical to the Turkish tourism industry. Lesvos business owners fear an Ankara plot to unburden the region.
They say their fears are shared by non-profit organizations, which have booked hotel rooms in bulk throughout the summer months – as has Frontex, Europe’s border enforcement agency. And they point to the newly permanent presence of interdiction ships that now dot the coastline.
From a strictly business perspective, the presence of NGOs and law enforcement has offset the high rate of hotel booking cancellations by summer beachgoers. But the concern is that Lesvos as an island name will become synonymous with the crisis, damaging its brand for years to come.
“It’s up to Turkey” whether the EU deal will hold, said one humanitarian aid worker at Kara Tepe, a more dignified camp near Mytilene that allows refugees to come and go as they please. He requested anonymity given his association with the camp.
Organized by the Lesvos municipality, Kara Tepe serves effectively as a second- stage camp for those discharged from Mória – well enough documented to leave detention, but too poor to continue on into northern Europe. Queen Rania of Jordan visited this camp on Monday at the invitation of the International Rescue Committee.
Roughly 900 residents are in Kara Tepe living in conditions considered acceptable by the humanitarian organizations that have visited here. It operates in stark contrast to Mória, where 3,000 migrants are living in a facility built to house no more than 1,500 convicted criminals.
Those fortunate enough to have survived Mória and rich enough to leave Kara Tepe often find themselves in the Port of Piraeus on the outskirts of Athens.
One of those lucky men, Abdin Abdin from east Aleppo, now awaits his wife’s arrival from Turkey. He is confident she will manage to pass through.
“She doesn’t have the paperwork yet,” he said.
Abdin, on the other hand, said that he and his four children have secured documentation to enter Denmark.
Piraeus, compared to the camps of Lesvos, is an accessible sprawl of tents that appear to have naturally sprouted across one of the harbor gates, where the city’s residents and tourists alike depart for Greece’s many islands. The tents creep into corners and under highways, defying the organized grid that has become the hallmark of camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Reclining and smoking in a largely empty tent by the docks, one Syrian Kurdish refugee, Ahmed Rashid Toran, said he has been in Piraeus for a month and a half without access to a shower. “I have a sick baby,” Ahmed said. He has three children and hopes to ultimately settle in Canada.
Ahmed spent €4,000 a head for each member of his family to secure safe passage from Turkey. He now has no money left to continue on, he said.
Europe has already absorbed over one million refugees in the last year and a half, and its leadership warns the continent cannot handle more. But the future flow of refugees from Syria depends not just on Turkey, but also on Syria itself.
UN-led negotiations to end the Syrian conflict appear to have reached a crisis point, as Russia and Iran increase their stockpiling of arms for Syria’s embattled president, Bashar Assad – a move interpreted by the West as a preparation for the resumption of war. Europe’s leaders fear that an outbreak in violence – a formal collapse of a two-month old cessation of hostilities between Assad and the rebellion against him, or of the Geneva negotiations – will trigger a new outflow of refugees among the seven million Syrian residents still internally displaced.
In a call among the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the United States, all agreed to consider ways to pressure Russia and Iran to maintain Syria’s truce and salvage the peace talks.
But in a speech in Hanover, Germany, addressing the people of Europe on Monday, US President Barack Obama warned of a more insidious threat.
“Conflicts from South Sudan to Syria to Afghanistan have sent millions fleeing, seeking the relative safety of Europe’s shores,” he said at the Hanover Messe Fairgrounds. “But that puts new strains on countries and local communities, and threatens to distort our politics.”
The speech was billed by the White House as a counterweight to Obama’s acclaimed address as candidate for president in 2008, titled “A World that Stands as One,” delivered at Berlin’s Victory Column.
“This is a defining moment,” Obama continued in the Hanover address, for which German Chancellor Angela Merkel was present.
“And what happens on this continent has consequences for people around the globe. If a unified, peaceful, liberal, pluralistic, free-market Europe begins to doubt itself, begins to question the progress that’s been made over the last several decades, then we can’t expect the progress that is just now taking hold in many places around the world will continue.”
“Instead,” he warned, “we will be empowering those who argue that democracy can’t work, that intolerance and tribalism and organizing ourselves along ethnic lines, and authoritarianism and restrictions on the press – that those are the things that the challenges of today demand.”