Refugee crisis: update from Lesbos

Abandoned life-jackets on a beach on Lesbos
Abandoned life-jackets on a beach on Lesbos

Zoe Corden from CAFOD’s Emergency Response Team is currently in Greece, supporting our local partners in their response to the refugee crisis. She writes:

Flying into Lesbos you see the aftermath of the crossings before you even land on the island. Along the coast scarlet life-jackets and sodden clothes litter the narrow bay, evidence of the previous crossings. Out to sea in the distance it is possible to see Turkey rising on the horizon.

This week there have been strikes among transport workers in Turkey. This has meant that everyone, Greeks and refugees alike, are stranded on the islands unless they purchase expensive flights. No departures were scheduled until Friday, and these are likely to be hugely oversubscribed.

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Father Leon, whose parish covers the islands of Chios and Lesbos, was meant to return to his home island of Chios after visiting Lesbos on Sunday, but he remains on the island, stranded just as the refugees are. On Wednesday we had the opportunity to visit Kara Tepe refugee camp with him while he waited to return home.

Refugees queuing for the ferry on Lesbos
Refugees queuing for the ferry on Lesbos

On the way we went past a beautiful church standing with a bell-tower looking out to sea. Christina, a volunteer who works professionally as a tour guide in Lesbos, told us, “Before, this church was Catholic, then it was a Mosque, and now it is Orthodox.”

On an island where more than 90 per cent of the population are Greek Orthodox, Father Leon’s parish is in the minority, but he is happy to count people of all religions among the volunteers helping CAFOD’s partner Caritas to respond to the refugee crisis.

He also emphasised that Caritas provides humanitarian aid based on needs alone. “We will help everyone,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether they are Muslims, Christians, Orthodox, we are all under the same God.”

In the camp, we spoke to many people. One mother and her daughter had arrived last night and were agitated. They said they had slept on rocks in the cold and were desperate to leave the island. They did not know about the strikes, and it took several attempts before they fully understood that they would have to remain on the island for several more days at a minimum.

The grave implications of staying longer were clear on their faces. Father Leon offered his apologies and touched the mother’s forehead with a blessing.

More refugees are arriving on Lesbos every day
More refugees are arriving on Lesbos every day

As thousands more people arrive in the next days, the situation can only worsen. Good weather keeps the refugees warm by the day at least, but at night the temperature drops with a cruel coastal wind. With no onward journey to Athens possible at the moment, the island will continue to fill, and the few resources available will have to stretch even further.

Working with Caritas volunteers later in the day, we were told that there were an increasing number of mothers and children making the perilous crossing to Lesbos. This is an alarming shift as winter approaches.

With CAFOD’s support, the volunteers are distributing sleeping bags and mats to the most vulnerable in the camps, and will soon be providing baby kits to mothers that contain nappies, wet-wipes, baby soap, and rash cream. The needs are huge, but the solidarity of Catholics around the world is making a real difference.

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