By Erika Frydenlund
The storybook setting of Molyvos, on the serene island of Lesvos, Greece, makes it easy to overlook the profound changes to the community wrought by the Syrian refugee crisis. Narrow cobblestone roads wind dramatically up the hillside, and small restaurants boast spectacular views of the Mediterranean Sea and the shores of Turkey in the distance. But the restaurants and shops are mostly empty, their owners and staff pacing aimlessly inside waiting for the odd tourist to walk by. In neighboring Petra, only schoolchildren on field trips fill the empty streets. Even the bird watchers—who used to come to Lesvos in droves to see the migration of exotic birds to Europe—didn’t show up this year. Again.
Locals tell us that another year of absentee tourists forced many people to close their businesses. The Greeks are quietly suffering too, they tell us—from EU austerity measures and from the hundreds of thousands of refugees who passed through the island in the last two years. Paradoxically, the world’s attention on refugees obscures the economic and civic cleavages in host communities like Molyvos (Mithimna) and Petra. They have become the unseen players in this humanitarian tragedy.
As so many others have written, the Greek islands at the forefront of a massive refugee migration through Turkey to Europe are places of contrasts. Greek hospitality sent locals into the water to help the thousands of refugees each day seeking out safety and new opportunities. The locals fed, clothed, housed, and aided the refugees however they could, even when they were struggling financially themselves. When the NGOs rolled in and took over the humanitarian efforts, and the EU and government established regulations on the ways in which locals could assist, most of the locals went back to their regular lives. They tried, anyway. But the publicity of a refugee crisis on their shores haunts them even as the refugee arrivals have dropped close to pre-crisis levels.
“Why does the media keep showing those same pictures? Those are from two years ago! Some of them aren’t even from Lesvos.” This is the mantra we heard from locals who are frustrated with the continued portrayal of Lesvos as the epicenter of the refugee crisis in the news. Hospitality towards refugees passing through to Europe has become a PR nightmare that resonates through the island. Many locals expressed resentment toward the media. The beaches are impeccably clean—too clean, according to one local. Refugees intercepted in Greek waters are towed or transported to established reception sites away from the tourist destinations in what is now a very structured refugee response initiative. Anyone you talk to, including the municipality representatives, will readily admit that when thousands of people started arriving daily, no one was prepared and there was chaos. No one disputes that the crisis was accurately portrayed in the international media. After the initial shock, however, the mayor, local NGOs, and INGOs got the situation untangled and began to systematically process and aid the refugees through transit hotspots.
That is not to paint a rosy picture that everything with the refugees is fine now. Of course, Greece still struggles to provide effective humanitarian assistance and dignity for the migrants who sought safety there. But that story is covered extensively by others in the media and academia. The host community’s voices now struggle to be heard. The locals of Lesvos and host communities throughout the world scrambled to respond to the need of those with whom they empathized as fellow humans and in recognition that many of their ancestors were also once refugees. In their eyes, the media continues to portray Lesvos as the epicenter of crisis, which has left the locals in Molyvos bitterly divided on refugee issues.
Tourism may not be the predominant sector of the Lesvos economy, but it is a significant piece of the livelihood of many locals there. Another tourist season with no tourists has torn a hole in the fabric of the Molyvos community. Some believe it is their responsibility as part of humanity to help whoever arrives, while others worry that providing a hospitable reception will only encourage more refugees to seek passage through Lesvos. According to locals in Molyvos, people who have grown up together and whose children go to school together now refuse to speak to one another because of their divided stances on refugees. Many locals want to put any mention of ‘refugee’ from their minds. Some of my traveling companions asked their taxi driver to take them to the life jacket graveyard where the thousands of boats and life jackets were dumped in a landfill not far from Molyvos and Petra. The taxi driver informed them that no such place exists. He was unwilling to acknowledge the existence of that part of the island’s recent history even though we later visited the life jacket graveyard on our own.
For me, the life jacket graveyard was a physical manifestation of the complexity of a refugee crisis. Not even a mile from the picturesque village of Molyvos, which has been washed clean of both refugees and any items that might suggest they were once there, a mountain of life jackets and slashed rubber boats looms over their heads. Flimsy Styrofoam hangs out of fake life jackets, echoing of the desperation and crisis that washed up on these shores. Standing there, I thought of all of the untold consequences of hospitality in Molyvos. Even as they handed out sandwiches and dry clothes, the locals knew that tourists would never come to a place inundated with refugees. Did they know the tourists wouldn’t even come after the crisis abated? Would they still have helped even if they knew this?
After meeting some of the locals, I think the answer is yes, they still would have acted compassionately and taken action. But now it’s time to think about the experiences of locals who are affected by mass migration. How do we ensure that their lives are not irreparably damaged after they sacrifice so much to answer a humanitarian call in ways many of us can never imagine? The citizens of Greece, and the many other host communities throughout the world, cannot be forgotten. For many of them, the crisis continues on in different forms, both economic and social. This is a critical part of the migration story that you won’t find in the news.
Erika Frydenlund is a Research Assistant Professor at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University in the USA. Her research focuses on using computer simulations to understand complex questions about migration and mobility, with particular interest in protracted refugee situations. She traveled to Lesvos in May to meet with representatives from INGOs, the municipality, and local NGOs, as well as with locals who responded to the refugee crisis in Greece. This is part of a larger project to model humanitarian coordination and response to refugee crises that will be presented as part of the Lesbos Dialogues in Mytilene November 9-11, 2017.
Many thanks to Karim Ani for the photos of Molyvos.