On the Greek island of Lesvos, volunteers and refugees are facing violent attacks from locals.
Each day, dozens of refugees wash up on the shores of the Greek island of Lesvos. They come at all hours and from many different shores.
These refugees will be in the midst of dangerous journeys across the ocean, having fled their homes. Some come to the shores of Greece for a shot at a better life, but most come simply to survive.
One Border Falls, Another Closes
Last week, Idlib—one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria—began to crumble as Russian-backed airstrikes eviscerated its infrastructure. Surviving residents fled in huge numbers to the neighboring nation, Turkey.
Turkey has been shouldering the vast majority of the world's refugees since the worldwide crisis coalesced in the 2010s, and they currently host over three million refugees. Following Idlib's fall, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that Turkey's borders were officially open because his nation could no longer handle the flows of refugees rushing out of Idlib.
This action was in violation of a 2016 Turkey-EU deal, in which the EU promised $6 billion to Turkey in exchange for their closed borders (though Turkey has only received roughly $3.2 million, which is perhaps the cause of Erdoğan's violation).
Many of Turkey's migrant population, aided or pushed by Turkish police, immediately attempted to flee Turkey for Greece, embarking on a journey across the Aegean Sea. Across the nation, Greek citizens and law enforcement officials have reacted violently, greeting refugees with tear gas, water cannons, and brutal attacks. Millions of refugees are now in prison-like camps on Greece's borders; others are still at sea, blocked by government ships on both sides.
Lesvos: A Microcosm of a Macro-Disaster
The island of Lesvos has seen a particularly harsh fallout from these recent events. Since the news from Turkey broke, local islanders have launched huge protests, establishing roadblocks and patrols to prevent migrants from moving from the sea into the camps.
In February, seven Lesvos inhabitants were arrested for planning violent attacks on migrants; following Turkey's announcement, journalists and aid volunteers have been injured by locals, and warehouses containing supplies and donations have been burned. Many of the organizations providing life-saving resources to refugees have been forced to shut down, and locals have been forcing boats to turn away from the island, resulting in the death of at least one child.
A far-right neo-Nazi party known as the Golden Dawn, which may be gaining prominence on the island, may be behind some of these actions.
Crumbling Patience: Lesvos Takes Fallout from the Syrian War
Lesvos's inhabitants were once praised for the strength of their solidarity. The island is vast and full of empty stretches of land, and the makeshift camps only take up a tiny fraction of its dry mountainous areas; but lately, the influx of migrants from Turkey and the threat of new government-built migrant centers have catalyzed a new wave of xenophobic violence.
The horrors of Lesvos's one major holding camp—Moria—are difficult to describe. The camp, designed to hold 3,000, currently holds over 20,000 refugees. Many languish there even though they have family and job prospects in the EU, held in limbo and exposed to disease and traumatizing violence, both of which run rampant in the camps.
In light of the recent riots, North Aegean governor Kostas Moutzouris has called for the declaration of a national emergency. However, politicians and human rights organizations have constantly called for an end to the misery on Lesvos since the crisis began five years ago.
Of course, all these events are tragic consequences of much bigger political movements. The EU's failure to accept more refugees—and its failure to support the people living in its nation's camps—have burdened the island with far more refugees than it can handle. "The Lesbos community has been abandoned by its own government for almost five years to deal with the consequences of a failed reception system. Like the refugee community, it is tired," said Sophie McCann, a Doctors Without Borders advocacy advisor.
In turn, the proliferation of refugees is the result of a complex humanitarian disaster, one that often has unfortunate consequences. "Refugees are not a bargaining chip to be played with at the whims of political leaders," said EuroMed Rights President Wadir Al-Asmar. "Europeans cannot look away from what might become one of the worst humanitarian disasters the war in Syria has brought on its people. Respecting international humanitarian law as well as the human right to protection and refuge remain the sole possible answer in the face of such indiscriminate violence."
The Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, has killed 500,000 people, coming out to nearly 1 in 10 Syrians. The conflict was caused by many complex forces—including climate change, which led to a drought that resulted in congestion and economic stagnation in Syria's inner cities.
The refugee crisis hasn't gone anywhere. But news outlets and political leaders everywhere are ignoring it—and xenophobia is making it worse.
Around 2015, the so-called European refugee crisis was topping every newspaper headline. Reports of the 5.2 million refugees pouring in from Syria and other war-torn countries that year led to mass calls for mobilization to create infrastructure and support systems for displaced peoples. The photo of Alan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old who provided a name and face to the crisis, sparked international acknowledgment and inspired humanitarian activists all over the world.
Alan Kurdi, via Medium
But that was four years ago. What has happened to those 5.2 million since then?
Firstly, there are a lot more than 5.2 million now. According to the UN, as many as 63.5 million people have had to flee their homes because of conflict since World War II; and today, roughly eight thousand people per month arrive in Greece, Italy, and Spain from Syria, Guinea, Algeria, and neighboring countries. These numbers are staggering; the lives they describe are almost impossible to imagine. But each figure corresponds to individual experience and a body that likely has crossed countless miles of ocean to arrive on European shores. Though it is impossible to generalize their stories, the majority of these people are currently stranded in liminal places like refugee camps or living as undocumented citizens without access to rights, living wages, and other protections.
According to the Aegean Boat Report, around 20 boats have arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos alone in February 2019, carrying a total of 791 people. Lesvos's Moria Camp holds somewhere between eight to ten thousand refugees; it was initially designed to hold ten. Many have been there for over half a decade, and the conditions in the camp are becoming more and more unlivable by the day.
Moria Camp, via Al Jazeera
Many refugees go through hell and back to get there. Left with no choice but to flee violence and unlivable conditions, many spend thousands of dollars on hiring a smuggler who could carry them across the sea. The journey is treacherous—smugglers sometimes have deals with authorities or even pirates, and recent reports have revealed that the journey is more dangerous than ever before, with 1,600 to as many as 2,730 people dying at sea in 2018. The
UNHCR released a report which argued that although the official number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean fell last year, this was likely due to "reductions to search and rescue capacity coupled with an uncoordinated and unpredictable response to disembarkation." This in turn, "led to an increased death rate as people continued to flee their countries due to conflict, human rights violations, persecution, and poverty." As the world forgets, the little structure and safety netting that does exist inevitably falls apart.
The news is a strange beast. Some stories can dominate for months and fade out so suddenly it's almost like they never happened; particularly shocking acts of individual or random violence can consume headlines while systematic, long-term horrors can fade away, having lost their ability to capture audiences' attention. With countries like South Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan steadily experiencing mass exoduses for years and years at a time, and with the inundation of tragic stories and gory photographs from Syria, it's easy for ongoing horrors to slip underneath an ocean of facts and figures that seem too overwhelming to address.
It's also easy for governments to shirk off responsibility for taking in refugees, seeing as technically they are stateless and, therefore, are not protected by any citizenship rights. Though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees basic protections for all people on earth, it does not specify which countries are responsible for providing these protections.
But every political decision manifests in lived experiences. For example, when migrants arrive on the shores of Lesvos, they are sometimes met with volunteers who provide water and transportation to the camps. Families and individuals are assigned at random to tents, which are crammed next to each other, creating unlivable conditions.
Image via aljazeera.com
Lesvos, in particular, has an extensive volunteer population, but overall aid groups often work as band-aids, failing to heal the sources of a larger issue and failing to structure a pathway forward. Instead, aid groups and refugees languish on Lesvos, in the grey area of statelessness and global amnesia. NGOs are gradually shifting their focus to working with refugees and locals to develop long-lasting relationships and skills, which can propel migrants forward into new lives.
But in light of the antipathy many locals hold towards newcomers, and also because of the trauma, language barriers, or other struggles that migrants face, the process of adjustment is challenging and will require individualized attention, patience, and cohesive efforts. Reports reveal that the majority of refugees fleeing severe conflicts will have vestiges of trauma; the IRC reported high levels of depression and PTSD among refugees across the board.
A 2011 Oxford University study found that the best way for refugees to move forward is through integration into life in their new countries. Solutions lie in treating the wound at its source, addressing xenophobia, and fighting for fair opportunities to education, jobs, healthcare, and other vital structural support systems. On the other hand, stranding migrants in places like Lesvos—where they live in unsanitary and dangerous conditions, surrounded by strangers who may also be experiencing trauma, with no idea of if or when they will be able to leave—is a product of a collective worldwide amnesia, a refusal to see what is happening in real time.
Long-term, slow-moving challengers are not foddered for breaking news. Particularly massive floods of refugees might pique the interest of a world leader; an artist might draw attention to the crisis through an installation in a busy city; but always, the cycles of violence and erasure continue as the world gets caught up in shinier, brighter topics. But remembering and acknowledging what is happening is the first step to moving in a new direction.
Image via Oxfam Novib Academy
Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City.
While U.S. policies block many refugees from entering the country based on arbitrary or prejudicial criteria, Asylum remains a federal protection from persecution or fear from persecution.
When Joe Biden spoke at the 2019 Munich Conference in Germany, he spoke highly of America's participation in the global community. He told the European leaders, "The America I see…does not wish to turn our back on the world or our allies." This stands opposed to the policies Donald Trump's administration has enacted. As Biden added, "The America I see values basic human decency, not snatching children from their parents or turning our back on refugees at our border," he said. "The American people understand…because it makes us an embarrassment. The American people know, overwhelmingly that it is not right. That it is not who we are."
While U.S. policies block many refugees from entering the country based on arbitrary or prejudicial criteria, Asylum remains a federal protection from persecution or fear from persecution. Individuals may file on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Asylum has actually saved the lives of multiple high profile figures.
Here are seven famous asylum seekers:
1. Albert Einstein (physicist)
The Nobel Prize-winning scientist fled Germany in 1933 in order to escape persecution from the Nazis. After his safe arrival in the. U.S., Einstein notably said, "I shall live in a land where political freedom, tolerance, and equality of all citizens reign."
2. Mila Kunis (actress)
Kunis and her family fled Soviet Ukraine during the Cold War. That 70s Show actress was seven years old when she was granted a refugee visa.
3. Gloria Estefan (singer)
Born in Havana, Cuba, the "Queen of Latin Pop" fled the country with her family when she was just two years old. After Fidel Castro led the Communist revolution in 1959, her family moved to Miami.
4. Madeleine Albright (former Secretary of State)
Born in 1937 in what was then Czechoslovakia, her family fled Nazi persecution during World War II. Although they attempted to return, they had to leave permanently in 1948. She later became the first female Secretary of State.
5. Henry Kissinger (former Secretary of State)
After spending the first 15 years of his life in Germany, his family fled in 1938 during the early years of the Holocaust.
6. Marlene Dietrich (actress)
The Hollywood beauty started her film career in Germany in the 1920s. When the Nazis gained power, she fled to Hollywood, where she became an American citizen and made a point to perform for troops during World War II. Later, she said, "America took me into her bosom when I no longer had a native country worthy of the name."
7. Regina Spektor (singer)
After being raised in Moscow, the singer's family fled the Soviet Union when she was nine years old in fear of religious persecution. They settled in New York, where Spektor would later begin her singing career
This week, immigrant advocacy groups lobbied to block an order under the Trump administration that would force asylum seekers to stay in Mexico until their case files were seen in immigration courts. Based on the fact that lives could be endangered if the order were executed, the group stated that asylum seekers "are being returned to Mexico without any meaningful consideration of the dangers they face there, including the very real threat that Mexican authorities will return them to the countries they fled to escape persecution and torture." The federal courts have yet to make a decision on overturning the order.
The refugee crisis is becoming impossible to ignore.
There are currently 68.5 million people in the world who have been displaced because of war or racial/religious persecution. This is the highest this number has been since World War II, and as natural resources and access to clean water begin to dwindle, this number is projected to grow significantly. In response to this issue, the West has begun closing its borders in fear of mass migration. This fear however, is misguided. According to the U.N., most refugees don't go further than the countries neighboring their homelands. Still, the refugee crisis continues to grow unabated, so much so, that it threatens to be the defining marker of the 21st century. It's a multifaceted problem that's very difficult to solve, impossible if the following factors aren't properly addressed. Here's a look at the five major contributors to the world refugee crisis.
For the past century, the Middle East has been a warzone. Following the events of 9/11 the United States entered the region, getting embroiled in conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For the Afghans, war was nothing new. The country has been in a perpetual state of violence since the Saur revolution in 1978. After the civil war, the USSR invaded Afghanistan to help keep the the communist PDPA in power. The PDPA's ideologies didn't align particularly well with the more religious and rurally-based Afghan population. In true Cold War fashion, the U.S. armed the fundamentalist Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets. The country has been at war ever since and the fighting has resulted in millions of deaths. As a direct result, Afghanistan has the largest refugee population in all of Asia at 2.6 million people.
Things aren't much better on the other side of Iran. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the levant became increasingly destabilized, allowing militant groups like ISIS to proliferate throughout the region. This destabilization also poured into Syria, a country already in the midst of civil war that has left over 13 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Other countries currently in the midst of civil wars include Somalia and Yemen, both of which are dealing with an influx of Al Qaeda insurgents.
Despite the fact that genocide and crimes against humanity are forbidden by international law, ethnic and religious persecution persists all over the world. For years, the Sudanese government persecuted the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups, systematically killing hundreds of thousands and leaving over one million refugees. Myanmar is dealing with a similar issue, in which the Buddhist majority is attempting to push the Muslim majority out of the country by force. Thousands have been killed, and hundreds of thousands of people have poured over the border into Bangladesh and been forced to stay in overcrowded camps.
As of right now, the two greatest contributors to the refugee crisis are state sanctioned violence in the form of ethnic persecution and war. 55% of all refugees come from Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Syria. That said, over 1.1 billion people lack access water. Improper sanitation is a problem for 2.4 billion people, exposing them to all kinds of waterborne illnesses. Water scarcity may not play a huge role in today's refugee crisis, but it will almost certainly play a part in the near future. Scarcity, particularly scarcity of essential resources, breeds conflict and civil strife. While the eventual cause of this future refugee crisis will be either war or some sort of persecution, water will have been the catalyst.
As climate change intensifies, many are predicting that it will increase the size and scope of the refugee crisis significantly. The mediterranean region is currently in the midst of its worst drought in over 900 years. On top of this, if global warming continues at the same rate, more than 1 billion people will be living in places where the average temperature is 102˚F. Combine this with the future natural disasters global warming is nearly guaranteed to cause, and a perfect storm is created, leaving millions with no other option but to leave their homes in search of greener pastures. Hurricane Irma and Harvey were just the beginning. As massive ecological disasters become the norm, large swathes of the planet will become uninhabitable.
Throughout history, famines have caused mass migration and the levels of famine in South Sudan are currently at an unprecedented level. This past January, nearly half the population didn't have enough to eat. Nearby, in Somalia, they are suffering from a similar problem. The thing these two countries have in common is that they're both suffering from droughts, illustrating the ways in which a dwindling water supply can devastate a society's ability to feed itself. Huge amounts of people in the Horn of Africa, Nigeria, and Yemen are currently starving, and they'll probably be clamoring to leave their countries before long.
There are many who would argue that humanity has gotten less violent throughout history, but one look at the headlines and it's easy to prove that this isn't the case. The difference now is that violence doesn't typically occur between powerful nation states–that it's the poorer countries and factions who are left to fight over their limited resources. The death tolls from fighting alone are lower, but regimes are becoming more creative, weaponizing famine and hoarding resources as a means of oppression. These methods have created nearly 70 million refugees so far and when issues like climate change and water shortage come to a head in the next few decades, the refugee crisis is only going to get worse.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff