History is being written on Lesbos

Andreas Müller-Hermann recently visited the Greek island of Lesbos and experienced the effects of EU policy: helpers are being criminalized and unnecessary deaths are being tolerated.

von Andreas Müller-Hermann

A waste dump full of used life jackets, Lesbos 2015; Photo: Christian Schürer

In November of last year I went to Lesbos. I saw that since refugees have been landing there day after day with no end in sight there have been drastic shortages, particularly of winter clothing and blankets. On my return to Germany a few friends and I collected about eleven tonnes in private donations of clothes and shoes, blankets and rescue blankets, and in January we took it all over from Munich to Lesbos in a truck and two large vans with trailers.

What I experienced then on this little island off the coast of Greece changed my life. It was a tug of war between two extremes. On one side were volunteers from around the world doing all they could to receive the refugees arriving by sea on an hourly basis, the first stage of their odyssey across Europe. I met volunteers from Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, even from Malaysia. From all age groups, including a lot of very young people. But the local population is also actively helping, even though they have enough problems of their own at the moment.

And on the other side – practically zero state or international institutions, neither at the Greek end nor EU or UN-run, are showing their face or accepting any responsibility at this eye of the needle for refugees on their way to Europe.

A utopian wave of help versus an unwilling EU

Instead, volunteers organize sea rescues when the overcrowded boats need assistance in distress. They collect the refugees on the beaches and immediately provide dry clothing when they arrive soaked to the skin and freezing. They walk into the icy water even by night and in snow, to carry small children, women, old and sick people to dry land.

Volunteers also organize speedy transport to the refugee camps, cook food around the clock, take care of children and distribute the deliveries of relief aid. There is even a group who wash refugees’ clothes so that they can be reused rather than adding to the large piles of discarded rubbish.

Foto: Christian Schürer
Many greek people are cooking for the refugees. In this image: a food bank in Mitylini/ Lesbos 2016; Photo: Andreas Müller-Hermann

Volunteers clean the beaches and collect up the thousands of life jackets left behind; people want to leave this first leg of their journey behind them as soon as possible and there is no need to lug life jackets along any further.

Volunteers come and go. Some only stay a few weeks and others for months, but all of them are highly motivated and many of them work every day to the point of complete exhaustion. A lot of them have taken sabbaticals from well-paid jobs to help, and they stay as long as their savings last. The mood is one of enormous energy, extremely positive despite the extreme stress.

What I saw on Lesbos became a vision for me of how our world might be, if we all behaved like this randomly thrown together crew of dedicated volunteers in our everyday lives.

Bureaucracy preventing simple solutions

And yet there’s the other side of the coin. We wanted to use the return journey with our empty vehicles to take some of the huge piles of life jackets (not) rotting away on the island to Munich for an art installation.

To get permission for “exporting” the life jackets, we went – at this point full of confidence – to the chief of refuse collection services in Lesbos. The matter grew into an odyssey through the most diverse administration offices: the mayor, the deputy mayor, the legal department, customs, the environment ministry.

To cut a long story short – it took a huge amount of time and energy to get some meaningful use out of a few useless old life jackets, many of which turned out on closer inspection to be fakes sold at high prices to the refugees. It does make sense, however, that the Greek authorities want to prevent these mostly unusable and therefore dangerous rescue aids from getting back into circulation.

Foto: Christian Schürer
Artproject 2016: Salvia Vida, Artist Christian Schürer/ www.salvavida.eu ; Photo: Christian Schürer

At some point during the stay on Lesbos I realized that I had lost all faith in state and above all European institutions. At the same time, the overwhelming volunteer-organized aid gave me back my faith in humanity. That realization made me sad but has given me hope as well.

Rescue boat team arrested

Particularly during the difficult negotiations over the life jackets on Lesbos, we gained a fairly clear impression of how the official side works. Each side, both the administration and the volunteers, lives in its own universe, with few connections between them and sadly very little dialogue.

The “tightening the borders” policy is making the work of all the volunteers on Lesbos more difficult with every day. They are being ordered to leave the beaches they patrol, especially at night, to take in boats and provide first aid. The authorities seem to fear that the fires they light to keep themselves warm might act as orientation for the boats.

Members of various NGOs have been apprehended by the police and interrogated for hours because they wanted to use life jackets from the huge rubbish tip to insulate the floors of the refugee tents against the winter cold. They were accused of stealing the rescue aids to sell them back to Turkey.

A rescue boat team has been arrested and put in prison. Absurdly, they are accused of “people-smuggling” – when all of the hopelessly overloaded boats on the open sea in these temperatures are in dire need of immediate help in distress.

On the day I left for Germany, 20 January 2016, a woman and a small child died of hypothermia on a Lesbos beach, after a crossing that was not even particularly stormy. Do people really have to start dying before we are allowed to help?

The volunteer rescue crew are now waiting for their cases to come up in court. In theory, they could face up to ten years’ imprisonment – for risking their own lives every time they put out to sea to save others.

Sending people seeking protection back out to sea is tantamount to murder

History is being written on Lesbos. Whether it becomes one of Europe’s most laudable or inglorious chapters is currently being decided. It is inconceivable how absolutely short-sighted and haphazard the EU’s attempts to divest its responsibility there are. Tightening the borders and sending back the boats is inhumane, and nor will it solve Europe’s problems.

The institutions on the ground feel abandoned and I can well understand why. Tiny Lesbos faces enormous challenges, with no support from either Athens or the EU. Many local people scratch a living out of tourism in the summer season. They are afraid of losing this income too if tourism collapses, which looks highly likely. The situation has hit the island in the context of the already dramatic Greek economic crisis.

The EU could provide help on many levels, but none is forthcoming. Why not?

Instead, Europe’s politicians and institutions increase the pressure on Greece to close the sea routes with every day that passes.

And yet it must be clear to everyone what it means to send people seeking protection back out to sea.

What kind of society are we to allow that, all the while pretending not to see that a policy like this is tantamount to murder?

Further information, contact details, pictures and texts on Salva Vida, the project for which Andreas Müller-Hermann went to Lesbos, are available here: www.salvavida.eu