Socialist Worker

A disaster made in Europe

Another 14 people drowned off the Greek island of Lesvos last week. Photographer Guy Smallman met the refugees arriving at Europe’s shores and the people helping them. Dave Sewell exposes how European Union leaders claim to be offering “support” but in reality are responsible for the continuing crisis

Issue No. 2480

A dinghy full of refugees arrives in Lesvos from Turkey.

A dinghy full of refugees arrives in Lesvos from Turkey (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Lesvos is the testing ground for the European Union (EU)’s new strategy for dealing with refugees—a network of “first reception centres” or “hotspots”.

The first hotspot opened in Moria outside Lesvos’ capital Mytilini in September. There are now others in the old Olympic stadium in Athens and on the islands of Lampedusa and Sicily in southern Italy.

These are presented in part as a humanitarian measure, offering refugees shelter and helping “relocate” them from Italy, Greece and Hungary to new homes elsewhere.

It’s true that many refugees want help to go elsewhere. But the hotspots aren’t there to help them—they exist to reassert control over them.

The jargon is revealing. “Hotspot” comes from US police talk of “crime hotspots”. EU border countries are called the “frontline” as if the situation is a war.

A recent EU “Action plan for return” underlined the aim of keeping out or deporting most of those arriving. EU rulers want to divide so-called “real” refugees from what they dismiss as “economic migrants”.

The distinction is arbitrary. People qualify for relocation if 75 percent of asylum seekers from their countries in Europe are accepted—in practice only Syrians, Eritreans and Iraqis.

The system relies on fingerprinting new arrivals at the hotspots.

There are rules against using force. But Italy has said it will use “proportionate” force so migrants are “verbally convinced”. This means lying to them.

Italian government immigration chief Mario Morcone said migrants are told that being fingerprinted “is important to go to the countries where they want to go”.

But being fingerprinted in Italy will give other EU states grounds to reject the vast majority and could get them deported.

A Greek woman cares for an Iraqi baby while his mother retrieves her three other children from the dinghy from which they had just arrived on the beach from Turkey

A Greek woman cares for an Iraqi baby while his mother retrieves her three other children from the dinghy from which they had just arrived on the beach from Turkey (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Even if the hotspots were there to help refugees, they would be failing the vast majority.

Moria has room for up to 480 people on an island where thousands of refugees land every week.

Most are stuck outside with no support beyond that provided by volunteers. At night they face beatings and tear gas from riot police.

The hotspot in Pozallo, Sicily, crams 250 people into a warehouse. The one in Lampedusa is simply a rebranding of facilities that have been there for years.

So far fewer than 200 refugees have been “relocated”, out of a promised 160,000. And this figure is tiny compared to the millions of refugees expected over the coming years.

Those who are relocated don’t get a choice about where they go. Refugees seeking to join relatives or find work in one country could be sent hundreds of miles away. Morcone’s deputy Angelo Malandrino said, “We try not to think about it, so as not to get demoralised.”

The hotspots are “closed” to stop refugees escaping, but lack of capacity sees them rapidly transferred to “open” centres.

Fabrice Leggeri, head of EU border force Frontex, hopes to stop this. “We need detention centres,” he said. He has called for sending “thousands of border guards” to Greece.

Britain hasn’t participated in the hotspot relocation scheme. Instead its government is turning the border at the French port of Calais into a fortress.

Cops attacked refugees camped there with tear gas and rubber bullets on three nights last week to stop them protesting.

But David Cameron joined an EU summit with African leaders in Malta last week to toughen the barriers refugees face long before they reach Europe.

Outrageously this included senior figures from the regimes many refugees are fleeing, such as those in Eritrea and Sudan.

Whether outside or inside Europe, whether presented in humanitarian or security terms, these measures have the same objective.

The “flows” that have defied border controls must be stopped. Refugees can be seen as a threat, as objects of pity or as sources of cheap labour. But they cannot shape their own destiny.

To really solve the crisis means taking the opposite side.


An Iraqi man hugs his wife with relief after making the sea crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesvos in Greece (left). The rubber dinghy they were travelling in was designed for eight people and carrying over 40. The sea is unusually calm for the time of year. The exodus is expected to have far more fatal consequences when winter arrives


An Iraqi man hugs his wife with relief after making the sea crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesvos in Greece (left). The rubber dinghy they were travelling in was designed for eight people and carrying over 40. The sea is unusually calm for the time of year. The exodus is expected to have far more fatal consequences when winter arrives


A Swedish volunteer comforts a Syrian woman arriving on the beach in Lesvos from Turkey. Many refugees had never travelled by sea before making the crossing in overcrowded dinghies


An Iraqi man carries his traumatised daughter from a dinghy onto the shore on the Greek island of Lesvos


Refugees from Afghanistan & Syria wait on the quayside for a ferry to Athens in the Lesvos port of Mytilini. Greece is struggling to cope with the massive influx of refugees from Turkey. The austerity package which has been imposed on Greece by the EU has left very little resources available for dealing with the refugee crisis


Two young refugee girls from Syria wait on the quayside in the port of Mytilini on the island of Lesvos in Greece having made the perilous journey across the sea from Turkey. Syrians are presently accounting for over 80% of all refugees entering Europe.

When asked about the intention of David Cameron to bring British forces into the conflict a Syrian father of five said: "We need peace not more bombs. Assad would have been overthrown three years ago if other countries had not interfered. My country is in ruins and my people are dead or scattered but my children will always be Syrian"


Exhausted Afghan refugee children from Nangahar province in Afghanistan sleeping in Victoria park in Athens.

Afghans are now the second biggest group of refugees arriving in Europe following the disastrous 10 year NATO led war in their homeland. Most had hoped for peace following the NATO withdrawal. However the decision of the Afghan government to allow 10,000 NATO troops to remain on American bases has seen the situation worsen particularly in rural areas and Southern and Eastern provinces


Ahmad Abdi distributing much needed milk and baby food to Afghan refugees in Victoria Park in Athens (below). The aid had been bought with money raised by the Athens Somali community. He said, “I was once myself a refugee. I could not stand by and do nothing. We are pleased to be helping our brothers and sisters in their time of need. But shouldn’t the UN be doing this?”


Discarded lifejackets litter the beach along the coastline of Lesvos


All pictures by Guy Smallman


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