Author Elena Michael and three refugees

What does the failed coup in Turkey mean for refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos?

Elena Michael is a volunteer on Lesvos in Greece, helping support refugees passing through the island. She speaks to people on the ground about what the Turkish coup means for their future

Things were getting better in Lesvos. The EU-Turkey deal, signed in March this year, eased the pressure, at least a little. But tourism to the island continues to be affected – and it's essential for the economy to survive. And after the coup, tensions between the EU and Turkey are high. Greece, and Lesvos in particular, could really suffer as a consequence – it's one of the main gateways to Europe right now.

The deal Turkey signed with Europe means Turkey will reduce the number of people entering Europe and the EU will give Turkey benefits in return. But following the coup, some 60,000 Turkish state employees have been suspended, over a hundred media outlets and a number of universities and businesses have been closed, and thousands of academics and journalists have been arrested on suspicion of being involved. European authorities have warned President Erdogan against taking this ‘cleansing’ too far. In response, Turkey has accused the EU of inaction in terms of the deal. Clearly, tensions are rising.

In return for hosting the now 2.7 million people waiting to enter Europe, Erdogan is seeking a quicker process for joining the EU and visa-free entry into Europe for Turkish nationals. But there’s talk in Turkey of bringing back the death penalty. This is something EU officials won’t accept, and it's making those of us working with migrants very uneasy.

“In the long run, I don’t see the coup being a good thing for refugees,” says Carrie Hou, a former volunteer in Lesvos, who’s now volunteering in Turkey. “Having [the death penalty] reinstated is making many in the country nervous - let alone refugees who represent a large underclass within the Turkish population.”


In the long run, I don’t see the coup being a good thing for refugees…

People are concerned for refugees’ safety. Dina Adam, Office Manager of Starfish Foundation who lives in Lesvos, is afraid the deal will break down. She worries that “refugees will start using unsafe passages again.  Human traffickers could earn a fortune by using this terrible situation.”

Although EU leaders have said that the deal is still active, and unaffected by the events in Turkey, President Erdogan seems to be suggesting otherwise, slamming Europe for not being ‘sincere’. He’s claimed that the EU has only given around $1-2 million in aid, which is nowhere near the €12 billion he claims has been spent on refugees, or the €3 billion that Turkey was promised.

Still, Erdogan has said that “Turkey stands by its commitment with regard to refugees." But he’s also threateningly asked, “What would Europe do if we let these people go through?” Well, one answer is that many of these people would arrive in Lesvos.

Lesvos was the main door to Europe in the height of the migration crisis last year. Almost a million people passed through the island in 2015, the largest number of people crossing a single European border that year. Although daily migration flows have decreased massively, people are still continuing to cross. Before the coup, fewer people were arriving, but since 22 July, the day after Erdogan issued his first official state of emergency decree, UN statistics show that numbers are increasing. This is a real concern for people on the ground.

Still, Erdogan has said that “Turkey stands by its commitment with regard to refugees.” But he’s also threateningly asked “What would Europe do if we let these people go through?”

Becca Wicker, another former volunteer in Lesvos who’s now working in Athens, says her colleagues are asking whether they’ll see a "massive influx of people migrating from Turkey to Lesvos in the coming weeks" as a result.

Volunteers organize supplies in the harbour in Lesvos

The potential effect on tourism is a big worry for people. According to the Athens daily Kathimerini, there are 90% fewer bookings in Lesvos compared to this time last year. The fear on the ground in Lesvos is that if migration flows go up again, it could take longer for holiday bookings to come in, leaving the local community suffering from lack of work.

There’s little doubt the people of Lesvos have led the way in helping refugees. Ariel Ricker, Founder and Director of Advocates Abroad, said: “The Greek and Turkish response has been incredible. If governments could reflect the compassion and generosity of the people, this crisis would be over much sooner.” Lesvos has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for its work.

Still, the island’s economy hangs in the balance. The coverage of this very public disagreement between the EU and Turkey could be enough to stop people visiting, which would be a disaster for locals.

But there is hope. One tourist I spoke to, who had visited Lesvos twice in the last six months, feels that people have nothing to fear, and that the situation is being very well managed. She told me: “Lesvos is a glorious, unspoilt and welcoming island. You’re not aware of the crisis when you’re here but are glad to be contributing to the economy of a place at the forefront of a humanitarian tragedy. I’ll be going back.”

Refugees arrive on a boat in Lesbos, Greece.
Image: © Chrissa Giannakoudi / Demotix / Demotix/Press Association Images

Recent articles

Reader Comments