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.