Report from Lesvos: without safe access to asylum, people will keep risking their lives in the Aegean

Motorised dinghies arrive on the beach near Efthalou in the north of Lesvos. Heaven Crawley, Author provided

I stood in the corner of a dusty cemetery on the Greek island of Lesvos and watched a mother bury her child. As the tiny body of a baby boy wrapped in a white sheet was lifted from the boot of a car, she fell to her knees and howled with pain.

The child had slipped from her arms into the cold waters of the Aegean as she made the journey from Turkey to join her husband, who had already travelled to Germany to seek protection from the war that is ravaging their home country, Syria.

Her baby should not have died. The journey from Turkey to Lesvos is short and safe. If I wanted to take a ferry trip from the port of Mytiline to Ayvalik on the Turkish coast, the trip would take around an hour. I could get there and back for just €30.

That’s because I’m British. I am not Syrian, Afghan, Palestinian, Iraqi, Somali or Eritrean. I am not required to put my life at risk by paying a smuggler hundreds or even thousands of euros to sit in the bottom of a motorised dingy with 30 or 40 other people to take the exact same journey.

I do not need to close my eyes and pray that my children and I will make it to the other side without drowning.

After a long summer of protracted negotiations about how to respond to the crisis in the Mediterranean region, this is what European asylum policy still looks like in practice.

Rising tide

Although (most) EU member states have reluctantly agreed to redistribute 160,000 of those who have already arrived, there is still no legal route for refugees to enter Europe. And with no hope of a better life at home, thousands of people continue to make the illegal, expensive and potentially dangerous journey across the sea. They know the risks, but the water seems like a better option than the alternatives.

Although Turkey offers temporary protection to Syrian refugees, it is not a signatory to the 1967 Protocol which extends the protection available under the 1951 Refugee Convention to those coming from outside Europe. That means no guaranteed access to employment, education or even basic health care. Conditions for Syrian refugees in Turkey are well documented and known to be deteriorating. There is no prospect that things will improve, no hope for a better future. Those who are not from Syria get nothing.

And so they come to Europe. Since the beginning of 2015, more than a quarter of a million people have arrived on Lesvos by sea, and still more are coming. More than 70,000 people arrived in September alone and, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the numbers are set to be even higher for October.

A dinghy on the Greek island of Lesvos with the shoreline of Turkey in the distance. Heaven Crawley, Author provided

Some are coming directly from Damascus, Aleppo and Deraa; others come from the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, where conditions have become so bad that many are considering returning to their war-ravaged homeland. But most have come from Turkey, where they have tried but failed to make a living for months or even years.

As the winter draws ever closer and news of the fences being erected across Europe filters back to those stuck in Turkey and elsewhere, there is a renewed sense of urgency, a frantic desire to find a better life while it’s still possible. But time is running out.

Pushed back

In just a few weeks’ time the waters will become colder and rougher – and the risk of crossing them even greater. At the same time, Turkey has been offered up to one billion euros by the European Commission to improve policies for “integrated border management” and to tackle trafficking activities.

Research my colleagues and I are conducting on the Mediterranean migration crisis has found evidence that the Turkish authorities are trying to prevent people from accessing the coastline or even pushing them back to the shore once they are on the water, with potentially deadly consequences. Reports about push backs by both Turkish and Greek coastguards have been circulating since mid-2014 but seem certain to increase.

Meanwhile, vigilante groups, including Golden Dawn, are heading into the sea at night to incapacitate the boats and prevent people reaching safety on Greek territory.

Everyone is bracing themselves for a significant increase in the death rates. And the pressure is on the EU to do “something” – as it has been since the Lampedusa tragedy that claimed 274 lives in Italian waters back in October 2013. Since that time more than 6,000 people have died trying to cross to Europe.

The makeshift grave of one of those who recently died on the crossing to Lesvos. Heaven Crawley, Author provided

The baby I saw being buried was not the first to die – and he certainly won’t be the last. Two days after his funeral, I spent the day at the beaches in the north of the island where the refugee boats mainly arrive. Shortly after I arrived I was told that three people - at a woman, a child and an infant - had drowned the previous evening when the boat they were travelling in flipped over in the water.

Then, just a few hours later, there was a collision between a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel and a wooden boat carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees. The boat sank. At least eight people died. The cemetery in Mytelini is running out of space to bury the dead.

The reality is that people will continue to come to Europe as long as there is conflict and human rights abuse in their countries of origin – and as long as they are denied the chance to build new lives in the countries they can reach over land. If Europe’s leaders really want to stop the death toll rising, they need to divert resources away from border controls and focus instead on the root causes of this crisis.

Until they do, the hope for a fully realised common European asylum policy which delivers international protection for those fleeing conflict and human rights abuse will remain a faint one – and people will continue to die.