Commentary 

2020 Challenges for Asylum Seekers and Migrants in Lesvos, Greece

The Aegean Sea islands of Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean are the main gateway for asylum-related migrants to the European Union (EU), wrote Jussi S. Jauhiainen for International United Nations Watch.

2020 Challenges for Asylum Seekers and Migrants in Lesvos, Greece

By Jussi S. Jauhiainen

The Aegean Sea islands of Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean are the main gateway for asylum-related migrants to the European Union (EU). They enter the EU for various reasons and request asylum as their entry mechanism. Over the years, more than one million of such migrants – many Syrians, Afghans and sub-Saharan Africans – have reached the EU through these islands. Lesvos with 90,000 inhabitants at ten kilometers from Turkey’s western coast is the most notorious of these island. In April 2020, over 40,000 asylum seekers were in these islands. Over 21,000 of them were in Lesvos where two out of five asylum seekers are children.

In the early 2020, three major challenges regard these asylum-related migrants. The first is the challenges of these migrants’ everyday lives in the overcrowded reception centers. In Lesvos, the Moria reception and identification center had 19,000 migrants in the premises designed for less than 3,000 people. The density is very high, and there is a lack of hygiene, healthcare and security.

According to our study (representative survey of 625 asylum seekers and interviews with them in Lesvos), most migrants in Lesvos did not feel well. Comparing the situation in Lesvos between 2016 and 2019, slightly more migrants felt safe (21% vs. 26%), slightly fewer felt well treated (30% vs. 28%) and clearly fewer felt mistreated because of their non-European origins (43% vs. 33%). A few learned something useful in Lesvos, mostly English. Nevertheless, two out of three saw their future positively. They reached the EU, however, only a minority will gain asylum or residence permit there. An additional serious challenge is the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020 were identified a few cases of COVID-19 in Lesvos but not yet inside the reception centers. The COVID-19 threatens to become a humanitarian catastrophe among asylum seekers in the reception centers in the Aegean Sea islands but not only there.

The second challenge regards the asylum process. Following the arrival of many asylum seekers to the EU in 2015, the EU started to implement the ‘hotspot’ approach. This is to identify, screen and hold the first asylum interview at the EU borderland, in this case in Lesvos. According to our study, more than three out of four migrants left their country of origin due to war or serious political or human rights violations. These reasons mixed with unemployment, need for better education, family reunification, etc. Some made the journey to Lesvos within a few weeks, but most spent more than half a year, and some even several years. For many migrants in Lesvos, Germany is their aspired destination in the EU. It represents safety, work and a normal life. Canada, Finland and the Netherlands are also frequently mentioned as destinations. Overwhelming majority of migrants wish to work in Europe. Very few (4%) consider returning to their country of origin: Afghans (1% for sure and 13% maybe), Syrians (6% and 18%) and people from other nations (4% and 14%). Of Somalis, the majority plan or consider a return (12% for sure and 44% maybe).

These asylum seekers need to remain for several months in the overcrowded reception centers before the initial asylum process in accomplished. The longer migrants stayed in Lesvos, the more of them used the Internet, and to know about Europe. Very frequent Internet and social media users sought broad and detailed information to facilitate their asylum-related journey. The transfers of asylum seekers to the mainland Greece have been less than their arrivals to the Aegean Sea islands. Furthermore, the reallocation of asylum seekers from Greece to other EU member states has not taken place as agreed, the latter due to resistance of many EU member states.

The third challenge is the broader political situation at the EU borderlands. Several stakeholders (the EU, Greece, Turkey, supranational organizations, etc.) utilize and (mis)manage asylum-related migrants to develop their preferred geopolitical order. This governance of asylum-related migrant population is biogeopolitics under which some migrants’ lives are saved but reduced into a bare minimum while other migrants die. Inhumane living conditions of the asylum-related migrants must be improved, the asylum reception facilities enhanced and the asylum process made faster and just.

To read full report, click here.

The report “Asylum seekers and migrants in Lesvos, Greece, 2019–2020” by Jussi S. Jauhiainen and Ekaterina Vorobeva is freely available at ResearchGate and www.urmi.fi/julkaisut. For further information, please, contact Professor Jussi S. Jauhiainen (jusaja@utu.fi) at the University of Turku (Finland).