The Beach of the left-behind Lifejackets

An exploratory report, written four months before the Noborder Camp on the island of Lesvos

According to statistics, the Aegean Sea recently emerged as the “hot spot of illegal migration” across the external borders of the European Union. The Greek coast guard and the EU border control agency Frontex set up a military apparatus and other forms of violent deterrence to protect the borders. To address these developments, activist groups from Mytilini and Athens invite to participate in a Noborder Camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, from August 25 to 31, 2009.

April 2009, in the Northern region of Lesvos

The traces of a successful landing appear to be fresh. More than 20 lifejackets lie scattered on the stony beach; next to them, a few damp pieces of clothing. Tattered pieces of paper attest to a registration in the Turkish city of Cannakale, issued to several refugees from Somalia. On a path close by, we find a drenched dictionary, “English for a Passenger from Iran”. Given the evidence, the group of refugees arrived the night before. Most likely, a motorboat dropped them off. Otherwise, we would find remnants of rubber boats that one can see in many other places along the coast. Less than ten kilometers away, the contours of the Turkish coast are visible, even in misty weather conditions. Turkish vacation homes and mosques appear clearly as we look through binoculars. There is no other place where Lesvos is closer to Turkey than here. The beaches between the two resort towns Molyvos and Skala Sykaminias constitute a long strip of possible places to disembark. Over the last few years, more and more refugees and migrants, especially from Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iraq, try to land here by boat; in 2008 alone, more than 13,000 arrived. (1) Compared to the long routes from North Africa to Lampedusa or Malta (Italy), or even to the extremely long distances between Western Africa and the Canary Islands, a passage from Turkey to Greece appears clearly manageable. However, one shivers imagining how people paddle across the open sea at night, especially if they do so in cheap rubber boats called “Voyager 500”.

Glancing over the stones and seaweed on the beach that is strewn with lifejackets, the brand name and orange-green shreds frequently catch the viewer’s eye. In addition, the remnants of other boats lie around. Their passengers have punctured most of the boats immediately upon arrival. If they would not do so, all efforts might have been in vain, as a coast guard explains: “If we find them at our coast and they don’t cut their boat, sometimes we return them … If they … don’t render their boat unusable, that’s their own fault! Then we … put them back into their boat and take them to the Turkish coast or to an uninhabited island.” (2)

Many “boat people” experienced personally what the Greek officer openly admits. The practice of forced return upon arrival violates the principle of non-refoulement as codified in international law. (3) Furthermore, many migrants report that they have been purposefully placed in life-threatening conditions. (4) UNHCR documented 61 deaths that occurred in 2008; it is impossible to determine how many of these resulted from the notorious “missions to protect the border”. And yet, maltreatment and abuse, including attempted murder, seem to be the order of the day. They are part of the strategy of deterrence employed by special units within the Greek coast guard and Frontex. (Ibid.)

“Intercepted and diverted”

“Poseidon” is the European border agency’s name for its “Joint Operations to Tackle Illegal Migration” in the Aegean Sea. (5) According to an official report, “3,405 illegal migrants were intercepted” and “422 diverted” in 2007. Needless to say, that these formulations do not indicate friendly attempts of persuasion. In the summer of 2008, a big white vessel of the Italian coast guard was deployed in the service of Frontex. In reports by migrants who had been maltreated and deported, the vessel acquires a prominent space in accounts of abuse and violation. Despite these methods of “defending the border”, thousands come through and cross the border, many of them after attempting the passage two or more times. Still, for many this success marks only the beginning of the next round in their struggle against the EU border regime.

Some are lucky and run into a member of a newly established support group, Proti Stasi (6), who provides them with dry clothes, warm tea and basic legal advice. However, on the small island it is almost unavoidable that police captures the new arrivals soon after their arrival. Typically, such arrests result in an internment for several weeks or months.

Pagani, a town near the island’s capital Mytilini, houses a sealed-off camp that processes all newly arrived immigrants. Like many others, the organization Doctors Without Frontiers found conditions in the ‘Welcome Center’ to be inhumane. (7) Supposedly, the detention center can accommodate 280 people; but in November 2008, 990 refugees were imprisoned in the camp. (8) Prisoners have repeatedly organized protests and hunger strikes or threatened to commit suicide to demand better accommodation and provision.

In 2008, UNHCR accounted for 3,600 underage refugees on Lesvos, most of them traveling unaccompanied. Like all other immigrants, these children and youth are brought to Pagani. After all, in June 2008 the Greek Department of Public Health established an open camp for up to 100 minors, responding to hunger strikes and local and internal publicity criticizing the internment of minors. Villa Azadi (9) is located remotely in the center of the island, near the small town of Agiasos. The villa functions as a roadhouse, accommodating mostly minors from Afghanistan, many of them severely traumatized. A small group of social workers tirelessly works round the clock to assist the youth with legal advice, but also psychological counsel.

The minors’ reasons to flee their homes may be dramatic in their own right, the stations of their journey appear even more so: a life-threatening journey across the sea, abuse by coast guards, and finally internment in Pagani. On top of this, the minors face insecurity about their future. Most of them want to, or have to move on; relatives or friends in Germany or Sweden are waiting for them. Greece was supposed to be a stop on the road, and now it turns out to be a trap. Being registered, or even being made to apply for asylum in Greece will make it nearly impossible to win the right to stay in any other member state of the EU, according to the Dublin Regulations. There is hardly any reliable procedure in place to apply for asylum in Greece, admission quotas are consistently below one percent, and most applicants remain homeless. (10) And yet, custody to secure deportation from Greece, as well as return deportations from nearly all EU member states to Greece are common business. Nevertheless, most if not all of the new immigrants want to continue on their journey, those interned in Pagani as well as the minors from Agiasos. They plan to make it, somehow, to Athens or Patras, and to then travel further up in northwestern direction. (11) They plan to succeed, persisting through the next round in the struggle against the European migration regime.

The Noborder Camp in August 2009…

… has three major goals.

First, the camp is designed to provide a space for transnational conversations about various experiences in resisting the EU border regime. For that purpose, initiatives to monitor the border in Hungary and the Ukraine, activists from Turkey, as well as members of European-African networks based in Morocco, Mauritania and Mali are invited.

Secondly, the camp should strengthen the local support groups for refugees and migrants. These groups, assisting immigrants arriving on Lesvos, have accomplished quite a bit and need our political and material support.

Lastly, actions protesting and hampering the activities of the Greek coast guard and Frontex are in preparation. Denunciating and disrupting the “hunters and murderers of the boatpeople” remains a necessary element of our struggle for the freedom of movement and the right to stay.

About w2eu

This is the blog of the antiracist network Welcome to Europe. It was formerly known as


The name Welcome to Europe expresses the discontent and anger we feel when looking at the fatal realities of the European external border: the long documented deaths and suffering have continued for years, and no end is in sight. We stand for a grassroots movement that embraces migration and wants to create a Europe of hospitality.


We maintain our focus on the European external border in Greece, but will not limit ourselves to that geographical area. The right of freely roaming the globe has to be fought for everywhere. Join us!


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Voices from the Inside of Pagani (2009)

Watch the video