By: Anna Iasmi Vallianatou | chathamhouse.org | 28 July 2022
Lesvos: How EU asylum policy created a refugee prison in paradise
Located in the Aegean Sea, just off the Turkish coast, Lesvos is blessed with beautiful landscapes and endless olive forests, producing wealth and culture for centuries. But since 2015, Lesvos has instead been associated with the arrival of millions of refugees into Europe, becoming a key location on the perilous journey known as the eastern Mediterranean route.
In 2015, the residents of Lesvos were at the frontline of the humanitarian response, helping hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers to arrive safely on the island’s shores and providing food and shelter.
Their heroic efforts drew the world’s attention and led to several international humanitarian awards, including the Nansen Refugee Award and a nomination for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
From the ‘Lesvos grannies’ to activist groups all over the island, there was a wave of compassion and solidarity towards refugees and migrants, reflected in the public discourse at both local and national levels.
But there is little trace of this hospitable atmosphere today, seven years later.
‘This is no longer the island we grew up on. The refugee crisis acted as a catalyst for all aspects of our society; it brought out the best of us at the beginning, when locals showed spontaneous solidarity to Syrians arriving by boats in 2015. But this protracted situation has turned Lesvos into a toxic political space, a “refugee warehouse” where the EU and the Greek government are testing their anti-immigration policies, letting the far right to spread fear and misinformation among us’, said Christos1, a local teacher who has been involved in citizen-led initiatives promoting the rights of refugees.