During lunch hour, a restaurant owner at Lesbos’ scenic port of Skala Sikamias waits in vain for customers to arrive.
By Hayley Roth
Take a walk down the main street of Mytilene, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos, and you’ll see freshly-scrubbed storefronts, colorful awnings and potted plants. Hotels, restaurants and travel agencies face the placid waters of the Aegean. Docked boats scrape against the sidewalks. Shopkeepers lounge in doorways, squinting at the sun. But the scene is incomplete.
“We don’t have tourists,” explained Diamonto Kordogianni, a young woman who works at a waterfront kiosk that sells information pamphlets, t-shirts, and trinkets targeted toward vacationers. Its shelves are overstocked and no one is buying. “It’s difficult. We don’t have jobs.”
Kordogianni’s kiosk on Mytilene’s main street is brimming with merchandise.
Lesbos is situated a mere five miles off the western coast of Turkey. In the past year, the island witnessed the influx of more than 850,000 refugees from the Middle East, all seeking asylum in the European Union. According to Marios Andriotis, senior advisor to the mayor of Lesbos, the crisis peaked in September 2015.
“I was on leave for four days,” he recalled. “When I came back, the refugee population [of Mytilene] had gone from 17,000 to 24,000. 27,000 is the population of Mytilene, so we almost had another city to take care of.”
But since the signing of the EU-Turkey Deal in March 2016, numbers have dwindled. A smuggler’s dinghy is a rare sighting. The number of resident refugees in Mytilene has dipped below 2,500. The island’s smaller towns are tranquil once again. But the tourists haven’t returned.
“The hotels, the restaurants, all kinds of businesses [are affected],” said Glykeria Kontaxaki of Repanis Tours, a local travel agency. “All the kinds, believe me.”
Repanis is one of 11 travel agencies on Mytilene’s main street alone. More than 60 percent of their 2016 bookings have been canceled. “Before last year, we had a lot of people from around the world,” Kontaxaki explained. “Now, we cannot issue tickets, we cannot rent cars, we cannot rent hotels because of the whole situation. [Tourists] keep watching videos from 2015 and they think that it happens now, but that’s a huge mistake.”
Glykeria Kontaxaki: “We wait to [get back] to normal life, before the refugees.”
According to the mayor’s office, roughly 45 percent of the city’s residents live entirely off tourism. So restaurants and upscale shops also are struggling to make ends meet.
“We sell a luxury product,” said Ismini Mamouni, of Gardenia, a boutique sweets shop. “Refugees don’t want to buy. But we’ll see what happens. We’ll wait for the war to end and for these people to have homes.”
Ismani Mamouni: “It’s a pity that we are still influenced by [the crisis], but we are also kind of optimistic. Things will get better.”
Just as travel agencies and shopkeepers wait for change, so do the island’s refugees.
Most live in the isolated camps of Moria and Kara Tepe, both beyond Mytilene’s city limits. All new arrivals to the island are now escorted by the Hellenic Coast Guard to Moria, where they are detained for 25 days behind fences topped by coils of razor wire as the Hellenic Police perform background checks and process registration requests. After this period, they are free to move to the open camp of Kara Tepe or wander the island. But no refugees can leave unless their asylum applications are approved by mainland Greek authorities. The process is referred to as “an appointment,” even though no person-to-person visit takes place. The refugees are given no chance to argue their cases to authorities in person; the paperwork must speak for itself. If it doesn’t, the result is often deportation to Turkey.
“They’re just waiting for appointments,” said Shareen Elnashie, Education Program Director for the Humanitarian Support Agency at Kara Tepe. “For some of them, they’ve been allocated appointments in December, so they don’t want to settle in too much. They’re bored. They’re just really bored.”
Without income, most have little to do in a town like Mytilene, whose shops are marketed towards affluent tourists. Children run from door to door, begging for coins. Young men cluster at the port every evening to watch the Blue Star Ferry make its nightly departure for Athens. They stare but don’t board. Most speak neither Greek nor English, so they talk among themselves. The sun sets on the same scene again and again.
Lesbos has become a waiting room– for citizens, for refugees, for volunteers stationed along the island’s eastern shore, scanning the horizon for incoming dinghies. The ferry comes and goes, but it brings few tourists, and it takes away few refugees.
On an island once devastated by change, now change can’t come soon enough.