Greece, Aegean Sea: Notes from a refugee camp on the threshold of Europe

Words by Marco Notarbartolo di Sciara

Photos by Michael Sarnitz

Farmakonisi is a tiny, windswept and anonymous island, like many others in the Aegean Sea. The flag of a small military base indicates that it is Greek territory, despite being separated from the Turkish coast by just a few miles. Over the centuries it has mainly been inhabited by pirates and political exiles, and today its name says little or nothing to most of us. For tens of thousands of asylum seekers, however, the island has gained a great symbolic value in the recent months as the first patch of European soil on which theyDSC01463 have set foot.

The welcome offered in this tiny outpost of the European Union is not one of the warmest. The refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, arrive daily in their hundreds on those infamous big rubber boats, after a crossing that is fairly short and yet, for many, fatal. At the end of January, a single shipwreck saw at least six children and two women drown just a few metres from the shore.

As Farmakonisi is a military zone, no humanitarian agency has been allowed to operate on the island. Often covering themselves from the winter cold with only the soaked clothes that they had been wearing on the boat, the migrants and refugees remain stranded for between a few hours and several days without food, water, shelter or medical care, until the weather is good enough to transport them to the nearby island of Leros.

When the sea conditions finally allow, the British rescue ship VOS Grace or the Greek ferry Ilias carry the migrants to Lakki, a harbour in the south of Leros built by Mussolini’s fascist regime, in which you now find a rather surreal urban combination: on one side, the static rationalist style of semi-deserted Italian buildings; on the other, the ever-changing, overcrowded and functional appearance of a big refugee camp. Built with the logistic support of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and various international NGOs, the camp is run on a day-to-day basis by a network of small local and European organisations – hence, for the most part, by volunteers – and sustained by private donations, with the collaboration of the valuable health care of Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) and its Greek counterpart, Praksis. The camp can host from a few hundred to several thousand people, largely depending on the sea conditions, which dictate the frequency with which it is feasible to get to the island and later depart to the mainland from there.

At the Leros camp, migrants will stop only for the few days necessary for the Greek authorities to issue the 30-day transit papers, valuable documents that allow them to buy a ferry ticket to Athens and from there to continue along the infamous Balkan route. In addition to Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis, the camp also hosts much smaller groups of migrants from other countries – mainly young Moroccans, Algerians and Iranians – who, being classified as “economic migrants”, generally struggle to continue the trip with the same ease as the asylum seekers. Faced by the alternative of being detained indefinitely or continuing the journey clandestinely, many develop a deep frustration over the weeks, and there are those who, in desperation, resort to acts of protest or self-harm. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that most of them face the complex situation in which they find themselves with great spirit, integrating into the life of the camp and making crucial contributions to its well-functioning.

The immense variability of situations and humanity that transits through the camp makes it difficult to describe a typical day in Leros. The refugees usually arrive from Farmakonisi in the evening or in the early morning, when the wind and the sea normally tend to be calmer. Once arrived they remain under the custody of port police, crammed into a fenced-off tent, in order to be subjected to the preliminary procedures of registration by the Greek authorities in cooperation with Frontex, the border agency of the European Union. The policemen, usually quite tense at this verDSC01653y first stage of the registration, bark orders to refugees and migrants dazed by fatigue and hunger, and it is not uncommon that they prevent volunteers from administering the most basic forms of aid, perhaps in the fear that in the confusion someone might not get their fingerprints taken.

Besides these tensions, in Leros the relations between police and volunteers are normally quite relaxed. At least in comparison to what is happening in the neighbouring islands of Lesvos and Chios, where the local authorities have recently arrested respectively three and five volunteers on charges of aiding illegal immigrants.

Once the paperwork is completed, the asylum seekers are given a brief explanation by the UNHCR staff on their legal status and options for the immediate future: either the continuation of the journey, the application for asylum in Greece, or the request for family reunification with any relatives already lawfully residing in Europe. Discussions on this issue will keep the men busy much of the evenings, after dinner, when they gather around the maps displayed on the walls or around the sockets to charge the precious smartphones and argue for hours on what would be the safest, the shortest, or the cheapest route.
After registration, most of the work is managed by the volunteers, who certainly deserve a few words of description. They are a handful of extraordinary individuals from all walks of life, to the point that it is virtually impossible to draw a uniform pattern. What unites them is only the ability to demonstrate in the most concrete way that solidarity, humanity and cooperation are not (and neither can nor should be) only values crystallised in the preambles of international treaties.

The activities by which they try to prevent the degeneration of what would otherwise be an even worse humanitarian crisis are innumerable. The next few lines are an attempt to give at least a general account of their outstanding work.

The first priority is of course to assist those in need of medical care, by sending them either to the clinic of the camp or the nearby hospital, depending on their needs. Hypothermia, bruises, new-born babies, diabetics in hypoglycaemic crises and heart problems are just some of the most common emergencies.
DSC01644 In the meantime, the fascinating riddle of where to accommodate the new arrivals starts to be addressed. The choice is based on a complex set of criteria: ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic and opportunity factors are balanced, with the aim of combining each group and family without hurting anyone’s sensitivities. It would be an impossible task if it wasn’t for the interpreters – mainly Arabic and Farsi – recruited from among the refugees themselves. The rapidity, with which the distribution should be carried out, especially in these months of frost and rain, often clashes with the slow pace of negotiations between old and new tenants. The accommodation options available for this challenging exercise of diplomacy range from new IKEA home-tents hosting 15 to 20 people up to large tents in which hundreds of people can potentially be squeezed, as well as two other structures, one reserved for single mothers with children and the other one for families, elderly and other particularly vulnerable individuals.

Among other essential services that the volunteers carry out, the distribution of meals is certainly one that stands out – sometimes problematic, almost always confusing, often hilarious – which couples with the “baby rounds”, the distribution of bottles of milk for infants, the repeated preparation and sterilisation of which leads many volunteers to brag of having the expertise of a professional nurse. Of equal importance, given the severe weather conditions that the refugees will likely have to face in the continuation of their journey, is the distribution of donated clothing, through the management of the so-called boutiques. These are two spacious rooms, overflowing with neatly divided clothing: the volunteers, that for the occasion become personal shoppers, provide the migrants with everything they need, in particular shoes, jackets and backpacks. An exhausting but crucial task, which would not be possible without the humanitarian aid and the following meticulous sorting work performed in the warehouse by the volunteers.

In the rare days when the pressure of the arrivals relents, some time can be dedicated to those activities that may otherwise seem like little luxuries – tea preparation, football games, art workshops, chess, fishing – but that are actually fundamental entertainments to keep the morale of the residents high and to ensure a peaceful life at the camp.DSC01691

The gratitude and the fondness shown to the volunteers by the refugees, especially those nights when everybody gathers on the pier to see off those leaving with the ferry to Athens and beyond, is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling emotions that one could ever experience. But what is really striking is that, despite the rubble of the lives they had left behind, despite having seen too many deaths to mourn, despite travelling in the most inhumane conditions, what really remains of these people in one’s memory is not the suffering, as one would imagine, but the serenity and dignity of these travellers that maybe, one day, will become our fellow citizens in a more open, fair and pluralist Europe.

Author’s note:

Since the writing of this article, the situation on Leros has evolved, and in recent days the situation has escalated suddenly and rapidly. Under growing pressure from the Greek government and the European Institutions, a new military-led “hotspot” camp has been prematurely inaugurated in a remote location at the opposite side of the bay. This happened despite the complete lack of provision of the most essential services, such as stable distribution of food, baby milk and clothes, a waste disposal system, and a connection with the town of Lakki. Being still unclear whether the “old” camp – currently still fully operative – will be dismantled or not, the human and financial resources of the NGOs working on the island have to be stretched between the two camps. Help is urgently needed: Echo100Plus, an Austrian charity has worked tirelessly to recruit and coordinate volunteers on the ground over the winter. If interested in helping with donations or applying as a volunteer, please contact or see

This article was originally published in Italian by the think tank Reset – Dialogues on Civilization. You can read the original article here.

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