A Farewell to the North

Our decision to leave Skala Sikamineas after five years of Emergency Response Operations in the north of Lesvos

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This time five years ago, independent volunteers on the north shore of Lesvos came together, planning and strategising ways to provide dignified support to the thousands of people arriving every day. They chose the name Lighthouse Relief, inspired by the lighthouse perched atop Cape Korakas. Skala Sikamineas, this tiny fishing village on the shore, has been the base of our Emergency Response operations since then.

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Our past years here, in the village we often lovingly call Skala, have tested us in many ways. In 2015 and 2016, as thousands of people arrived every day, we acted quickly to create a first reception camp and coordinate a response. In 2016, we reacted to the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement, remaining in the north — arrivals slowed, but the journey remained just as dangerous. We kept watch at Cape Korakas every night, while supporting the local community through our ECO Relief project. With each following year, arrivals increased incrementally, and in the summer of 2019, we responded to a significant increase of people arriving to the north shore. Throughout these challenges, we were able to respond — to adapt. We were able to, in some way, bring dignity and warmth to the first moments people stepped on the shores of Lesvos.

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In just the past seven months, the north shore has seen many changes, and we were tested in entirely new, sometimes unexpected ways. Because of these changes, we are no longer able to provide the same dignified emergency response here — the support that our volunteers and founding members committed to those years ago. In recent months, our team has engaged in much deliberation and many difficult discussions. It is with heavy hearts that we share that we have decided to formally cease our Emergency Response on the north shore of Lesvos, and to withdraw from Skala Sikamineas in the coming weeks. This was not a decision taken lightly, and we’d like to explain some of the factors that have led us here.

In early March of this year, we paused our Emergency Response Operations and evacuated all our volunteers on Lesvos due to the extremely high tensions and insecurity on the island. We continued this suspension in mid-March due to the threat of COVID-19, retaining a very small team, monitoring the situation, supporting new arrivals in any way that we could, and exploring options for the continuation of our work.

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Amidst the fears of the Coronavirus pandemic, the process of arrivals became increasingly militarised — those who were able to land on Greece’s shores were kept in isolated spots on the shore, and today, must stay in the quarantine camp of Megala Therma, to which only the UNHCR and the authorities have access. Continuing human rights violations at sea have made it nearly impossible for people to seek asylum, a right to which they’re entitled by international law. As recent news reports confirm, the practice of pushbacks has significantly increased in the Aegean Sea, greatly reducing the number of arrivals. The role of NGOs like ours in the context of arrivals has become extremely limited.

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In making this decision, we also prioritised the wellbeing of the local population of Skala Sikamineas, the community that has hosted us and often treated us like family. Through the years, we have done our best to support the community that has given so much to asylum seekers for decades. However, amidst an ongoing pandemic, we recognise our presence may increase the fear of COVID-19, especially if we were able to restart directly supporting new arrivals. We would never want to increase the risks of COVID-19 for any of the inhabitants of Skala Sikamineas. It is also because we care deeply for the people in this village, that we feel the responsible action for the moment is to withdraw.

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This quiet little village by the sea, home to little more than 150 residents, was thrust onto the global stage in 2015, when so many of the residents themselves were taking care of refugees fleeing from conflict. They opened their homes and cafes, made food well into the night, and acted as rescuers. This solidarity started years before 2015, as people have been taking this same journey over the Aegean Sea, fleeing conflict and persecution, long before the headlines. As we shared with our friends in Skala Sikamineas, regardless of our next endeavours, we will also be ready to return to the north of Lesvos whenever and if an urgent need arises. We are eternally grateful for their support and hospitality throughout these years.

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The need for a dignified response is greater than ever. We’ve witnessed refugees and asylum seekers being pushed into even more precarious situations in the past months — left without shelter, access to education, even the most basic necessities and rights, such as access to running water and freedom of movement.

In making this decision, we will be able to put our resources and expertise to the best possible use, and to better address the multi-faceted needs of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. In the short-term, we have focused our efforts on sharing our stock of items (clothes, baby items, hygiene items) in our warehouse with other organisations across the island, particularly in this time of acute need.

Today, we are identifying the biggest needs to see how we can respond both to the emergency situation on Lesvos in the wake of the fires, but also the long term effects here, and on the mainland. With hundreds of refugees transferred to the mainland in the past days — and thousands more to be transferred in the coming months, it is clear that the needs are vast, and that the fires in Moria Camp will have long-lasting impacts, both material and psychosocial.

The idea of leaving Skala Sikamineas weighs heavily on all of us. In everything we do, we are led by the values fostered on the north shore — values of dignity, respect, empowerment. Regardless of if we are on the north shore or elsewhere, this spirit — what we came to call the “Lighthouse Spirit” — touches everything we do.

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Finally, we want to thank the many, many volunteers and supporters who worked with us on the north shore. You have shown us the best we could be, and without you, there simply would be no emergency response. To those who supported us from afar, championing our work, sending donations or boxes of clothing — we are eternally grateful.

Thank you to all the volunteers who created Lighthouse alongside us in the early days — those who built Stage 1 Camp from scratch, transforming a patch of land inside an olive grove into a warm and inviting place for our guests, cooking meals, providing bedding, clothing, immediately reacting to cases of hypothermia, and ensuring that first aid was always available.

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To the spotting volunteers who stayed up all night at Cape Korakas, making sure that if a dinghy approached the rocky cliffs, someone would be there to help. To the tireless landing teams, who were ready to leap into a landing car at the drop of a hat, always ready with an emergency blanket and a welcoming smile. We also want to thank our fellow humanitarians on the north shore — our partners and colleagues from other organisations, whose coordination and support made the work possible. To the people of Skala Sikamineas — we are deeply grateful for your hospitality, solidarity and support through these years.

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For this and so much more, we simply want to say thank you — to everyone who dedicated their time, their compassion, and their reserves of energy, to make sure that no matter the circumstances and no matter how hard the journey, people seeking safety could, in those first moments, receive the welcome that they deserve.

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Written by

We provide emergency relief to refugees arriving in Lesvos and long-term support to vulnerable groups in Ritsona Refugee Camp on mainland Greece.

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