Last Thursday, President Erdoğan announced that he was going to open Turkey’s borders to refugees fleeing to Europe, apparently in order to put pressure on Nato to back him against the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. The Greek media were quick to whip up fear of invading ‘hordes’ of refugees. A four-year-old Syrian boy drowned in the early hours of this morning after a boat capsized off Lesvos. Those who make it to shore are often met by a mob that won’t let them land. Others are freezing on the Greek-Turkish border along the river Evros. Those who get across are pushed back by the army and border guards, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Greece has announced that it won’t process any new asylum claims for a month.
In Moria camp on Lesvos, 9000 people are trying to live in a space built for less than 2000. Children as young as ten are reported as suicidal. Sitting outside a cafe in Mytilene, UK Border Agency sailors seconded to Europe’s Frontex force drink frappés and talk about football, about a message to a girl back home that she has received but not replied to. In Athens, I had been told by someone recently returned from holiday on Lesvos that the arrival of the Royal Navy had suppressed the trafficker routes from Turkey, allowing the tourist island to return to a kind of normalcy. But the border officers – working two weeks on, two off – tell a different story: ‘Some nights it’s quiet, then there’ll be two, three rescues.’ I asked how long they’ve been stationed here: ‘Too long.’
From the little fishing village of Skala Sikamineas in northern Lesbos you have a good view of the Turkish coast less than 15 km away. Even when the wind gets up and riles the water, there are still refugees crossing in inflatable dinghies with outboard motors, mostly at night. There are descendants on this part of the island from an earlier refugee influx at the end of the Greco-Turkish war, when Turkish forces entered the city of Smyrna in 1922 and Greek and Armenian residents crammed the waterfront for days waiting for boats to get them to safety. In a report for the League of Nations on 18 November 1922, Fridtjof Nansen reckoned the number of refugees ‘already within the frontiers of Greece’ at ‘not less than 900,000’. The Northern Aegean islands and the mainland port of Piraeus were common destinations for those who were lucky enough to leave Turkey by sea. This history gives the inhabitants of Lesbos a perspective on the current refugee crisis that is now much harder to imagine in island communities such as the UK. Before the NGOs arrived in force in 2015, when thousands of refugees were arriving daily, rescuing people in danger was a matter for local people, especially fishermen, and the overstretched Hellenic Coast Guard.
If you look out the window as you come in to land at Mytilene airport on Lesbos, the coast appears to be outlined in orange; the lifejackets and deflated black dinghies are distinguishable just before you touch down. I took the last charter flight of the tourist season from London, on Saturday 3 October; my ticket cost £50 and the plane had barely two dozen people on it. If you’re coming from Syria or Afghanistan, getting to Lesbos is more difficult.