“The Lesbos hotspot”: A visit to Lesbos and Lampedusa


Waiting in line to be processed at the Lesbos hotspot. Source: DPA

Red roofs on yellow houses glitter between the green hills like colorful splashes of paint in the landscape. The nearby Mediterranean’s white-topped waves glisten in the midday sun, and a few boats go about their business. Lesbos sparkles in all the colors of the rainbow; it has the scent of cold pressed olive oil, of Cyprus wood and sun cream.

But no, wait, that idyllic Lesbos is gone. These days Lesbos stinks of ammonia and disinfectant. Of Afghan tobacco and cheap perfume. Typical Lesbos scents right now are of wet shoes, little sleep and bad breath. A great deal of sweat – and fear.

These vapors surround Spyros Kourtis like wafts of mist. Mr. Kourtis has been running the “First Reception Center” for five months, the registration camp on Lesbos that most Europeans know as a “hotspot.” By the middle of the month, there are supposed to be 11 such camps at Europe’s external borders. So far, only three of them are working: the ones in Lampedusa and Sicily in Italy, and, of course, Lesbos.

That’s why the Lesbos hotspot director, Mr. Kourtis – a Greek civil servant in hooded sweater and jeans – has now become a global political player. When the 28 European Union leaders gather in Brussels next week for their summit, they will be discussing him and his work.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, E.U. Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, French President François Hollande and the others will be negotiating how to deal with the refugee crisis, and what direction the never-ending trek is set to take next. They will make further concessions to Turkey, and they will try to set binding quotas within Europe.

And then they will extol the virtues of the hotspots: as places offering relief and centers of great progress.

More than 1 million refugees arrived last year on the shores of Italy and Greece. The United Nations is expecting up to 1 million migrants this year to head for Greece by boat from Turkey alone – by February 6 almost 70,000 had already arrived there. They all have to be interviewed, registered and then transported to the mainland.

Many of them arrive in Lesbos, as it is only a few kilometers across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish border. Last summer, on days when 6,000 people made this trip, the island was the subject of headlines worldwide because of the catastrophic conditions refugees were housed in. It was so unhygienic that aid workers called the conditions “unfit for human beings.”

In the meantime, thousands of volunteers have arrived, the United Nations has mostly taken over the management of refugee camps, and the Greek coastguard is being supported by agents with Frontex, the E.U. border control agency, who have come from all over Europe.

A place of shame is supposed to become a place of the future. And what can be seen on the Mediterranean island right now, more clearly than anywhere else in Europe, is what effect refugee policy made in Brussels has – and where it breaks down.

You can no longer say that conditions are “unfit for human beings” in Lesbos. However, they are also not particularly “fit” for human beings either.

Mr. Kourtis emerges from a gray metal container leaving fresh cigarette smoke swirling under the ceiling. The hotspot manager grabs his keys, opens a gate in the high lattice fence, squeezes through it and locks it conscientiously behind him. The eyes of the people all around him – their skin scorched from the sun, their feet wet, weighed down with plastic bags and dusty rucksacks – follow him expectantly.

Mr. Kourtis stops in front of a huge empty tent. It is the camp’s new waiting area. Only a few weeks ago the refugees still had to stand around for hours on end unprotected in the sun. Now at least, old and sick people and children can be in the shade.

“The situation today is much better than a few months ago,” Mr.  Kourtis said. “Processing is quick, we have really improved.” He says they can now process the data of 3,000 people per day without a problem. It could soon be 6,000 people, as the camp is being expanded.

What Mr. Kourtis doesn’t say: Many of the E.U. requirements have not yet been fulfilled. Of the 2,000 required sleeping berths in the tents, only a few hundred have been made. While it is true that 400 policemen and Frontex staff are on duty in the camp, there are only 17 scanners for fingerprints, which are necessary for the arrivals to be registered. Some refugees still wait for days for a pass.

Unaccompanied minors frequently have to hang around Lesbos for weeks until accommodation is found for them on the mainland. Ferries to Athens are irregular. And the planned expansion of the camp? It was supposed to be ready to move into two weeks ago, but so far there is only a hole in the ground.

“We do what we can,” Mr. Kourtis says. But is that enough for Europe’s perhaps biggest challenge since World War II?

Many hundreds of kilometers to the west of Lesbos, on another island in the same sea, one word from Comandante Paolo Monaco is enough to get his people sprinting: ”Move,” says the chief of the coastguard on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

It’s only a few meters to the boat, one of four which can go out to sea even when there are seven meter-high waves and hurricane-force winds. Again they will have to run the gauntlet of Mediterranean waves for 10 hours looking for the refugees’ boat, which has just been reported to them. If you cling your way along the railings of their small “Classe 300,” it is hardly imaginable that this ship can supposedly carry up to 100 people. But the sailors have proved it time and again in recent weeks.

The emergency call had just come from the control center in Rome. It sounds like the kind of operation they have had a lot of experience of: a programmed shipwreck.

“At the Libyan coast the refugees are forced onto inflatable boats which are hardly seaworthy, and one of them, perhaps someone who couldn’t pay the fare, has to take over the wheel,” said Filippo Marini, head of the control center. “He is given a satellite telephone and a compass, and they say to him: ‘Head north and then call this number.’” The number which the refugees call is that of the Italian coast guard control center.

The emergency call activates a routine procedure, which is now regarded as exemplary in Europe: Last year the Italians carried out 933 such operations, saving more than 150,000 people.  And in the meantime, Italy’s coastguard agents are no longer just operational in their own waters – they also help their colleagues from Greece.


Lampedusa mayor, Ms. Nicolini, is a refugee professional. Source: Regina Krieger

Continue reading the article here. (Original published in Handelsblatt)