Last night at dusk I plunged into the sea. I‘d found a little ‘beach’ beside the main airport road about 3 minutes walk from the place I’m staying. It was dusk and the wind was getting up, but it was a warm wind and I was hot and sticky from walking and I just couldn’t resist the temptation. The water’s very clear and it wasn’t even really cold. I only swam a few strokes. I came out tingling with a new sense of wellbeing.
And today as I walked into Mytiline on a tree-lined gravel path above the sea, I kept looking across the water to the rugged pale blue silhouette of the Turkish hills. They’re so close, I felt I could almost swim it. I couldn’t, it’s six or seven miles, but I have a colleague at home who swims long distances and she could do it, easily. This is the place where Europe and the Middle East practically touch each other.
Later in the day I was walking back from Mytilini and just before I left the port I stood by the water’s edge. The strong, warm wind was still blowing and there were white breakers all the way out to sea. Where the waves were slapping against the shingle, a lot of rubbish floated in the water, in a colourful line: plastics, seaweed, bottle tops. I stared, and then I found myself thinking about the people who drowned yesterday at Agothonisi and who were later pulled out of the sea by so-called ‘rescue’ services.
In 2015 and 2016, most of the refugee dinghies arrived on Lesbos’ north coast, an hour’s drive from here. They were met by teams of volunteers in wet suits who helped them to shore, gave them dry clothes and hot drinks and explained where they had to go to register. Now it’s all changed. It seems that either Greek Coastguard or Frontex boats meet most of the refugee boats. They transfer the refugees onto their vessels and take them into Mytilini port, from where they bus them up to Moria. People from ‘low recognition rate’ countries, and single Syrian men, are immediately detained. (‘Low recognition rate’ means that people arriving from those countries are rarely granted asylum; most of them are deported to Turkey. Syria isn’t a low recognition rate country, for obvious reasons, but since a court decision was made that Turkey is a ‘safe’ country for Syrian refugees, single male Syrians are also at risk of being deported there. Which is not okay, of course. Syrian Kurds are at high risk in Turkey, because of Turkey’s anti-Kurdish policies; and Syrian Arabs describe their lives there as extremely difficult – unless you have lots of money.)
The other thing I was looking at as I walked to and from Mytilini was the long string of large, empty villas that line the coast road. Somebody I met yesterday on the demonstration, a British woman from Brighton, had said to me that Lesbos is full of empty property, and what a shame that the refugees have to be crammed into tents and metal containers in overcrowded Moria camp, when housing exists. There was nobody about – Sunday lunchtime – and I started to take pics. Villa after villa, some of them three and four storey, shuttered and clearly uninhabited. Some looked like they might be summer homes for well off Greeks who work elsewhere during the year and come here on holiday; they were in a good state of repair. But lots of the villas had peeling paint, overgrown gardens, trees with overripe oranges weighing down their branches and an air of long term abandonment. And then of course I thought about the housing problem in London; the former Grenfell residents living in grotty hotels, when Kensington’s multi-million pound homes stand empty…
As I turn over in my mind the whole mess of the refugee situation, I’m reluctant to lay all the blame at the door of the beleaguered Greek government. But knowing what huge sums of money they were given by the EU to help with the refugees, and that most of it disappeared, it is hard not to feel frustrated.