A Cemetery of Life Vests But Not Lives

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A Cemetery of Life Vests But Not Lives

The European Union should stop squabbling and work together on a coordinated response to the European refugee crisis.

Syrian refugees arriving at Lesbos. (Photo: via FPIF)

Unlike islands elsewhere, Lesbos discards thousands of life vests every day. They litter its eastern and northern shores, coloring the beaches or floating aimlessly on the azure waters. For months now, they have been routinely collected by municipal workers and volunteers and unceremoniously discarded in a municipal dumpsite near the town of Molyvos. Each life vest was worn by one of the more than 450,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in 2015 alone who made the sea crossing from Turkey to this Greek island. Each tells a different story, but almost inevitably, it is a story of fear.

Although only 8-15 kilometers of water separate Lesbos from Turkey, the crossing is not without danger. I spent three days on the island in mid-December. Two small inflatable dinghies carrying dozens of migrants capsized in that short period due to the choppy seas and the fragile armature of the boats. Two members of Iraq’s Yezidi minority, an elderly man and an 8-month-old baby girl, drowned on the second day, and several others had to be treated for hypothermia, shock, bruises and injuries.

Anna, a Yezidi woman en route to join her husband in Germany, was on one of the capsized boats, along with her four children and granddaughter. The morning after, we spoke with her in one of the tents set up by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, at Kara Tepe, where the authorities register new arrivals. The family had just been reunited after a harrowing night rescue from the cold and dark straits. The smugglers on the opposite shore cram more people onto the boats than they can safely carry, trying to maximize profit as the inflatable boats cannot muster a return trip. Like the life vests, they too are discarded on the shore.

As I first stood in shock before this cemetery of life vests, I saw nothing but the enormity of the refugee crisis. But soon I noticed the different hues of purple and orange, sizes and shapes of the randomly piled life vests and other flotation devices. Instead of one morass, I started to recognize the individuality of each and appreciate the fact that each had kept a refugee alive. The initial shock soon gave way to anger and despair that, so many months into this crisis, so little has been done to provide safe and legal alternative avenues to asylum and refuge in Europe and elsewhere.

There's something in the air...

Open Arms, Not Closed Borders

Instead of putting fact and law aside to ride populist or nationalist sentiment and become pawns to political brinkmanship, EU politicians need to put reason and rights center-stage to inform the debate, not inflame it. Some were raised on the grimmer side of the Iron Curtain – Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981 or all of Eastern Europe in 1989, or in the right-wing dictatorships of Greece, Portugal, or Spain in the 1960s and 70s. And yet they need to be reminded, time and time again, that they were greeted with open arms in time of need, not with fences and closures. They were embraced as victims claiming long lost liberties, not rejected on the fear that they were Communist or Fascist agents, agitators, or infiltrators.

Many who were raised on the brighter side of the Iron Curtain need to be reminded, time and time again, that the EU is a project of peace and tolerance that arose from the horrors and lessons of two traumatic wars and intolerant ideologies. It is unconscionable that a project of its scope and size cannot fathom how to rationally and securely resettle refugees currently encamped in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. Henry Kissinger is said to have once asked whom to call to get in touch with Europe. With more deaths piling on top of the over 3,770 of people who drowned or were reported missing in the Mediterranean in 2015, the EU needs to collectively answer the call of the refugees.

Asylum seekers and migrants pay anywhere from 500 to 1,500 euros per person for the crossing. But the passengers have to fend for themselves on the straits, steering the often-faulty outboard engines as best they can against the strong currents and winds. Most do not know how to swim, and often lifejackets purchased in Turkey are fake.

Most leave under cover of night to avoid interception by the coastguard patrols. Adding to their fear, word has spread that masked, armed men in black on unidentified speedboats puncture, swamp, or capsize some of the boats.

Yet fear of the treachery of smugglers, the predations of masked men, and the fury of choppy seas is nothing compared to the overwhelming physical fear that has forced many of the asylum seekers to the western shores of Turkey and beyond in search of safety.

Voices from Lesbos

In Lesbos, I met Fatima, 39, a Sunni from Baghdad, who was fleeing with her three children the vengeful sectarian violence that Shia militias had unleashed against the Sunnis in Iraq. The family only made it to Lesbos after two failed crossings. She left her husband behind in hiding with the hope that he will eventually join them in Germany, where she intends to apply for asylum. “I pray for his safety every day and look forward to the day when we will be together again,” she told me.

Mahmoud, 26, along with his wife and daughter, had first suffered the barrel bombs dropped by the Bashar al-Assad regime on rebel-held areas of Aleppo (Syria). They managed to cross the frontlines to the state-held zone, where their new dwelling miraculously remained standing after indiscriminate mortar attacks by the rebels had hollowed out the adjoining buildings. “We were surrounded by bombed buildings and were no longer willing to tempt fate,” he said, describing why they finally left.

Despite countless EU meetings and several summits, it is not the member states but non-state actors who are still manning the straits. Smugglers and a host of other profiteers control the departure side. Meanwhile, on the arrivals side, are selfless volunteers, island locals, and nongovernmental groups like the International Rescue Committee and Médecins sans Frontières.

In the absence of coordinated policy and shared responsibility in addressing the plight of the refugees, the EU has facilitated criminal and informal organizations to strike it rich in the land of Croesus. As well as making the crossing dangerous and onerous for the refugees, it runs against Europe’s own best interests and security.

What the EU Should Do

It is high time for the EU to coherently address this humanitarian crisis at its borders while ensuring the rights of those arriving on its shores. Instead of squabbling over sharing responsibility or conflating the refugees with terrorists, EU member states should understand that the orderly crossing, screening, and processing of refugees is a win-win solution.

The EU and other traditional resettlement countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States should be offering refugee resettlement and humanitarian visas from Turkey, as well as Jordan and Lebanon and other countries where refugees are first congregating and a real crisis of numbers exists. If they did, fewer people would opt for dangerous sea crossings, and it would allow for the orderly and early screening and processing of refugees in close coordination with UNHCR.

The next step will be convincing Russia and the Gulf States to demonstrate solidarity and to join the resettlement effort, particularly given the guns and bombs they have poured into Syria, contributing to this humanitarian disaster and its massive displacement.

In the meantime, more assistance for Greece is urgently required to improve reception conditions on Lesbos and the other islands. The activation in December of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, a disaster relief program, is a step in the right direction. But more needs to be done to overcome the squalor and disorder surrounding the EU/Greece hotspot.

As I hear of forthcoming EU meetings and summits, I trust that the cemetery will be one of life vests only, and not one of more dashed hopes and lost lives due to the continued absence of shared policy and responsibility within the EU in addressing the plight of fear-stricken refugees. Maybe an EU summit in Lesbos instead of the sanitized realities at EU headquarters in Brussels could at long last move the EU to answer the call of the refugees.

Bruno Stagno-Ugarte

Bruno Stagno-Ugarte is deputy executive director at Human Rights Watch.

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