World·Special Report

Mytilene's tent cities gone, but refugees still major issue for Greek island

The Greek port city of Mytilene seems to have changed back to its old self overnight as many of the migrants who were living in tent cities move on. But refugees are still an issue for the island of Lesbos.

Greek port city of Mytilene seems to have changed back to its old self overnight

The Greek port city of Mytilene seems to have changed back to its old self overnight. Gone are the tent cities crammed into every nook and cranny, the rows of families forced to turn cardboard boxes into the walls that keep them safe.

The government's decision to issue travel permits in a mass registration process earlier this week is partly responsible and the line-ups here are now mainly at the ferry. It's nigh impossible to get a ticket on one to travel from the island of Lesbos to Athens.

But police have also been moving the refugees still here out of parks and away from the main promenade, muttering asides to journalists about what the refugees have done to the city.

Many of the tour operators along a picturesque horseshoe-shaped port will tell you the refugee crisis has been bad for business here. They want backpackers on a gap year, not people fleeing war zones with their entire world on their backs.


Earlier this week a small group of islanders marched through the centre of town chanting Greece is for the Greeks … raising fears that the pressures of the refugee crisis are fanning the flames of xenophobia.

The group calling itself Enough is Enough held a meeting right in the centre of a park where hundreds of refugees were camping.

What is striking is the sheer number of children who have made the journey to Greece, along with their parents. They have walked for days, slept rough, and now live in squalid conditions. (Erin Boudreau/CBC)
They were outnumbered, both by the migrant community and by some "anti-fascist" defenders who stood at the park entrance. Looking a little bit like a divorced father's club, they eventually decided NOT to have a meeting after all.

"What's your problem with the situation?" I asked one man. He answered that his children could no longer play in the park because the refugee children peed everywhere. 

"We are afraid because they are dirty," he said. "They might carry diseases. Don't you see?"

An older Syrian gentleman named Musadad Safaadi stood by listening. He told me he wanted to know what people are saying about the refugees, a term the 62-year-old chef from Damascus says he still can't associate with himself.

"I agree with the Greek people, they have a bad economy and after that the refugees come (in huge numbers)," he says.

"Most of those people (the refugees) haven't set foot out of their villages before," Safaadi added. "And when he don't have the future and he don't have the hope, his first mind is to go to Europe. He's not going to Somalia, or Nigeria or Afghanistan."

Moria camp

Today, the park shows no sign of the mass migration that has passed through it. The authorities clearly want to keep refugees out of the city centre.

Musadad Safaadi, a chef from Damascus who is now living in the Greek city of Mytilene, says he sympathizes with Greeks who balk at dealing with the huge influx of refugees on top of the country's own economic crisis. (JF Bisson)
The "official" camp for refugees on Lesbos is called Moria, and it is still acting as a registration centre. It was notorious for its appalling conditions in the lead-up to the Greek government's decision to start fast-tracking travel permits.

The refugees have no desire to stay in Lesbos. They want to get to Athens and then on to Macedonia and beyond before the doors there shut completely.

Most of the people now at Moria are Afghan. They say Syrians are being fast-tracked ahead of them by Greek officials. Many non-Syrians will claim to be so, in the knowledge that countries such as Germany and Sweden have said they'll accept Syrians.

An interpreter works with Afghan regfuees at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Margaret Evans/CBC)
Afghans, of course, are fleeing conflict too. Tailor Mohammed Younis said he worked as an interpreter for U.S. troops for six years. He is with his wife Mariam and their baby daughter Fatimah.

They walked from Iran to Turkey and spent a week looking for a smuggler to take them across the water. Trafficking is a booming business: $1,000 US per person for a trip in a rubber dingy, $400 for a baby.

"We accepted all the risk, all the dangers, all the things we accepted that for going out from Afghanistan," Younis said. Afghanistan situation day by day should be better. It's not better."

About 4,000 asylum seekers left the Moria camp this week, bound for the ferry port like so many others after being registered. But 4,000 more will already have arrived on the island to replace them.

The Hellenic coast guard says smugglers are sometimes launching 25 boats at a time from the Turkish coast to the north side of Lesbos. 

Most of the refugees in the Moria camp are new arrivals from Afghanistan. They come to be registered and to get help from local aid agencies, including these girls eating their lunch. (Erin Boudreau/CBC)
The closest town to where many of the boats are landing is called Molyvos, another picturesque port. But the refugees landing there start walking towards Mytilene and its ferry port to Athens almost immediately. Soon there will be more buses, the government said, relenting on its insistence that rides not be given to refugees unless they've registered.

Lieutenant-Commander Antonios Sofiadelis of the coast guard says the decision to register asylum seekers will act as a "pull factor" for "people who are coming more and more ... but you have to respect people coming from war."

For refugees like Musadad Safaadi, respect has become an increasingly valuable commodity as he struggles to find his place and hold to his identity in what he understands is the great sweep of history.


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