Refugee Hotspots

A Drop in the Ocean

FILE - Refugees and migrants are waiting in line to be registered at Moria's processing centre on the island of Lesbos, Greece on the 26th of December 2015. Foto: Socrates Baltagiannis/dpa (zu dpa "Wie Merkel die Flüchtlingszahlen senken will" vom 19.01.2016) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Waiting in line to be processed at the Lesbos hotspot.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Politically, E.U. leaders are under massive pressure to find a way to stem the flow of refugees. Island “hotspots” are proving a controversial solution.

  • Facts


    • European Union leaders will meet for a summit next week and the refugee crisis will be at the top of their agenda.
    • Almost 70,000 people made the journey from Turkey to Greece in the first six weeks of 2016.
    • Only three of 11 planned hotspots to register asylum seekers are up and running, on Lampedusa, Sicily and Lesbos.
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Red roofs on yellow houses glitter between the green hills like colorful splashes of paint in the landscape. The nearby Mediterranean’s white-topped waves glisten in the midday sun, and a few boats go about their business. Lesbos sparkles in all the colors of the rainbow; it has the scent of cold pressed olive oil, of Cyprus wood and sun cream.

But no, wait, that idyllic Lesbos is gone. These days Lesbos stinks of ammonia and disinfectant. Of Afghan tobacco and cheap perfume. Typical Lesbos scents right now are of wet shoes, little sleep and bad breath. A great deal of sweat – and fear.

These vapors surround Spyros Kourtis like wafts of mist. Mr. Kourtis has been running the “First Reception Center” for five months, the registration camp on Lesbos that most Europeans know as a “hotspot.” By the middle of the month, there are supposed to be 11 such camps at Europe’s external borders. So far, only three of them are working: the ones in Lampedusa and Sicily in Italy, and, of course, Lesbos.

That’s why the Lesbos hotspot director, Mr. Kourtis – a Greek civil servant in hooded sweater and jeans – has now become a global political player. When the 28 European Union leaders gather in Brussels next week for their summit, they will be discussing him and his work.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, E.U. Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, French President François Hollande and the others will be negotiating how to deal with the refugee crisis, and what direction the never-ending trek is set to take next. They will make further concessions to Turkey, and they will try to set binding quotas within Europe.

And then they will extol the virtues of the hotspots: as places offering relief and centers of great progress.

More than 1 million refugees arrived last year on the shores of Italy and Greece. The United Nations is expecting up to 1 million migrants this year to head for Greece by boat from Turkey alone – by February 6 almost 70,000 had already arrived there. They all have to be interviewed, registered and then transported to the mainland.

Many of them arrive in Lesbos, as it is only a few kilometers across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish border. Last summer, on days when 6,000 people made this trip, the island was the subject of headlines worldwide because of the catastrophic conditions refugees were housed in. It was so unhygienic that aid workers called the conditions “unfit for human beings.”

In the meantime, thousands of volunteers have arrived, the United Nations has mostly taken over the management of refugee camps, and the Greek coastguard is being supported by agents with Frontex, the E.U. border control agency, who have come from all over Europe.

A place of shame is supposed to become a place of the future. And what can be seen on the Mediterranean island right now, more clearly than anywhere else in Europe, is what effect refugee policy made in Brussels has – and where it breaks down.

You can no longer say that conditions are “unfit for human beings” in Lesbos. However, they are also not particularly “fit” for human beings either.

refugees boat-reuters
ALmost 70,000 refugees have made the trip from Turkey to Greece in the first six weeks of the year. Source: Reuters


Mr. Kourtis emerges from a gray metal container leaving fresh cigarette smoke swirling under the ceiling. The hotspot manager grabs his keys, opens a gate in the high lattice fence, squeezes through it and locks it conscientiously behind him. The eyes of the people all around him – their skin scorched from the sun, their feet wet, weighed down with plastic bags and dusty rucksacks – follow him expectantly.

Mr. Kourtis stops in front of a huge empty tent. It is the camp’s new waiting area. Only a few weeks ago the refugees still had to stand around for hours on end unprotected in the sun. Now at least, old and sick people and children can be in the shade.

“The situation today is much better than a few months ago,” Mr.  Kourtis said. “Processing is quick, we have really improved.” He says they can now process the data of 3,000 people per day without a problem. It could soon be 6,000 people, as the camp is being expanded.

What Mr. Kourtis doesn’t say: Many of the E.U. requirements have not yet been fulfilled. Of the 2,000 required sleeping berths in the tents, only a few hundred have been made. While it is true that 400 policemen and Frontex staff are on duty in the camp, there are only 17 scanners for fingerprints, which are necessary for the arrivals to be registered. Some refugees still wait for days for a pass.

Unaccompanied minors frequently have to hang around Lesbos for weeks until accommodation is found for them on the mainland. Ferries to Athens are irregular. And the planned expansion of the camp? It was supposed to be ready to move into two weeks ago, but so far there is only a hole in the ground.

“We do what we can,” Mr. Kourtis says. But is that enough for Europe’s perhaps biggest challenge since World War II?

“The situation today is much better than a few months ago. Processing is quick, we have really improved.”

Spyros Kourtis, Director, Lesbos First Reception Center

Many hundreds of kilometers to the west of Lesbos, on another island in the same sea, one word from Comandante Paolo Monaco is enough to get his people sprinting: ”Move,” says the chief of the coastguard on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

It’s only a few meters to the boat, one of four which can go out to sea even when there are seven meter-high waves and hurricane-force winds. Again they will have to run the gauntlet of Mediterranean waves for 10 hours looking for the refugees’ boat, which has just been reported to them. If you cling your way along the railings of their small “Classe 300,” it is hardly imaginable that this ship can supposedly carry up to 100 people. But the sailors have proved it time and again in recent weeks.

The emergency call had just come from the control center in Rome. It sounds like the kind of operation they have had a lot of experience of: a programmed shipwreck.

“At the Libyan coast the refugees are forced onto inflatable boats which are hardly seaworthy, and one of them, perhaps someone who couldn’t pay the fare, has to take over the wheel,” said Filippo Marini, head of the control center. “He is given a satellite telephone and a compass, and they say to him: ‘Head north and then call this number.’” The number which the refugees call is that of the Italian coast guard control center.

The emergency call activates a routine procedure, which is now regarded as exemplary in Europe: Last year the Italians carried out 933 such operations, saving more than 150,000 people.  And in the meantime, Italy’s coastguard agents are no longer just operational in their own waters – they also help their colleagues from Greece.

Hotspots Khalid and family Simon Book HB
Khalid and Jihand, from Aleppo, with their two children. They hope to go to Germany. Source: Simon Book


But these efforts are still not enough for Europe. Although for Berlin, Brussels and Paris, it is not so much about the human lives saved. Week in, week out, pressure continues to rise in capital cities a long way from the Mediterranean – the public are calling for better border controls and a quicker, more effective registration process.

Julia Klöckner, the deputy chairperson of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats, even warned recently that Germany could take over the construction of registration centers if Greece didn’t make better progress. The demands of continental Europe: Carry out patrols, defend this border, stop the inflatable boats and send them back to Turkey if they’re not in acute difficulties at sea.

But how is that supposed to work? You can’t keep an eye on every centimeter of the ocean. And you can’t build a fence on the water. That was the islanders’ response. Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, was even more aggressive: “If we wanted to stop the refugees, we would have to wage war against them.”

Wage war against people who are fleeing from war? Europe hasn’t reached that stage yet. But you would have to call it a struggle – what the police, army and volunteer helpers are all experiencing in the Mediterranean. It is a struggle against people traffickers who know exactly how Europe ticks.

“Europe has to develop a joint migration policy and a joint asylum law.”

Giuseppina Maria Nicolini, Mayor of Lampedusa

It’s a February morning on Lesbos. There is a cold wind blowing as the coast guard brings 500 refugees into the port of the island’s capital Mytilene. Now that it’s winter, the traffickers only charge half price for the hour-and-a-half long crossing, around €600 for an adult. In January alone the passage cost almost 400 people their lives, many of them children.

Those who made it are very cold and in bad shape. But they have to move on. Every half-hour a ramshackle bus picks a few of them up from the port and deposits them a few kilometers further on in front of the barbed wire fence of the hotspot. There they have to stand in line between barbed wire and barren hills. Initially, the plan was to immediately send all those back who had no chance of asylum. That would have kept refugee numbers down considerably. It was supposed to be the big solution, but the authorities here are just too overwhelmed to manage that.

That is why, since the end of December, they send everyone who arrives through the registration process to the island, and then ship them off to the mainland. Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Yemenis, Sudanese, Eritreans and Somalis obtain a six-month visa – all the others can only stay in Greece legally for 30 days.

The people are just waved through – the ultimate capitulation of bureaucracy in the face of reality. It is clear to everyone that most of them won’t stay in Athens or Thessaloniki anyway – they will continue their journey to Munich or Berlin.

Khalid, 33, and his wife Jihand, also 33, want to go to Germany. They arrived during the night from Turkey with their five-year-old daughter, Teybar, and three-year-old son, Dimar. The family used to live in the Syrian city of Aleppo, and they lived well: Khalid is a lawyer, they belonged to the middle classes.

But then President Bashar al-Assad began to throw barrel bombs on his own people. So Khalid and his family fled to Turkey, where he tried to get by as a fisherman. After a while, they had enough money to pay the traffickers. “Germany is a good country to live in,” said Khalid. “Perhaps I can work there as a lawyer again. And if not, I’ll take an office job.”

Khalid has never heard anything of the squabbles about the Schengen borders (the group of European countries that do not require passport controls). He has no idea about a program for “relocation,” or that the German chancellor is trying to make a lottery system out of Europe. A system where you win or lose according to specific quotas, which decide in which country you can start your new life.

In this lottery, Germany would be the main prize – but the chances of winning it are to be kept as low as possible. For Ms. Merkel this lottery is no longer just about humanity. It is also about her holding onto power.

It is this instrumentalization which is making Europe’s refugee policy even more ineffective. Every member country is only thinking about its own problems: about the next elections, about right-wing parties becoming stronger, and about the supposed overburdening of individual village communities. And many also have the Germans in mind, who for so long imposed their will on Europe, and now, at last, it’s payback time. It is an elitist discussion and one which forgets at the end of the day that human lives are at stake.

For years, Giuseppina Maria Nicolini has been trying to do things better. She has been mayor of the Italian island of Lampedusa since 2012 and is something of a “refugee professional.” She has received many awards for her initiatives, but it hasn’t really helped.

Nicolini Lampedusa Mayor Regina Krieger HB
Lampedusa mayor, Ms. Nicolini, is a refugee professional. Source: Regina Krieger


“There is war in Syria and Somalia, and it is just beginning in the Ivory Coast – there is human trafficking. Many are coming here to save their lives, they are fleeing from hunger,” she told us in her neat office. “Europe has to develop a joint migration policy and a joint asylum law.”

What is happening in the Mediterranean on a daily basis is after all not a natural disaster, she said, it is the result of looking the other way for years on end.

Ms. Nicolini is applauded by Italian and Greek colleagues for making such statements. In the fall of last year, the mayor of Lesbos also wrote a letter to the European Commission, the E.U. executive arm in Brussels. He called for secure refugee routes to be designated on the continent. Because as long as people came across the sea illegally, the traffickers would continue to earn billions of euros – and thousands of people would continue to drown.

But Europe will not agree to that. The tendency is rather to let Turkey take care of everything. That is why Angela Merkel travelled to Ankara to negotiate with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday.

In return for resuming discussions about membership of the European Union and €3 billion in aid, Mr. Merkel and others are demanding Mr. Erdgoan close down escape routes to Europe and keep the refugees in his country. Germany and Turkey are now calling on their NATO partners to help in the fight against traffickers, while Germany’s government aid agency, the THW, is to help establish refugee camps on the Syrian border.


Flight to Greece-01


“That won’t help,” says Antonius Sofiadelis in his tiny office in the port of Mytilini in Greece. Mr. Sofiadelis is head of the Frontex mission at the Greek-Turkish border. The proud, stockily built sailor has experience in the Navy – but also in politics. For him there is only one solution: “I want to stop people drowning out there. So we have to stop them crossing.” He argues that this is why hotspots are needed in Turkey, not on Lesbos.

But Mr. Sofiadelis has little hope of his wish becoming reality. For months, he hasn’t even succeeded in establishing contact with his Turkish colleagues. “They just don‘t answer,” he grumbles. Instead, they just watch and do nothing until the refugees have reached Greek waters.

So Mr. Sofiadelis has to keep asking for more men to rescue unseaworthy boats from the Aegean Sea. In the meantime, he has 12 crews on duty around the clock, all at the same time. Two helicopters are also on patrol looking out for boats. There is a brand-new warship anchored at the sea border, and this serves as a mobile refugee camp for initial supplies.

“It‘s quite obvious why Turkey is doing nothing. You don‘t have to be a clairvoyant.” says Mr. Sofiadelis, who then lights a cigarette and goes to the window.

Outside, the next coastguard boat was just coming into the harbor. Europe has another few dozen freezing human beings inside its borders. Freezing cold, but at least still alive.


Simon Book is part of Handelsblatt’s investigative reporting team. Regina Krieger is Handelsblatt’s Italy correspondent. To contact the authors:,



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