The volunteer-led Greek Hellenic Rescue Team (HRT) is one of the organisations at ground zero of the refugee crisis in Greece. Two years on from the dramatic events of 2015, Jane Labous and Shona Hamilton report on the effect on the island of Lesvos from wars raging further afield, and gives us a glimpse into how the Greek islanders have pulled together to open their arms to those in need. They meet the members of the HRT, as well as those displaced by war and conflict on the small island gradually adapting to its changing reality.
Two years ago the world’s attention was caught by the dramatic scenes playing out on the Greek tourist-island of Lesvos. In the space of a few short months, the mid-size Greek island – better known for its blue skies and local delicacies than its domestic-aid policy – had become the epicentre of the Middle-Eastern refugee crisis.
Lesvos had a registered population of 86,000 in the summer of 2015. By early September 2015, there were an estimated 23,000 refugees stranded in the capital city of Mitilini. Lying just five kilometres from Turkey at its narrowest point, Lesvos was one of a string of Greek islands that saw an influx of desperate refugees arriving in their thousands on its shores in the summer months of 2015.
In a few memorable days in the summer 2015, over 3,000 refugees could arrive in the space of just 24 hours. As wave after wave of new arrivals landed on the shores, the small island’s resources threatened to buckle. Refugees were transferred into transit camps as the Greek government tried to keep up with the influx of new arrivals, with the floundering responses to refugees seen in places like Kos an example of what could go wrong if the situation was not handled cohesively.
Refugees fleeing war torn areas in the Middle East arrived on the shore in leaking wooden boats and rubber dinghies designed to carry ten, but sometimes packed with over 100 people. Those who arrived were the lucky ones – the HRT, conducting rescue missions from the Lesvos coast, often receive reports of sunken or capsized boats.
Now, despite an EU deal with Turkey on closed borders, this crisis continues and refugees contineu to find a way through. Between January and March this year, 29,758 refugees and migrants entered Europe by sea, according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. One in four are children. Some 4,900 people have arrived in Greece since the beginning of 2017, says UNHCR, and 306 people arrived weekly on the Greek islands between 27 February and 5 March. Now spring is here, stories of stricken boats crammed with people hit the headlines almost daily.
In Geographical’s June issue, Jane and Shona explore in further detail the work being done by the HRT and looks at how the latest geopolitical situation in the region is affecting the movement of those fleeing the horrors of war for a chance at peace.
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