Frustrated residents on the Greek island of Lesbos are attacking journalists, aid workers, and activists, as tensions surge over a new wave of migrants arriving by boat from Turkey.
The eastern Mediterranean island of Lesbos lies just off Turkey’s western coast and on the frontline of irregular migration routes into Europe. For years, locals have been increasingly angered by the influx of migrants on to the island, where about 20,000 people subsist in squalid conditions in the island’s infamous Moria camp, built to hold just 3,000 people.
But last week Turkey announced it was opening the borders to Europe, sending a new wave of migrant boats toward the island, and the announcement has inflamed the situation further, sparking a string of attacks and threats targeting groups seen as sympathetic to the migrants.
A German photojournalist was seriously assaulted by a mob Sunday at the port of Thermi, where about 100 locals had gathered to confront a boatload of migrants.
Michael Trammer, a 25-year-old freelancer, told VICE News he was photographing the scene when about 10 young men swarmed him, kicking and punching him in an attack that lasted about 30 seconds.
“They started kicking me in the legs to get me on the ground, then started punching me in the head,” he said. The mob also threw his cameras into the sea, and attacked one of his colleagues with his own camera tripod.
“There were a lot of threats against my life.”
Trammer was left with stitches in his head and has since been targeted with a barrage of threats online after footage of the attack circulated, prompting him to flee the island out of concern for his safety. “There were a lot of threats against my life,” he said.
He said that as locals’ rage grew, they are taking it out on outsiders — especially aid workers — seen as helping their cause. “They’re blaming NGOs for refugees coming, so they’re attacking them,” he said. “It’s not looking great, to be honest.”
On Monday night, the crew of the Mare Liberum, a ship whose crew of researchers and activists monitor boat crossings from Turkey, was confronted by a mob and chased out to sea while docked in Skala Loutron on Lesbos.
“They shouted, threatened us [and] poured gasoline on our deck! Our crew saw themselves forced to leave [and are] now anchoring offshore,” the organization tweeted.
On Sunday, an Irish doctor volunteering in the Moria refugee camp was in one of five cars attacked by a mob of men on motorbikes, who smashed the car windows with planks and baseball bats.
“These Greek men and teenage boys in balaclavas carrying big sticks, planks of wood and baseball bats started smashing our windows,” Dr. Nicola Cochrane told The Irish Times.
“They were shouting at us to get out of the cars, I was worried they were going to start grabbing us. I don’t know what they would have done if we had stopped and got out. All our cars were smashed to pieces.”
The following night, a journalist and photographer were attacked by masked men who had gathered to try to stop migrants from arriving at the camp at Moria. The men threw sticks and stones at their vehicle.
The Foreign Press Association of Greece has condemned the violence. “We note with great concern that certain groups on the island of Lesbos move in an organized manner to intimidate and attack journalists covering the flow of refugees and migrants arriving from Turkey,” the organization said in a statement.
Lesbos was at a boiling point even before Turkey announced Thursday it would no longer stop migrants leaving for Europe. Locals have long sought the closure of the Moria camp, a squalid, sprawling migrant center where people live in desperate conditions, and illness and violence are commonplace. They’ve been further incensed by government plans to open a second detention center, and say they feel abandoned by Greek and European leaders to deal with the crisis alone.
Scores of people were injured when mass protests against a planned new detention center for migrants on Lesbos turned violent last week. Demonstrators lit fires and pelted riot police with stones, and security forces responded with tear gas.
Imogen Sudbery, director of policy and advocacy for the International Rescue Committee, said the violence on Greek islands was a reflection of the failures of European migration policy, which had left the islands carrying a disproportionate burden.
"For almost five years Greece has struggled to manage the arrival of refugees on the islands; reception centres are at six times their capacity,” she said.
“It is woefully unequipped to deal with the high volume of arrivals and it has never been more urgent for European leaders to step in and offer solidarity.”
European Union leaders accompanied Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on a visit to the country’s land border with Turkey Tuesday, pledging new support to help it deal with the increased migrant influx, including 700 million euros ($794 million) in aid for migration management, and new border patrol boats, aircraft and guards.
“We have come here today to send a very clear statement of European solidarity and support to Greece,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters at the Kastanies border crossing. “The Greek worries are our worries.”
Cover: A journalist receives help from a woman as he is attacked by residents who are trying to prevent migrants from disembarking on the Greek island of Lesbos, on March 1, 2020. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)