Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis - field work notes 2015

Published 27 November 2015 / By COMPAS Communications

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This blog series covers periodic updates from Franck Düvell on his experiences in 2015 conducting research for the ESRC-funded project Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis (MEDMIG). Further posts can be found on the project page.

27 November 2015

News from the Balkan route

I recommend following this Facebook community 'Forgotten in Idomeni'. It reports on developments on the Greek - Macedonian border after the unilateral closure by the Macedonian authorities. Worthwhile reading through the different entries. Notably the picture of the kilometre long queue is telling, as is the video of the anger and despair or the camping at more and more wintry conditions. Worthwhile also to comparing the rather orderly and humane procedures before the closure (see my earlier posts below) with the rather more chaotic and certainly inhumane conditions now resulting from the blocking of route. Throws an almost self-explaining light on the consequences of different dealings with refugees and different border politics.

25 November 2015

News from Lesbos and Greece

After several days of stormy weather boats began arriving as soon as conditions improved. There were at least 80 boats arriving on Monday, no less than 2000 people it seems. This demonstrates that the need to get access to protection in the EU continous. Meanwhile, after the selective closure of the Macedonian border to all nationalities other than Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans despair and tension increases amongst other people. Also increasing are concerns on the Greek side how to handle the influx of refugees and migrants who are now stuck and thus more likely to stay for longer. Finally, this will bring back the issue of smuggling through the Balkans and the risks and abuses this involves for the people on the move which had almost disappeared with the opening of the borders.

7 November 2015

Ferry strike, over-crowed islands, and ghostly transit camps

Despite the late season, refugees continue to arrive on the Greek islands. On the one, hand, relatively favourable weather conditions, enabled tens of thousands of people to cross the Aegean Sea. For instance, on 4 11/ ‘a minimum of 20 [some write 100] boats 50-60 people each, arrived’ (‪#‎Boat‬ Refugee Foundation, ‪#‎One‬ Nation). On the other hand, a four-day strike of Greek ferry staff meant that people got stuck on the islands. On Lesbos, around 15,000 people got stuck in the port of Mytilini, another 9,000 in camp Moria whilst 3,000 got stuck in camp Mantamados and more in camp Oxy, around 20-25,000 or more (‪#‎Volunteers‬ Coordination Lesbos, ‪#‎Lighthouse‬ – Refugee Relief Lesbos). People sleep rough and even starve, ‘there is a shortage of blankets and food’, ‘we need food, food, food’, the volunteers desperately call for help. On 5/11 alone, 2,000 arrived on Chios (‪#‎Peter‬ Bouckert/HRW). And from Samos it is reported, ‘the situation in Samos is difficult, please help’ (‪#‎Help‬ the Refugees in Samos). Also on Lesbos, ‘hundreds if not thousands of refugees walking along the road’, the police prevented the NGO’s busses to take people from the transit points to the camps. This was related to the visit of a government delegation and EU parliament president and an attempt to create a more favourable situation that would not expose the failure of the local administration. This then impliues all is under control and in order and creates misleading images that prevent appropriate measures take. Cynically, any such visit also goes on the expenses of the refugees. As a result, on 4/11 the transit camp in Idomeni at the Greek-Macedonian border was deserted, an almost ghostly image (‪#‎Amir‬ H. Karimi, see pics). But from Friday morning, the ferry service is back and soon people will populate the Balkan route again.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

4 November 2015

Athens and beyond

Ferries arrive late evenings or early mornings. There is no centrally organised response. There is a volunteers group in Piraeus port providing services. Private bus companies wait in port to take some to Idomeni (tickets can be purchased on Lesbos), the next stop on the Macedonian border. Others head to Victoria square, a gathering place for mainly Afghans, travel agencies, Western Union etc are there. There are three reception centres with about 2000 places, mostly Afghans go there, conditions seem ok, but I visited only one, Eleonas, food, clothes, medical service, wifi etc. Syrians mostly stay in hotels. Within 3 days most take the busses to Idomeni. In winter or if borders are closed again people will get stuck in Athens, that will change everything.

From Athens to Luxembourg

Today, 30 refugees are relocated from Greece to Luxembourg. So, in week 30 or so of this large-scale refugee disaster 0.006 percent of the people are flown to 'Europe' whereas 99.994 percent have been pushed on the painful Balkan route. It's like providing a mini-bus for the entire population of Copenhagen and hardly sufficient. The propaganda show of EU, IOM and co could well become an embarrassment.

2 November 2015

refugee campFrom Idomeni and Gevgelija, Greek-Macedonian border

There are two twin refugee camps or rather transit points on either side. Eight buses arrive every two hours and 6-9,000 people pass every day. It is a constant flow of people. It takes 6-12 hours from Greece through Macedonia to Serbia and costs Euro 25. All is calm; plenty organisations and NGOs and volunteers cater for people on the move. All is rather effective and efficient. All is rather humane. This shows that if a refugee flow is well managed horrors like in the Aegean or on Lesbos can be avoided (sic!). (MSF Greece and Red Cross Macedonia supported me today, many thanks to them).

31 October 2015

From Athens, Eleonas refugee reception centre, a snapshot

Eleonas refugee campOn 31 October, I visited Eleonas, an open refugee reception centre. Accommodation is arranged in containers sleeping 2x4. It is situated fairly central though in a grim and dilapidated industrial zone. Eleonas is the next main stop for many people on the move from Turkey and Mytilini. They arrive in the port of Piraeus, come here exhausted, stay for an average of three days, sleep, eat, see a doctor, and get clothes before moving on. The camp has a capacity of 700, in the afternoon there were about 500 but during the day about 9,000 had arrived in Piraeus. Most people here are Afghans, some are Iraqis. After the chaos of Lesbos and the camp of Moria, Eleonas seems pretty well managed and run, there are sufficient and dedicated social workers, psychologists, interpreters and doctors working almost 24/7; also here volunteers make important contributions. All accommodations have a toilet and are heated and all people have a bed, toilet, shower, medical service, food, counselling if wanted, and some access to wifi. No place where people would want to stay for longer, I suppose, but still adequate for the current purpose and needs.

30 October 2015


Record number of arrivals, it seems, people on the move seem to fear (a) that the weather will soon prevent further journeys to the EU and (b) rumour goes that the EU will close its borders, like over winter when things calm down, that the route to Germany will be closed and that people get stuck in Greece.

29 October 2015

Addressing Medicins sans Frontieres conference in Athens

Today, I am addressing the annual migration conference of Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) in Athens. The conference 'Cannot allow for the human costs of human restrictive migraton policies to be ignored anymore' discusses the policy implications of recent large-scale movement of refugees, humanitarian emergencies and policy responses for large international NGOs like MSF. I will contribute to the panel on 'international organisations changing role, the externalisation of control and social closure'. My intervention will be informed by the findings of our ESRC project on the Mediterranean migration crisis.

27 October 2015

AthensIn Athens: On fieldwork again for our ESRC MedMig project

Met with the major of Athens, Medicins sans Frontieres, and the Greek Forum of Refugees.

In the evening, I went to Victoria Square in the centre of Athens. On this small square hundreds of migrants and refugees, mostly Afghans it seems, including many women, families and children are sleeping rough. After Istanbul and Mytilini this is another station on the long road of suffering and humiliation.

25 October 2015


Frontex accused of slowing down registration procedures in “Hot Spot” Moria, creating a humanitarian disaster and leaving refugees for days in life-threatening conditions.

“Refugees who survive the journey from ...Turkey [to] Greece ...are subjected to the so-called EU ‘hotspot approach’ ...launched on Friday 16th of October 2015. As part of the European Agenda on Migration, hotspots are now being deployed by mobile teams of the European border agency Frontex to support so-called ‘frontline EU states’ in systematically identifying and screening travellers who ‘illegally’ entered EU territory. One of Frontex’ main tasks is to speed up the ‘return process’, thus the deportation of those who Frontex ‘identifies’ as not coming from a country of war and/or as not having valid grounds for asylum in Europe.

Since Frontex has entered the scene, registration processes were dramatically slowed down. Frontex procedures of ‘screening’ individuals takes a long time which has caused great delays and thus created a situation of humanitarian emergency for the hundreds of people waiting outside. The official opening of this hotspot on Lesvos coincided with increased numbers of new arrivals and deteriorating weather conditions. While it rained non-stop in the past few days, dinghies kept arriving from Turkey. In the absence of any functioning queuing system and any form of crowd management by the authorities, and without access to shelter (protecting people from the harsh weather conditions), sanitary infrastructures such as toilets, as well as to food, water, dry clothing, medication and doctors, hundreds of desperate refugees are left to survive in between mud and piles of garbage outside of Moria’s fences.” (From

24 October 2015

On volunteers

I found the volunteers in some organic way extremely well organised. Indeed the well organised big international organisations/international NGOs are largely completely dysfunctional whereas the spontaneous initiatives really make a difference and rescued many lives.

20 October 2015

Another humanitarian emergency

  • 10,000 refugee arrivals on Greek islands in last 24.
  • On Lesbos it's a humanitarian emergence again.
  • Volunteers plea for urgent help.


18 October 2015

Syrian Refugees: Some Reflection on Latest Policy Development

  • UK and others refuse to admit refugees in any significant numbers.
  • Germany wants to reduce the influx of refugees.
  • Hungary closed all borders and thus the route to the north.
  • Greece, Lesbos, opening of the first 'hotspot' to separate refugees from non-refugees.
  • Turkey, gendarmerie intensifies controls on roads from Istanbul and Izmir to coasts.
  • Davutoglu, Turkish prime minister, in the meeting with Merkel insists in safe zone in northern Syria to prevent more Syrians from crossing its borders.
  • Read in context this implies a knock on effect, UK and others do not accept refugees, Germany and other EU countries feel overwhelmed, do not want more refugees and want them to be contained in Turkey. Turkey doesn't want them either, at least not more, and want them to be contained in Syria. Meanwhile, Russia's intervention and Assad's attack displaces ten thousands more people. In other words refugees would be contained in the war zone. This could be the end of the international refugee convention.

From Turkey

Different people in Istanbul and Izmir report intensive controls by gendarmerie on roads from cities to the coastal areas. Busses, vans and Cars are stopped and controlled, notably those with several passengers send back to where they come from when passengers are refugees. The weather is good, the sea calm and the police knows this and prevents people to take advantage and head for the coast to take a boat to Greece I was told. Meanwhile, horrendous crimes committed by some Turkish coast guard as alleged by Eric Kempson [a local]. These developments could push people to more dangerous routes or to cross in more dangerous weather. The effects and side-effects need to be monitored.

16 October 2015

Syrian Refugees in Istanbul: a life in the basement

There could be 400-450,000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul, numbers are disagreed, about 300,000 are registered whilst up to 35, 40 percent are said not to be registered. ‘The government is not willing to have Syrians in Istanbul’ (NGO 3), ‘they keep them south’ (NGO 1). Waiting time for registration is three month, changing registration from other cities to Istanbul is often refused; ‘they don’t have a status, not a real status’ (NGO 1). Syrians are ‘pushed-back from Istanbul’ (NGO 2).

I visited the borough Esenler in the west by the central bus station. It is a lower middle class neighbourhood, 1980s apartment blocks, metro stations, hospital, little public space, plenty textile and shoe industry. There are 9.800 registered and another 6-10,000 unregistered Syrians. Syrians are often poor, ‘more than 50 percent live in extreme poverty’ (NGO 2), they have exhausted their savings. ‘People don’t want to let to Syrians’ (NGO 2), Syrians are only let and can only afford rooms in the basement. These are dark, depressing, damp and ‘often inhumane’ (NGO 2). Still rents are high, TL 500-700 plus bills TL 300. But employers don’t hire the 40+, then the families’ children must work (NGO 1), ‘child labour is increasing’, employers hire them because they are the cheapest (NGO 3 rep). ‘Nobody cares’ (NGO 1). Earnings are TL 6-700 in textile jobs. In Syria they had their own apartments but here several families need to share because they can’t afford. This creates additional problems.

After 5, 4, 3 years can anybody be expected to endure this uncertainty, this kind of life any longer?

(field notes ESRC MedMig Crisis project)

15 October 2015

Afghan Refugees in Istanbul: a forgotten and discriminated group?


Afghans are the second largest group arriving in Greece 18 percent or 82,000. There are about 20,000 Afghans in Istanbul and concentrated in just one neighbourhood. Some are rather settled, others are transient, half are registered the others not, some are refugees, others escape hopelessness. Frustration with the Afghan government is high I was told and the Taliban occupation of Kunduz was a shock.

However, whilst Syrian refugees seem now more privileged, Afghans seem rather discriminated. In Turkey, Syrians are granted temporary protection, Afghans are no longer even given UNHCR interviews; there is a Support Office for Syrian Refugees in Istanbul but none for Afghans. In Greece, Syrians are granted a 6-months status whilst Afghans are served with a 5-weeks permission. In Turkey they can’t get an asylum interview and in Greece they can’t get one either, there only 50 applications are accepted a day and they would wait for ever. Public and policy concentrates on Syrians whilst all others seem somewhat ignored.

In Istanbul, last week the weather had changed, it got cold, wet and windy but still dozens of people amongst them many families with children were sleeping rough in parks and under bridges (see picture, watch the little girl on the left). For some, the only shelter from the cold wind was a lamp post. Some are extremely poor. Istanbul winters are wet and cold, snow not unusual. Seeing this was truly heart-breaking. How can they survive this? How can they rebuild their lives?

11 October 2015

Syrian Refugees in Izmir: on the brink of a major emergency?

Izmir1NGOs say there are 74,000 registered Syrians in Izmir but claim there are many more who are unregistered, 11,000 authorities say, more than 400,000 NGOs suggest. A small scale survey by the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants - ASAM implies that 45 percent could be minors. There are currently few other refugees in Izmir. Syrians seem rather dispersed across town.

Eighty percent are poor, often extreme, the Relief Society of Syrian Refugees in Izmir says. Maybe 16 percent work, often only casually, and earn TL 700, 1,000 (€2-300), often below the statutory minimum wage of TL 1200. There is usually only one male breadwinner in a family of 5 or 7, some women work too and even some children.

Most Syrians are said to be there to stay; settlers and transit migrants reside in different neighbourhoods and the transit neighbours was rather quiet. In summer, streets, parks and bus station were packed with Syrians; this is now no longer the case. They have either moved on to Greece or found accommodation. But there were also two major police operations targeting people not supposed to be in town legally, ie who were not registered in Izmir.

Living conditions are extremely worrying, rent for small apartments is TL 400-750 incl water and electricity and not everybody can afford. Apartments are often shared by several families and even the corridors are sometimes used as living space. The quality of housing let to Syrians is often sub-standard; many accommodations are not meant to be for human use or are extremely old and damp. Hygienic conditions are an issue.
Forthcoming winter conditions, cold and rainy weather are likely to cause humanitarian emergencies. Many, notably children are already sick due to polluted water and malnutrition and cold damp weather will further aggravate the situation.

There are few NGOs and mostly in the inner cities whilst the remote areas seem neglected. Many stakeholder visit but few do anything. There is a need for immediate humanitarian intervention: visits to assess needs, food supplies, also medicine and heating bills need to be covered.

(from my ESRC research project, am with the Syrian Relief Society to deliver non-food items).

9 October 2015

Does EU President wants 'Iron Curtain' back?

Today, the president of the Council of the European Union Donald Tusk argued that razor wire and fences are the best way to protect the EU's borders, he declared 'Bulgaria is perhaps the best example, also for other Member States, of how to protect its borders'.

And Bulgaria protects its border like this... [with a fence and razor wire].

In other words Tusk wants the 'iron curtain' back, only a bit further east and south and not between communist and capitalist but between EU and non-EU and richer and poorer countries. This is not new of course but still deeply shocking...

Relocation versus removal?

Under 'new' EU policy, 19 refugees were relocated from Italy within the EU and another 53 were removed to Tunisia and Egypt. 'Let's start the project of returning all those who are irregularly in Europe, and provide with our support and help for those who are in need of our protection' Avramopoulos explained. Hence roughly a quarter was accepted and three quarters removed. Is this illustrating the spirit in which the new EU approach will be implemented?

(From European Commission press release)

8 October 2015

Impressions from Izmir

It is here where people buy the life vests that you find on the beaches of Lesbos and indeed drifting everywhere on the waters between Turkey and Greece.

A young boy smiled at me saying 'to Greece, to Greece' rushing out of a shop with a bag full of these things.

Meanwhile, shop owners were rather unhappy when they saw me taking pictures.

Indeed, only small groups of Syrians and others were arriving at the central bus station to take taxis to the transit neighbourhood of Izmir. There, it was rather quiet, there were not the tens of thousands of people that some of the refugees on Lesbos mentioned. Still most shops advertise their services in Arabic, some people were sleeping rough and others were begging.

It occurs to me that some negative media and recent repressive policy responses start having an impact on the situation in Turkey.

7 October 2015

Snapshot of Lesbos boat refugee situation

The scene in the port of Mytilini illustrates well the current situation and the architecture of travelling/smuggling, rescuing and control. There are inflatable dinghies, some collapsed and looking unsafe, red life vests which litter the beaches and roads and which are omnipresent, a mobile first aid station, two Greek coast guard vessels, and in the background a Frontex patrol boat mostly doing the rescues it seems. Just behind are the travel agents selling bus tickets to Macedonia. And then there is the IOM screening officer and to the right there are ferry that takes people to mainland Greece after a detour through various camps and registration procedures.

6 October 2015

From Lesbos, Molyvos, Eftalou

  • Large Greek navy vessel now on Lesbos, patrols jointly with Greek and Turkish coast guard.
  • Two boats arrived in the morning, one sits dead in international waters, several departed from but returned to Turkey.
  • One empty deflated dinghy drifting off the coast.
  • Border de facto closed during day time.
  • Greek coast guard withdrawn 7.30.
  • Volunteers get ready, bring water, torches.
  • From 9 pm boats begin arriving, lots of families, children, all safe.
  • No authorities, UNHCR etc in sight.
  • Volunteers are extremely quick and well organised, within minutes all have dry clothes, blankets, water and a lift to the transit camp Oxy.

From Lesbos

  • 4,000 or more arrivals yesterday.
  • Today one boat was sinking, 75 people rescued, another boat towed in.
  • Sunday night, between Cesme and Chios, small boat, 15 people, stopped by Greek coast guard, engine stopped, key thrown into sea and boat set adrift, later rescued by 'Red Cross' [account of friend, Syrian, who made it to lesbos].
  • Tomorrow, 5 people plan to swim because they have no money [ibid].
  • Today prime minister visits camps.

4 October  2015


Around fifty boats arrived today on the northern beaches only, transit camp Oxy in the west) managed by UNHCR was temporarily closed due to overcrowding, some arrivals were redirected to the MsF run transit points in Skamnia and Mandamadhos in the east. Still, hundreds sleep rough, including families and children, nights are getting colder.

After Eid and some stormy weather thousands left Turkey, on Saturday, several Turkish coast guard boats patrolled the waters south of Bahramkale (Assos), none were seen on Sunday, so hundreds made the crossing in daylight. They arrived from 11 am.

Dozens of volunteers from Boat Refugees Foundation (NL), WAHA (FR), La chaine de l’espoir (FR) and International Rescue Committee US) arranged the welcome, assisted in off-loading the boats, provided dry clothes, water, food and subsequently transportation inland. State officials are hardly seen except some police officers and some other emergency services.

This is a truly European if not global response, it’s civil society at its best, ordinary people of all ages and in their hundreds are on the island backing the locals who have been shouldering the influx of refugees for several years. They provide the support EU, the Greek state or other member states are unwilling to provide.

Conditions in camp Oxy were truly shocking, thousands of exhausted people, men, women and children, some still soaked in salt water, more or less slept where they broke down, many had not eaten for three days it seems whilst waiting for the boats to take them to Greece.

Meanwhile, hundreds did not wait for transportation and were walking into the night towards Mytilini, 75 kilometres away and a good, two, three days walk. Half way there is the Greek NGO Agkali providing anther transit point.

All in all, the turn-around time has been significantly reduced; three refugee ferries, the regular service and even flights take people to Athens within one to three days. This eases the emergency on the island.

3 October 2015

Around 2,900 migrants and refugees had arrived on Lesbos. Camp Moria fills up again, long queues for registration, the precondition for purchasing the ticket for the ferry to mainland Greece. It is hot again, and dusty, policy cars and motorbikes carelessly rush through the crowd covering everybody is fine white dust. Do they do it deliberately? To further humiliate 'the migrants'? There is little shadow, little water, little food and sanitary conditions are beyond description. People are sick, beg interpreters for help but still they need to queue as help is largely only available inside the camp.

2 October 2015

Stormy weather, only a thousand or so people arrived on Lesbos, two ship wrecks were recorded, several people died. Interpreters and volunteers trace the family members, take care of people in the hospital, arrange the burial and take care of the survivors.

And all this unfolds in the midst of Europe, Turkey is Europe, Greece is Europe and Syria and Iraq just lie on its door-steps. Holiday makers wander through this in disbelieve, puzzled, swim and dive next to the arrivals, tourists are taken to camp Oxy, some become volunteers, our hotel accommodates holiday makers, aid workers and refugees door by door. Sites of holidaying and sites of humanitarian emergency, sites of aid work and sites of business overlap and merge. Tourists and refugees use the same service, meet in the Vodafone shop, queue for taxis, refugees take pictures of tourists and tourists portrait refugees, heaven and hell have become one…

25 September 2015

Something is going on in Turkey

Three weeks ago, a student reported that Bodrum was full of Syrians, one week later a colleague reported that Syrians were cleared out of the city whilst gendarmes patrolled the beaches. The road from Istanbul to Edirne is blocked, refugees banned from public transport and Thrace sealed-off. Holiday makers told me about road blocks in the Assos region opposite Lesbos. Finally, I understood from colleagues that the presidential office considers removing refugees from western border region and move them inland.

It is believed that the picture of dead child Al-Kurdi prompted Turkish president Erdogan to demand action in Bodrum. Also the public protests of refugees in Edirne and Istanbul challenged the state which responded with oppression, as usual.

However, the context is that on 16/11 Merkel and Erdogan discussed refugee matters over the phone (see Hurriyet 16/9). What they discussed is not known. In any case, the EU agreed to spend one billion Euro to support Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to improve conditions of refugees not at least to keep them in the region. And next, year the EU-Turkey readmission agreement will be fully implemented so that the EU can return irregular migrants. Turkey will reinforce efforts to contain refugees to again function as buffer zone of the EU. There must be some trade-off, maybe that the EU keeps quiet on Turkey's operation against Kurds? Also the idea of a safe 'no-fly' zone in northern Syria where displaced persons could be kept is still on the table. Meanwhile, Russia 'puts boots on the ground' to stabilise Assad and fight back IS; the US won't do that but this seems to be communicated between the two powers. Finally, Turkey pilots the forceful return of refugees to Iraq (see AI document below). And 11 million displaced Syrians, 4 million refugees and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and other people of the region are sandwiched in a major geo-strategic reordering which leaves the cities destroyed, the region half de-populated and many people broken.

20 September 2015

Turkish Refugee Legislation

Under the new law on foreigners and international protection and because Turkey implements a geographic limitation to the 1951 convention non-Europeans are not accepted as refugees. Syrians are thus granted the status of temporary protection, all others are in a dual state and UNHRC system. The state grants the status of conditional refugees based on the expectation that a status is granted under the condition that the person is to be resettled to a third country. UNHCR RSD interviews which are the precondition for resettlement now have a waiting time of 9 years. There are currently only 10.000 resettlement places for the most vulnerable, hence it is de facto over for most. Syrians under temporary protection are issued a foreigners ID which grants them almost equal rights to Turks but they have no permission to work. The problem lies in the implementation of rights, like access to education is only secured for 16 percent of children due to lack of resources.

Related publications

24 Sep 2015 - From a refugee crisis to a crisis of Europe

Selected media coverage

The AKP's Golden Opportunity
2 Nov 2015 | Foreign Affairs

Refugee crisis: ‘Europe needs to take big numbers. Until then, chaos reigns’
19 Sep 2015 | The Observer

UN warns European unity at risk as borders close to refugees
19 Sep 2015 | The Observer