How Volunteers in Lesvos Ended Up in the Middle of an EU-Turkey Migration Tug-of-War

If a deal between the EU and Turkey falls apart, migrants could once agains start crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece en masse.

10 July 2016, 12:00am

A group of ERCI volunteers looking out for migrant boats. All photos by the author

This article originally appeared on VICE US

Nikos Flippidis's eyes were bloodshot as he sat in a silver SUV on a warm June night, scanning the seashore on the Greek island of Lesvos. As one of the search-and-rescue volunteers for the NGO Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI), he was working the midnight-to-morning shift, watching for refugee boats en route from western Turkey.

According to the UN's Refugee Agency, only about a dozen refugees a day have been arriving in Greece since last March, when the European Union and Turkey agreed to collaborate to keep an estimated 100,000 refugees in Turkey's Izmir province from crossing the Aegean Sea. Prior to the agreement, new arrivals numbered as many as 2,000 a day. Still, Flippidis and the Athens-based NGO he works for are still keeping a constant watch over the eastern coast of Lesvos and bracing for what many on the island expect to be a new surge this summer. To date, the group has helped bring over 30,000 migrants to shore in its seven months of operation.

"Things could change any minute, and when they do, we'll be here," Flippidis told VICE. He was referencing the overcrowded migrant boats that regularly capsize, accidents that have led to many deaths since the refugee crisis began.

Faith in the EU-Turkey deal is ebbing, due to new strains on the bilateral relationship. Turkey's government is unhappy with EU delays in granting the country's citizens the ability to travel to Europe without visas, which was part of the agreement, and with Germany's recent recognition of the Turkish genocide in Armenia.

Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan has repeatedly warned that Turkey will no longer uphold its side of the agreement if the does not receive the promised visa liberalization. His rhetoric escalated on June 22, when, for the first time, he threatened to cancel Turkey's EU bid altogether.

"We can stand up and ask the people just like the British are doing," Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul. "We would ask, 'Do we continue the negotiations with the European Union, or do we end it?' If the people say 'continue,' we would carry on."

Former International Rescue Committee (IRC) Director in Europe Kirpatrick Day sees this possibility as a "nightmare scenario, should visas for Turks not materialize, or come into reality in a timeframe that does not suit the Turks," he told VICE. "I think there is every reason to expect the numbers of refugees making the journey across the Aegean to Greece to significantly increase."

As the refugees in Izmir wait amid this uncertainty, many have found work in farming, making roughly 45 Turkish lira (£12) a day while living in decrepit sheds with no utilities.

"They are all waiting for something," Kayhan Erciyes, the Director of Izmir University, told VICE. "They just don't know what that something is."

A refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos

With support from several private donors led by the Radcliffe Foundation—a Vancouver-based philanthropic organization set up by billionaire Frank Giustra—and some of his own money, Erciyes has been handing out monthly food rations to some of the worst-off migrants.

A collapse of the EU-Turkey deal and the consequent large migrant influx could have catastrophic effects. The consensus among experts on the migrant crisis is that there is no way that the Balkan route will reopen, meaning that if the deal falls through, Greece will bear the entire impact, in addition to the 55,000 refugees already in the country.

On April 19, Europe gave 83 million euros (about £70.8 million) to NGOs in Greece to help with the crisis, but people in the field such as IRC's Day are worried that it is not enough, especially given the likelihood of another wave of migration.

"Additional funds are going to be needed and they're going to be needed to be dispersed as soon as possible," said Day. "Less money now is more important than giving ten times as much money six months from now."

If Turkey gains visa liberalization, it could spur a wave of mass migration to the Schengen Area, the name of the bloc of 26 countries inside which citizens can travel freely, from Turkey's population of 75 million. Europe has two options: Grant Turkey visa liberalization and receive an unknown amount of Turkish migrants to EU countries, or continue to stall until Turkey realizes it will not receive visa liberalization and reopens the Aegean route to Greece.

Some European dissatisfaction with how the refugee crisis has been handled is spurred by the lack of registration checks, which caused an inflow of economic migrants from North African countries like Morocco and Algeria rather than Syria. In January, the vice president to the European Commission said that 60 percent of the people coming into Europe were economic migrants, not refugees.

"The EU's laissez-faire open border policy was part of a long list of administrative blunders in dealing with the migration crisis," said Amed Khan, a longtime aide to Bill Clinton, during a phone conversation. "And whoever could make it out fastest got into Europe, which was often single men instead of the women and children that really needed protection. The consequence is incidents like Cologne, in which almost all the perpetrators were from North Africa and would not have been let into Europe if there were proper registration checks in place."

Khan is referring to the harassment and assaults carried out by large groups of young men against women in Cologne, Germany on New Year's Day. Police in Cologne reported that the majority of the suspects arrested were of Algerian, Tunisian, or Moroccan descent. Incidents like that provide easy fodder for Europe's many burgeoning right-wing anti-migrant movements.

"You have these latent far-right entities in European countries and they didn't have that red-button issue to galvanize their communities to gain popular support," said Day. "The migrant issue has fallen right into their sweet spot."

Kayhan Erciyes, the Director of Izmir University, delivering aid to refugees in Torbali, Turkey

Almost none of the refugees in Greece want to stay due to the lack of economic opportunities in the nation, still suffering from a long-running financial crisis. And the closure of the Balkan route on March 9 has led to increased tensions among the refugees trapped in the country and the Greek population.

The tension is most apparent on the Greek islands, where some 8,000 asylum seekers are stranded, some for as long as five months. Greeks have harrassed and attempted to attack migrants, clashes underlined by the rise of Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party, which took third place in legislative elections last fall.

"The West bears a large responsibility for the situation it is in," said Khan. "We started a war [in Syria] with no plan, which led to a refugee crisis that we have been unable to solve. The result has been unprecedented human suffering and a level of nationalism in Europe that we haven't seen since World War II."

Back on Lesvos, the Emergency Response Centre International's Nikos Flippidis was fighting off sleep with instant coffee and Greek music from his radio. A strobe light was visible in the distance just outside of Turkish waters, the modus operandi of refugee boats arriving into Greek waters to alert the coast guard and NGOs of their position. Flippidis reached for his binoculars only to discover it was another NGO boat, also scanning the sea for migrants and waiting for the next wave.

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