Davos to Lesvos: the European refugee crisis seen from different heights

Dawn breaks over a refugee camp on Lesvos, Greece. Image: Alissa Everett

Alissa Everett, Photographer

Peter Holmes a Court, Writer


Winter came late this year in Europe, and it hit hard. Few got a white Christmas, but shortly after New Year, temperatures plummeted and snow began falling across the widest definition of what is called Europe.

On the Greek islands, where thousands of refugees remain stranded in lightweight tents, the falls were the highest in a generation, enough to collapse the woefully inadequate structures. On Donald Trump’s Scottish golf courses, the snow-filled bunkers forced short closures. The Mosques of Istanbul also received a light dusting, while a sombre blanket covered the recently bloodied streets of Berlin.

Nothing divides the stratas of society more than the fluffy white stuff. It is welcomed by those who ski, a travel inconvenience for the commuting class, and deadly for the most vulnerable. In the Swiss alpine town of Davos, the snow glistened on five consecutive, cloudless days through the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in January. Deep in the caves of the conference centres and hotel meeting rooms, the conversations were decidedly dark.

The view from on high

This world, that of the multistakeholder consensus-builder, the globalized cosmopolitan, the free-trading centralist, is in a tailspin. It’s under attack from every direction and currently losing just about every battle.

Worse, the well-dressed Davos man and woman didn’t see this affront coming. Just last year, despite finally waking up to the humanitarian disaster spinning out of Syria, the confidence remained reasonable. The consensus was that Brexit was a joke, Trump even more so; the markets were going to be flat, and interest rates would remain forever low. Turns out that the joke is on the British elite, Trump is the president, the markets are up and so are interest rates.

Image: Alissa Everett

The mood this year among Davos delegates was understandably sober, the focus on the challenges ahead.

Refugee and migration issues were discussed across all streams, a recognition that this is much more than a humanitarian issue. How Europe and the industrialized world more broadly responds over the medium term will determine if migration becomes an economic burden or can be fashioned into a driver of growth.

Right now however, no matter where you look, it is a divisive political issue with an octopod’s capacity to stretch across multiple issues and insight populist reversions. Given the volatility that this creates, combined with the implied threats to open markets, it’s no surprise that the private sector demonstrated a greater appetite for involvement in addressing migration and refugee issues than in any of the previous years.

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Down at sea level

On the island of Lesvos, the week after Davos, the snow has mostly melted. While it’s 10 degrees warmer than in the Alps, the damp sub-zero breeze multiplies the chill. It feels much more severe than the dry, rarefied cold of the mountains.

The Greek refugee response, on a per person basis, is the most expensive humanitarian response in history. It is dogged by large overheads, expensive operating environment, and a plethora of agencies, local, European and International who at times competing for the same budgets. Add to this an irregular flow of volunteers, oscillating from too many to too few, and almost all staying for too short a time. Finally, layer on all of this the usual levels of Greek bureaucratic and endemic corruption that locals complain accompany everything in Greece.

Image: Alissa Everett

The camps are overcrowded, the resettlement process is at best obscure and slow; at worst, blocked and broken. More than 150,000 migrants remain in Europe’s entry countries of Greece and Italy, some seeping north into Europe, and a few accepting assistance to return home.

We arrived at our first camp through the same door as those leaving use to exit. “This place is worse than hell,” an Eritrean man said as he awaited his transfer to a flight home. He was the first man we met, just inside the door with his bag by his feet. “The screaming every night, the lies, the fights. I would rather go home. Maybe I will die, but here I know I will.”

Yet the boats continue to arrive. Forty-two new arrivals were plucked from an overladen vessel by the Greek coast guard the day we arrived. Cramped in the same room as those about to depart, the group included a young North African boy who had been given a small jigsaw puzzle to occupy him, and was slowly assembling a picture of Snow White. “Welcome to Europe,” I thought.

Image: Alissa Everett

“What was the boat like?” I asked a woman who had paid between $500 and $1,000 for a ticket from Turkey, the shoreline of which was easily visible from where we stood. “The man promised us a big boat, but it was small,” she said, referring to the single-use inflatables that are the vessels of choice for the people smugglers. “It was not even a real boat, it was a balloon.”

The wealthier parts of Europe agreed last year to resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees, but less than 10% of this number have been accepted, even less processed. All of this is against the uncertainty created by the Dublin Deal, an agreement to return refugees to the country of first entrance, even if that is the near-bankrupt Greece and its substandard freezing camps, and is multiplied by the uncertainty of an EU-Turkey relocation deal. This creative scheme aims to take any migrant in Europe found to be an illegitimate refugee and swap them with a Syrian stuck in Turkey. In return, Turkey will be fast-tracked towards EU membership, proving yet again that the refugee issue in Europe is as much a political and economic issue as it is a humanitarian crisis.

In early 2017, a rare cold spell hit Southern Europe bringing subzero temperatures and dumping snow across Greece, including more than a foot of snow on the islands that most know as Summer resorts. Though predicted by meteorologists, the storms caught the authorities unprepared, leaving thousands of refugees stranded in adequate tents exposed to the freezing conditions

Image: Alissa Everett

We spent long days sitting with the refugees and migrants living in uninsulated tents, hearing their stories of sleepless nights huddling in summer-weight sleeping bags.

In Moria, one of the worst camps I have seen anywhere in the world, men, women and children from 42 nationalities are packed into a converted detention centre. Two rows of barbed-wire fence ring a facility that was built for 2,000, and today houses nearly twice that. Two people died inside their tents while we were there, another tried to hang himself. Shocking footage of the attempt was sent to me by a man I had met in the camp and who had just “friended” me on Facebook. It’s not what I am used to getting from friends on social media.

The tragedy is amplified because all of this is taking place within sight of near-empty holiday resorts. It seems like the difference between life and death is just a matter of room-key allocation.

In another camp on the mainland, a disused toilet-paper factory has been converted to cover a grim collection of tents. The tents are now coated in a thick layer of dust. A little light spreads from a few high windows augmented by the blue neon thrown from a row of dilapidated fly-zappers. It is not lost on the residents that the paper with which Europe wipes its backside was warehoused in better conditions than they now find themselves.

It wouldn’t be Europe if there weren’t some moments of true Kafkaesque absurdity. We met men who had escaped persecution from the military in their home countries and had undertaken frightening voyages by boat only to be housed in the hold of a navy ship. We met a young, overwhelmed volunteer who was teaching English to teenage students with a game of hangman. Another group built detailed models of sailing boats with children who had been lucky enough to survive inflatable boat trips. Elsewhere, we marvelled at the array of donations that volunteers didn’t know what to do with: short skirts and high heels, a sex toy.

These images were taken in Lesvos, Thessonaliki, Ioannina, and Athens Greece over 10 days in February 2017. Some of the subjects requested that we did not use their names.

Image: Alissa Everett

We did see a few rays of hope.

In Davos, it is encouraging that people were talking realistically about the magnitude of the issue. Refugee movements are finally being put in the context of the large human migrations that naturally follow capital flows. Refugees moving because of climate change are now acknowledged as a new class of migrants. Neither the private sector nor governments are under the illusion that migration and refugee issues can be managed adequately by governments alone — the need for both private-sector and civil-society input in crafting migration policy and practical responses was universally acknowledged.

Among Silicon Valley disrupters, major financial institutions and consumer product giants, the consensus was clear: the innovation that is required to turn this situation into an opportunity is more likely to come from business than government. The group is moving quickly, and is set to make a major announcement on their engagement.

Also on the ground were some of the local grassroots NGOs historically overlooked by the global humanitarian giants. Many of them were ready to do good work and just needed to be incubated to handle new challenges.

There were also some inspiring locals doing everything they could to make an impact. We ran headlong into a demonstration outside the Moria camp: the men had just lost a brother, the fourth in a month, and they were angry. In a mixture of French, Arabic and English the group were whipped into frenzy and we found ourselves the only outsiders, the only media on location.

Our local driver, Vassili, went to extraordinary lengths to keep us safe. When he realized we wouldn’t retreat from recording the protest, he interjected himself. He took his big arms and warmly wrapped them around the leader of the protests. Sometimes a hug is best disarmament tool.


Originally published at www.weforum.org.

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