ON A CLEAR day, residents of the Kara Tepe refugee camp can see across the Myteline Strait to the white wind turbines dotted along the rugged hills of Balikesir and Izmir.
Just 19km of choppy waters separate the makeshift camp on the island of Lesbos from Turkey, a gap short enough that mobile phones inside sometimes reset an hour ahead to Turkish local time and issue prompts that non-EU roaming charges may apply.
The island’s proximity to Turkey via this thin stretch of the Mediterranean has made it a key gateway into the European Union, a reality which is causing tensions on Lesbos that are emblematic of the problems facing European leaders as a whole.
Locals want the national Government to do more to help; Greece likewise wants help from other EU member states; but countries further from the Mediterranean continue to drag their heels on a matter that politicians are viewing with increasing concern.
Announcing tougher rules on Friday, including “operational measures” to strengthen EU borders, such as more cameras, watchtowers and electronic surveillance, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signalled a crackdown.
“Borders must be managed. We will act to strengthen our external borders and prevent irregular migration,” she said.
But NGOs warn that no amount of tough rhetoric or harsh measures will stop people making often-perilous journeys towards the continent.
“People who are desperate to come to Greece still take the journey,” a spokesperson for the Starfish Foundation, a group based on Lesbos, told The Journal.
Caroline Willemen, Médecins Sans Frontières’ deputy representative for search and rescue in the central Mediterranean – further west from Greece – explained the type of situations that people are fleeing from on their journey to Europe.
“We’ll see people who are living with the results of having been tortured or having suffered any type of violence along their journey in Libya,” she said.
“We obviously but unfortunately deal with many people in high levels of mental health distress as well.”
The Journal visited the United Nations-managed camp on Lesbos as part of a delegation last month, and heard first-hand the experiences of some of those who travelled to Greece via Turkey.
Those we spoke to in the camp included Kurds from northern Syria, though it was later confirmed that others living in the camp had also arrived from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Yemen and Palestine.
One family of six explained that they had fled from Kobani, a Syrian city the Islamic State group laid siege to in 2014, causing hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees to flee.
Often those who arrive are exhausted from their journey across the sea, and traumatised about what they have experienced.
“We see people who are extremely stressed and distressed, who have suffered injuries during their journeys, including from shipwrecks,” Shahbaz Israr Khan, head of Médecins Sans Frontières’ (MSF’s) Greek mission, which works with people in the Lesbos camp.
“They are completely exhausted and dehydrated after spending a lot of time making journeys. Sometimes people are injured having fallen from the cliffs while they travelled, and we often see pregnant women who have to have late deliveries.
“We have also found people [outside the camp] on the island, hiding in faraway locations for hours after they arrive without access to food and drinking water.”
After a brief pandemic lull, the number of refugees entering Greece is on the rise again, statistics that are indicative of wider trends in Europe.
According to a report by the EU’s border agency Frontex, 2022 saw the highest number of irregular border crossings into the continent since 2016, the height of what was then called the ‘migrant crisis’, when over a million refugees arrived from war-torn Syria.
That came on top of the more than 8 million Ukrainian refugees who arrived into Europe following the outbreak of war there, something which has put a strain on the resources of individual countries.
In Greece, the number of people who failed in their attempts to make Europe is also on the rise: 326 people who attempted to reach the country last year are listed as ‘dead or missing’ – the highest figure since 2016.
But as more people drown attempting to reach Europe, NGOs also say they are being hindered or actively discouraged by authorities from helping refugees travelling to the continent by boat.
Last month, 24 volunteers with a now-defunct search-and-rescue group in Lesbos – were acquitted of misdemeanour counts of people trafficking and espionage for their roles in aiding those journeying to Greece between 2017 and 2018.
The volunteers, who included Irishman Seán Binder and Syrian refugee Sarah Mardini, maintained that they were simply providing humanitarian aid as Europe struggled to cope with a significant number of arrivals from Turkey.
A report by the European Parliament in June 2021 described the case as “the largest case of criminalisation of solidarity in Europe”, and other groups on the island described the chilling effect of the charges.
“Our work on the island has changed since the case with the 24 volunteers started,” the Starfish Foundation’s spokesperson said.
“It made us all afraid of consequences like the volunteers are facing. It scares us to help people in need and be put to jail… It feels like walking on eggshells for the past few years.”
Caroline Willemen, MSF’s representative in the central Mediterranean, described a similar situation in Italy.
There, Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Government closed ports to NGO ships in December, and then introduced a rule which essentially forces rescue ships to dock towards Italy’s north, pushing search-and-rescue groups’ costs upwards and slowing their efforts to save lives.
“It’s very much an attempt by the Italian authorities to keep us out of the search and rescue zone,” she says.
“I mean, that’s the only logical explanation that we can see. But we are very committed to what we do and we know why we do it, so it’s not stopping us from from doing the work that we should be doing. It’s just making things much more complicated.”
Like in Lesbos, criminalisation has also been a factor in Italy, where NGO rescue boats have been seized over allegations of people trafficking after those on board saved people crossing from Libya.
In May last year, preliminary criminal proceedings were opened against 21 people – including four members of the Iuventa, which before its seizure in 2017 had been involved in the rescue of 14,000 people in distress at sea.
The United Nations last week criticised that case as “a darkening stain on Italy and the EU’s commitment to human rights” and “a very disturbing sign”.
Despite this, rhetoric at an EU level appears to be hardening.
When EU leaders met in Brussels on Thursday, the issue of migration was at the forefront of their discussions.
But the resolutions announced by Von der Leyen on Friday had more to do with securing borders and punishing those deemed by member states not to have a valid reason to be in Europe, rather than exploring options to increase the capacity and resources of countries which have seen an increase of international protection applicants.
The unveiling of these measures followed months of disquiet from European politicians and EU governments, who fear what is becoming a growing political issue.
Manfred Weber, president of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament – which includes Fine Gael – previously warned that the continent may be “sleepwalking into” a new migration crisis.
“The reception capacities for migrants via the Balkan and Mediterranean routes are exhausted,” he told news website Politico last month.
“Since the EU failed to adopt a comprehensive policy after the last migration crisis in 2015, the issue has become taboo. It is now coming back with a vengeance.”
Greece has been at the forefront of calls for the EU to stem the tide of arrivals.
It was one of eight member states that signed a joint letter this week calling on Von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel to strengthen Europe’s borders to “prevent another large-scale migration crisis”.
That followed calls by Greece, Italy and Malta last month to overhaul the Dublin Regulation, whereby refugees must seek asylum in the first country they enter.
They suggested that asylum-seekers could instead be relocated across Europe, but faced fierce opposition from Hungary, Poland and the Netherlands in particular.
‘Fair, firm and hard’
Ireland, situated on the other side of Europe to Greece, is not immune to this outlook.
After a year in which more than 13,000 people sought international protection here, on top of the arrival of around 70,000 refugees, the Government has expressed concerns about the country’s capacity to manage.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult to source new accommodation for people who are continuing to come to Ireland,” Finance Minister Michael McGrath told The Journal last week.
Those comments follow a string of anti-immigration protests across the country in recent months, during which the phrase “Ireland is full” has regularly trended on Twitter.
The recent closure of the Citywest accommodation centre to new arrivals left dozens of refugees homeless, while it was reported that an arson attack on a building in Dublin last week could be linked to rumours that it was due to house asylum seekers.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested to reporters at the summit of European leaders in Brussels this week that Ireland needed a tougher approach:
I think when it comes to migration we need to be fair, firm and hard.
We need to be fair with refugees because refugees are welcome in Ireland and people that need our protection should get it. We also need to be firm with people who come to Ireland with a false story or false pretense.
We need to be firm with them and say that we are going to make a quick decision on your application and that we will we return you to your country of origin, people expect that.
The Taoiseach’s remarks are reflective of broader concerns about immigration among the electorate in Ireland: 82% of people polled by Ireland Thinks for the Sunday Independent last weekend said the country has taken in too many refugees.
But not all Irish politicians, including those in Government parties, believe that remarks and policies about clamping down on those seeking asylum are helpful.
Fianna Fáíl MEP Barry Andrews warned that the Government’s position may simply reinforce narratives of the far-right that asylum seekers are here illegally.
“No mention has been made about human rights, about search and rescue, about impunity (in the case of) pushbacks” in the discussions between EU Heads of State,” he said on Friday.
“What I’m hearing from the European Council is solely the narrative of the far-right […] that needs to be balanced with humanitarian view.”
As refugees continue to arrive at Europe’s doorstep, it is likely the issue will persist here – as well as across the continent – for some time to come.
Like those crossing towards Lesbos via the Myteline Strait, the Government may have a bumpy journey as it attempts to navigate the waters ahead.