‘Believers in a traditional Hellenophobia–Turkophobia would have stared at the sight of the Mytilene Greeks spreading farewell meals for their departing neighbours, and later accompanying them to the quay, where Christians and Mohammedans, who for a lifetime had been plowing adjacently and even sharing occasional backgammon games at village cafes, embraced and parted with tears. Then, seated on their heaped up baggage, with their flocks around them – the women weeping, the children hugging their pets, the gray-bearded babas all dignity, as is their wont – the Mytilene Muslims set forth for unknown Turkey.’
– National Geographic, November 1922
White beach blue sea white village blue sky. One half of a Greek flag. A single orange life jacket, washed up on the tideline.
Sometimes, across the sea, Turkey’s mountainous hinterland is hazy, especially in the days before a storm. The haze is sand blown in from Egypt, or so the baker says, and when the rains come the cars end up filthy and streaked. She says it never used to be like this. On other days the land is vivid, the houses of the towns along the coastline as distinct and bleached as the stones beneath the silent water. A single fishing boat, far out, a single man bowed to his net.
The Greek-made map of Lesbos, tacked up on the wall of our apartment, gives this history of the island, the text set in the blank space of the island’s largest gulf:
In 1355 Lesbos was presented as a dowry to the Genoese prince Francesco I Gattilusio and in the ensuing years acquired considerable economic and military power. This heyday lasted until 1462, when Sultan Mohamed II captured the island from the Genoese masters. Lesbos was plunged into centuries of darkness under Ottoman domination, until it was liberated by the Greek navy in 1912.
At the narrowest point of the strait, Turkey is six kilometres away. The Greek mainland is more than one hundred. Every Thursday morning and every Saturday morning, Greeks haul empty suitcases onto the ferries that make the crossing from Mytilene to Ayvalık, and in the evenings they return, their bags stuffed with cheap electronics and cotton sheets. The shopkeepers cross too, and the Roma, who pick up terracotta pots to sell from out the backs of their cars. The Turkish lira is weak these days. The crossing is forty-five minutes, or an hour and a half on the cheap boat. Coming back at dusk, the fading peaks of Lesbos echo those of the Turkish mainland, set adrift from its mirror twin. On the island of Cunda, as the boat quits Ayvalık’s harbour for the sea, the tower of the abandoned church of Taxiarchis, now a museum, still catches the late sun. As we dock the swifts are screaming, dipping to the water in the last of the light.
It is spring; it has come again. The swifts arrived last week. The direct flights start from Gatwick, packed with birdwatchers seeking the annual passage of the hawk and tern and stork. The migrant boats begin to cross, and they are given little choice as to whether they do so on a calm day or in a storm. Frontex and the Turkish coastguard step up their nighttime patrols of coastal waters. Volunteers arrive from the wealthier European countries for their weeks of work with one of the more than 150 NGOs that now populate the island. And one day, the butterflies appear.
I see them first on the airport road as I am walking out of the supermarket. They are making their way along the street, a little higher than the cars, a thin but constant stream of them. Orange flashes in the afternoon light. I am with my daughter, and she points up at them from her pushchair, and we stop and watch them for some minutes as they continue overhead, from south to north.
As we walk home they are everywhere, flooding the island like a wind. I find one smashed in the grille of a parked car and extract it. It is a painted lady; I know them from English gardens far from here. In the apartment, I look them up. The maps of their migrations have thick arrows like diagrams of war, commencing in the sub-Sahara and converging on Europe, crossing the Mediterranean where the waters are narrowest, some through Greece, others through Spain. None of them, apparently, take the Italian route. It is too far over open sea, and I suppose, in some sense, they have a choice.
Little is known about insect migrations. Animals and birds can be fitted with trackers that record their movements, but insects are too delicate. And it is not a single creature that makes the 8,047-kilometre journey from Chad or Niger or Benin to Europe and then back again each year. Instead it is the species that migrates, over a succession of generations. Each Vanessa cardui ’s life lasts between ten and twenty-four days, and during that time the adult female must travel, mate and deposit eggs. The next stage of the journey will be continued by her offspring. They catch the high-altitude winds. It is one of the longest insect migrations in the world.
I go out on the balcony. I cannot see them any more. Just the crumpled, folded body of the one that I am holding in my hand.
Insect migrations also remain unknown because we do not notice them. The birdwatchers flying in from Gatwick with their spotting scopes are not here for the butterflies. Much of what is known about their passage through Europe comes from studies in 2009, when, according to one paper, the ‘numbers of V. cardui migrating across Europe were so high that they raised awareness among the general public, with the result that a large number of people contributed to online surveys and made it possible to investigate with unprecedented detail the migration system in this part of the range’. Yet they remain mysterious. Only in 2014 did an expedition to the Sahel reveal where the painted ladies spend their winters. No one on Lesbos remembers them in numbers like this. They are, perhaps, alighting here and breeding, before their final push to northern Europe.
I am sitting on the veranda of a well-to-do cafe that could be in Vienna or Lisbon – high ceilings, petits fours, the waiters in black aprons and white shirts – and just over five and a half kilometres away is the largest refugee camp in Europe. Because my partner is working at the camp full-time I have been looking after our daughter. It is possible to be on Lesbos and have little idea the camp is here. There are signs, if you know to look for them. In the graffiti – no borders, fuck frontiers, blue stamp for all. The occasional rough sleeper who has not yet registered or been picked up by the police. The struggling or shuttered restaurants in the fishing villages, finding business increasingly slow since Lesbos hit the news and the tourists deserted the island for other, less complicated holidays. Each morning I go down to the beach and swim out into a sea where thousands have drowned. Picking through the flotsam – a shoe, a lens from a pair of glasses, a cigarette lighter – and wondering whether these are objects lost carelessly overboard, or all that remains now of someone’s tragedy. In the playground, the Greek parents that I speak to want to know about the camps. Are people still arriving? Are they still being transferred to the mainland? They were just about to have a clear-out, perhaps they could donate some clothes?
Beyond the cafe, fish shops line the cobbled street. The farmers are arriving in their pickups from the hills inland, the flatbeds stacked with crates of oranges and camomile and cherries, and setting up in the shade. It is early, and already it is clear that it will be hot, again. Further down, in the former Turkish part of town, beyond the banks and the perfumers and the United Colours of Benetton, is Yeni Mosque. Pigeons clatter through the shade to alight on rusting girders that keep the crumbling arches spread. Suggestions of sacred texts in relief in the broken stonework. Cats lounging in squares of sunlight, and the courtyard full of mallow. And on the road towards the airport, following the coast: crumbling Ottoman mansions overlooking Turkey and the ocean, long since abandoned, now graffitied, squatted by anarchists, squatted by migrants, squatted by dogs. They are like something out of Márquez, their faded plasterwork and splintered shutters still shading rooms that were packed into trunks and shipped away a hundred years ago. The wisteria gone wild. Their gardens choked with waist-high grasses, the citrus trees unpicked, the orange fruit startlingly bright. Some of the Ottoman Muslims got rich here, a good living to be made trading olive oil and soap across this narrow stretch of water, when this stretch of water was just that, a trade route, and not one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world.
I have invited Masoud Ghorbanpour to the cafe this morning for a coffee. Normally he would be in the camp’s two-hour breakfast queue just now. Masoud crossed that water one year and seven months ago. He came here from Iran. He fled Tehran on the night of his daughter’s birthday, and paid €11,250, cash, for safe passage to Germany. The smuggler was all assurances. Masoud never made it to Germany. A series of missteps, his money gone, he was shuttled through various houses and camps until he came, in the winter, to Turkey’s west coast. He made the crossing. He was alone. Eight months later, his wife and his daughter, now seven, joined him. When he tells me that, his eyes soften for a moment. His name and theirs are tattooed one after the other, like the single jagged line of a hospital heart monitor, on the outside of his forearm.
‘This sea, this ocean, it’s horrible,’ he says. ‘But we’re trying, this whole journey, for a better life, for the children. For the next generation. What can we do? Without any money, without any support from the government in the first country? The borders are, in my mentality, bullshit. Why? It’s just one sea. In some places just six kilometres. Everything is changing in six kilometres.’
It wasn’t always this way. For centuries Lesbos was part of the Ottoman Empire. There was a mix of faiths on the island, Muslim and Christian, as there was throughout much of the Empire, working and farming alongside one another under the Sultan’s rule, mostly with tolerance and respect. Mytilene itself was seen as a model of how the religions could live together. And across the water, Greeks had been on the Anatolian coast for the past 3,000 years. Towns like Ayvalık and Smyrna, later renamed Izmir, were almost entirely Greek.
But by the early nineteenth century the model began unravelling as the more modern notion of nationalism took hold. The newly formed kingdom of Greece, explicitly Christian, declared independence from the Empire and forced the Ottoman to retreat. At the same time, as tensions rose across the region, more and more Christians left Anatolia for the Balkans. Yet things only truly collapsed at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1912 Greece pushed east, capturing Thessaloniki and most of the Aegean islands, including Lesbos, almost doubling the size of its territory and taking charge of a large Muslim population. A decade of fighting followed. By the autumn of 1922, the Turkish army, commanded by Kemal Atatürk, had reached Turkey’s west coast, driving the Greek army before it. In Smyrna, a fire in the Greek and Armenian quarters killed up to 100,000 people. In Ayvalık, the women and children fled in boats for Lesbos; of 3,000 men forced into labour battalions in Anatolia, only twenty-three survived. Many of those living in Mytilene today are the descendants of those who survived that crossing, a century ago.
Masoud Ghorbanpour is, as much as the words have meaning, one of the lucky ones. He received his residence permit: his family is allowed to stay. But the tax number which should have followed has not arrived. Each time he visits the tax office he is told to come back in two months. Without a tax number, he cannot work. He cannot rent a flat. His daughter is not enrolled in school. For now he is still in the camp with his family, living in an Isobox, and they still receive their collective monthly stipend of €190. But that is due to stop six months after receiving his residence permit, which will be any day now.
‘I’m losing my mother tongue because of stress,’ he says. ‘I’m trying to make conversation with my wife but I can’t because I’m forgetting everything. I’m forgetting the password for my phone. I have headaches, always. Backaches, needle pains in the fingers. In the left leg, in the left hand, the left arm. Neck pain. Heart pain. Stomach pain. I have to take Ritalin in the morning. Omeprazole in the evening. A lot of paracetamol with ibuprofen during the day. I have a lot of nausea, a lot of stress. My hand, my leg is shaking all the time. Really, how can I survive in this situation? I want to work. But everything is linked to my tax number.’
Migrant, from the Latin migrare, to move from one place to another. Not emigrant, not immigrant, not leaving or arrived, but migrant, in motion. Except the life of a migrant is not defined by motion. It is instead a life of brief shuttles between periods of interminable waiting. It is waiting in line for two hours for each meal. It is waiting in the tax office, the police station, the hospital. It is waiting for Western Union to open. It is waiting for two years for a decision on your claim. It is waiting for an identity that is something more than ‘migrant’. It is waiting that is fuelling the mental health crisis that now comprises the majority of healthcare on the island, a crisis that the care here is chronically ill-equipped to manage. Last year, Médecins Sans Frontières described Moria refugee camp as an open-air ‘mental asylum’.
It is the life of Masoud’s daughter that concerns him most. ‘I’m thirty-two,’ he says. ‘I’m done. But she is seven years old. They have to grow with a nice mentality. She’s not something like a flower or fruit. She’s a human. And I worry about the side effects in her future.’ She has only an hour and a half of schooling each day, provided by one of the camp’s NGOs. She is learning Greek and English, nothing else. 46 per cent of refugees on the island are children. They can expect to be here for years.
‘I’m in the bubble right now,’ he says. ‘Greece situation, Greek rules, is a bubble for me. Right now I’m here,’ and he gestures a little higher than the table where we are sitting, where our iced coffees are warming. ‘But five years later, I’m here.’ He points up into the blue of the sky. ‘And if I’m coming to ground after that . . .’ He tails off. ‘I’m exploding if I hit the ground from there,’ he says. ‘If I escaped right now, it’s better for me and my family.’
More than a million migrants arrived in Europe by sea in 2015. This was the year of the highly publicised deaths, the capsized boats, of Alan Kurdi face down in the sand. The words ‘refugee crisis’ rolled off the tongue as the news clichés do: they suggested a unique moment, a temporary aberration before everyone could settle back into their lives. And indeed, for all the horrors, passage through Europe was often relatively quick. Arrivals to Lesbos would be on boats to Athens within days, and then move north, a shifting route as borders opened and closed, as rumours spread, everyone on course for Germany, for Sweden, for Britain.
Then in March 2016, the EU–Turkey deal was signed. The agreement, forged in Brussels, spearheaded by Germany, stipulated that everyone arriving ‘irregularly’ on the Greek islands should be returned swiftly to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey was to receive €6 billion to deal with its already vast refugee population, and Europe would take one Syrian refugee off Turkey’s hands for every Syrian that was returned to Turkey from the islands. Turkish nationals were granted visa-free travel to Europe.
Overnight, the reception centres on the islands became detention centres. The Greek government began rejecting asylum applications out of hand. And yet as of the end of July 2019, only 1,884 people have been returned to Turkey in the past three years, according to Turkey’s interior ministry. Appeals drag on for years. Greek courts have ruled in many cases that Turkey is not a safe country for return. And so most people have become stuck on the islands, neither moving forward nor back, as the conditions in the Aegean become ever more squalid and overcrowded. There are currently more than 11,000 refugees on Lesbos, and Moria camp is nearly four times over capacity.
Yet the crisis, apparently, is over. In 2015, 861,630 people arrived in Greece and as of September 2019, the number is 38,598. Governments would have you believe that the situation has been brought under control. The deals, the walls, the hard-line stances, the hostile environments: all these are having an effect. But numbers can disguise an awkward human story. They do not mention the 40,000 people, including 15,000 children, who have been arrested en route and sent back to Turkey. They do not mention that 2019 has been far deadlier in the Mediterranean than 2015, as closed borders and the legal limbo on the islands push people towards ever more desperate routes, while at the same time rescue boats are prevented from carrying out their work. And they do not mention that the arrivals this August on the islands are the highest for a single month since early 2016, when the EU–Turkey deal was signed, as fears of Turkey organising mass deportations of its refugees propel thousands once more towards Europe. Six hundred came in a single day. A series of emergency measures, swiftly hammered out by the new Greek government, includes stepping up the border force and removing the right of appeal for failed asylum seekers, deporting them to their country of origin.
At least 20 per cent of the population of Anatolia died during the last ten years of the Ottoman Empire, between 1912 and 1922, as the First World War bled into the Turkish War of Independence, and the Ottoman government enacted the slaughter of its Armenian population. An estimated 2.5 million Muslims, 1.5 million Armenians, 300,000 Greeks. Nation states, with strong, unique identities, were usurping multifaith empires. For the religions to continue to cohabit seemed impossible. The Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, set out a ‘compulsory exchange’ between Greek Orthodox Turkish nationals and Greek nationals who were Muslim. In 1923, 400,000 Muslims and 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians were forcibly relocated. One million six hundred thousand people who had no connection with the land where they arrived, except that they practised the religion which was decreed by the state, were asked to believe that they were home. And yet today, Golden Dawn would have the Greek electorate believe that the arrival of Muslim refugees is diluting what it means to be Greek.
In 2019, one billion people are migrants. In 2019, the highest number of people are fleeing war since the Second World War. Should we not give these people more of a definition than one that is simply based on what they are not? Electronics and cotton sheets can cross this narrow strait with ease. And lorries parked up on the quayside in Ayvalık, await the next ferry for Europe. There is something about a person clinging to the base of a lorry that encapsulates everything about the cruel logic of free trade and impenetrable borders.
Migration will not stop: if there is a single lesson to be taken home from Lesbos it is that. To approach history with amnesia or myopia might suggest that at some point things will be back to normal, but the truth is that this is normal. The only way that ‘stopping migration’ makes sense is as a slogan that bolsters the far right in the creation of a perpetual drama which they are fully aware is unresolvable, a drama which peddles the lie that just as soon as an end to migration is achieved, all other problems will fade away. This slogan has so dictated the narrative that one liberal line of thought now runs that not getting tough on migration means ceding votes to the right. We must consider who these people arriving really are, and what
they mean to us. Even on Lesbos, at one of the epicentres of migration, they are possible to ignore. But we cannot be neutral; this is also our story.
This year Orthodox Easter comes a week later than the Anglican. All weekend there are firecrackers in the streets, loud as gunshots, and I wonder about those sleeping in the camps and what memories the sounds stir. On the Saturday night we go down to the harbour and eat there by the water. All of Mytilene is there, it seems, dressed in their best, and when they pile out of the churches in the last of the dusk they line the harbour’s streets. A cutter, gun-metal grey, is leaving for the nightly patrol, and coming the other way are all of the fishing boats, the glow of their deck lights in the dark. There is a priest leading the hymns on a loudspeaker and his low voice drifts across the water, and as the fishing boats gather, the families light the Chinese lanterns they have brought along with them. The first goes up, then several more. And all of a sudden in their hundreds they are rising into the air, their orange orbs massing above the town like the constellations set loose, piercing the night, hiding the stars. I have never seen so many. And they catch the winds up there, a stream of them being carried away off to the west, and I watch them, sitting there at my table with my family and my wine, until they fade from sight.
Photograph © Ioannis Mantas / Alamy, abandoned house in Mytilene, island of Lesbos, Greece. Previously, offices of the University of the Aegean.