High up in the sunburnt hills of Lesvos, Greece lies a black and orange heap of plastic. It is large, about the size of an Olympic swimming pool, but its vastness pales in comparison to the scope of the reasons why it is there—the half a million and growing masses of displaced refugees who have washed up upon the island’s shores.
Lesvos is a major port for refugees fleeing chaos in the middle east, mostly from war-torn Afghanistan and Syria. The journey across the sea can be deadly. Refugees often pay over $5000 to smugglers who will bring them across the Mediterranean to supposedly safe ports in Europe, but there is no guarantee that the smugglers have not been bribed for one reason or another, or that the journey will be successful.
The black and orange heaps rotting in the hills of Lesvos are made up of lifejackets and boats that belonged to those who made it over, but in those quiet mountains one can almost hear the whispering of the hundreds of thousands who were lost on the way. A closer look reveals children’s floaties, some painted with princess decals, some emblazoned with the message, This is not a flotation device.
Once in Lesvos, the owners of these lifejackets were carted into packed camps, where many of them have remained for years. Conditions in the Moria camp in particular have been widely maligned by human rights organizations around the world. The camp was made to hold 2,000 people and now holds over 6,000, according to official reports, though many believe that the number has exceeded 8,000. Refugees live in cramped makeshift tents that flood when it rains, and the camps are overrun by disease, mental illness stemming from severe trauma, and chaos.
Following the Arab Spring in 2011, which catalyzed revolutions across the Middle East, Syria and many other countries experienced a mass exodus, leading to the flood of people seeking asylum in Europe that has come to be known as the modern refugee crisis.
Many refugees are university-educated professionals, fleeing in hopes of finding a better life for themselves and their families. But once in Europe, they are often caught up in bureaucratic tangles that keep them stagnant in the camps for years at a time, despite the fact that many already have family members in other parts of the continent.
Thousands of volunteers have flocked to the island in order to help. Nonprofits like A Drop in the Ocean host lessons and English classes for refugees, and facilitate the safe landings of newly arrived boats. Others work to provide hygienic services, like the organization Showers for Sisters, which provides safe showers and sanitary products to women and children.
Lesvos itself still functions in part as a tourist town, though it is mostly populated by volunteers, refugees, and locals. Not far from the lifejacket graveyard is the pleasant seaside town of Molyvos, which boasts sandy beaches and restaurants serving traditional Greek fare.
Much of the island is made up of open space, populated only by olive groves and forests, open plains, and abandoned buildings. The lifejacket graveyard is located in one such empty plain, and except for scavenging seagulls and goats, the area is empty, making the presence of the rotting heaps of plastic even more unnerving.
The only other proof of human presence to be found lies on a wall of graffiti nearby a garbage dump, marked by the sentiment Shame on you, Europe.
The combination of the Greek financial crisis and rising tides of nationalism occurring at the same time as the height of the refugee crisis have caused xenophobic sentiments to allow these horrifically overcrowded camps to mar this beautiful tropical island, which once inspired the Greek poet Sappho to write her legendary love poems.
The lifejacket graveyard has been left standing partly because of island officials’ lack of motivation to clean it up, and partly as a statement, a tribute to the thousands who still wait in limbo on the island.
If you are interested in helping out, organizations mostly need financial contributions, legal aid, medical aid, translators, and publicity. It is also possible to volunteer, and opportunities and detailed information can be found at sites like greecevol.info.
EDEN ARIELLE GORDON is a writer, musician, and avid traveler. She attends Barnard College in New York.