Atmosphere of conflict in Lesbos

Interview with Daphne Vloumidi

We talked about what is happening in Greece with Daphne Vloumidi, Lesbos hostess, Righteous of hospitality at Milan Garden of the Righteous Worldwide, where in 2018 she was dedicated a plaque for helping thousands of refugees who arrived on the Island in 2015 and for obtaining - through her protest, for which she was also arrested - some more humane rules on the Island for the reception of migrants.

In the last few days, after Erdogan opened borders, the arrival of refugees, which was already a very complex situation as also shown by inhumane conditions of Moria camp, has suddenly worsened again. 5 years ago thousands of people arrived every day, today far fewer do, but violence has appeared that was not there in that emergency.

Daphne, what is happening, where are you at the moment?

I am in Athens. I know that reporters who were in Lesbos for photographic projects on the migrants of the island “in the past”, have now found themselves portraying what is happening. People have taken power as if it were a revolution, they have become violent, and not only usual fascists or xenophobes, even ordinary people seem to be crazy and police is not acting.

There is an atmosphere of strong conflict. Police do nothing to curb it. People are stopped on the street by ordinary citizens asking who you are, why you are there - they try to understand if you are a volunteer. People are all against volunteers because they believe they are the ones who bring people from Turkey. They say: “When refugees arrive, volunteers are already there, they are all already at the port. How can they do it? There must be an agreement...”. They do not understand that this is normal, you do what there is to do. Those who try to help know that people continue to arrive, they know the political situation: Erdogan has opened the borders and is letting refugees flee to Greece and Europe, as soon as the sea allows travelling, it is normal for them to arrive. Volunteers are there to wait. And they are in danger: they risk their lives. Indeed, they are starting to leave the Island; several volunteers from different countries are cancelling their reservations at our hotel.

A boat carrying fifty refugees arrived at the small port near our hotel and local people prevented these people from getting off the boat. They remained on the boat for hours, exhausted, with no food and no water. Then, at some point, the “men of the village” decided to give them some water, but ONLY for women. Can you imagine it? They are crazy. It is endless violence that I have never seen in my life, it is the first time. You can’t imagine how things and people have changed since 2015. And I believe that, locally, it is the Greek government’s responsibility, which has not done what it had to do for many years.

Based on what you say, it seems that the situation is even worse than in 2015 in terms of violence and people’s reactions...

It absolutely is. At that time many of us tried to help. Even ordinary people, without any political ideas, had an open heart for all those who landed on the island. People hoped that perhaps all together we could have changed the world in some way. We knew it was probably an illusion, but we were excited because many wanted to do something, we shared the idea that we had to help. But now there are very few of us, and we are the enemies.

I know a new reception point was going to be opened but locals have opposed it.

Exactly. A new centre was going to be opened, but it was blocked due to citizens’ grievances. At least it could have helped a little those who are arriving to have more normal living conditions. Even if it is closed, it doesn't matter: refugees are now free, but what kind of freedom is the one they have? Now, more than a refugee camp, Moria has become a concentration camp.

The Island is divided into two parts, but there is no government: the northern part and the southern part. Those who come from the north are blocked by people, who don’t let them go to Moria. And in Moria they say “that’s enough, we can’t welcome anyone any longer". But how can you not accept them, where should these people go? Today we have learnt that they have been taken to the port, where there is a boat recording asylum requests.

Just think that yesterday - which here in Greece was the closing celebration of carnival before fast until Easter - Lesbos inhabitants went to have picnics right where the new centre was going to be built, which was never typically used for this kind of activity, nobody ever went there, there are other beautiful and more suitable areas. It was not accidental. They probably did it to say: “we will take back our island, our home”.

I hope tourists will come this year, but if they don’t, Lesbos inhabitants will be even angrier. Economy has been destroyed. But this is the consequence of wrong decisions.

Is there a message you would like to leave, also in view of the next Day of the Righteous, as a citizen of Lesbos, as a Righteous of hospitality?

As a citizen of Lesbos, I am trying to save my dignity. You can’t imagine how ashamed some of us are of what is happening. Some people are scared... first refugees were scared, then they calmed down a little and tried to continue with their lives. Now, however, the situation almost seems to be a civil conflict, a terrible reality. And I am not one of those who exaggerate, I am not a catastrophist.

Translated by Valentina Gianoli 

4 March 2020

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