A small, island community familiar with seasonal tourists from Europe and beyond that became the epicenter of the migration towards Europe in 2015.
Greece has a rich history, which is the main reason why Greek people are proud of their country. In the course of time, the Greeks have been constantly interacting with other people from all their neighboring areas. These meetings were not only economic (colonization in Antiquity and trade from the Roman times), but also cultural to the point that we may claim the Greek culture is the product of a constant dialogue with other cultures.
Contemporary Greek migration history includes three main chapters. Two of them are related to Greeks migrating to various places in America, Australia, and Africa, first at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century and later in the 1960s and 70s (in the latter period, South Africa was one of the countries that received a considerable amount of Greeks).
The third chapter is related to the forced migration of Greeks from Asia Minor to the Greek mainland and the Greek islands in 1922, followed by a population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. In the aftermath of WW1 and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, more than one million Greeks had to leave their homes in Asia Minor and start a new life in Greece. The Greek society was going through severe economic difficulties, so the refugees were received with skepticism, in some cases with hostility.
Since 2009, Greece has had financial problems that led to austerity measures and high unemployment. This resulted in the empowerment of anti-European voices and in amplification of the ultra-right xenophobic political wing. The ultranationalist and far right party Golden Dawn multiplied its votes in national elections (from 0.3% in 2009 to 7% in 2012 and the last national elections in 2015). Further, since 2015 the government is a coalition between the left party SYRIZA (initials for Coalition of the radical left) and the conservative, nationalistic and party, Independent Greeks.
In the midst of the austerity, the Syrian conflict broke. Large populations seeking safe ground passed through Greece on the way to other countries in Europe. The March 2016 EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement slowed the flow through Europe making Greece and its inhabitants host to a large refugee population in the midst of an economic crisis and a low level of trust in the current government. Governing in the middle of an economic and refugee crisis became a challenge. The political coalition demonstrated a contradiction of mixing in the same government policies based on the principle of open borders (SYRIZA) and rhetoric of protecting the national borders (Independent Greeks). The increase of influence of Golden Dawn and the participation of the Independent Greeks in politics have influenced the public dialogue on the refugee crisis, where more and more anti-refugee sentiments are expressed.
One region that has witnessed this situation first hand is the island of Lesbos. Lesbos is an island that until recently was a vacation spot for Europe. It overcame the 1922-migration with many inhabitants having refugee background themselves. After the Syrian conflict broke, it became one of the entry points to Europe from Turkey. Lesbos’ proximity to Turkey drew people to a dangerous journey on precarious conditions that led to many deaths (UNHCR 2018b). Since 2015, more than one million refugees and migrants have entered Europe through Lesbos. This has resulted in the establishment of refugee camps and other facilities which host approximately 15,000 refugees/migrants in and around the city of Mytilene, an area which has about 38,000 inhabitants.
In Lesbos, as well as on the other islands that have been the main entrance points of refugees and migrants to Greece, the attitude of the locals towards refugees and migrants have shifted from positive to skeptical and –for an increasing amount of the local population– to negative. Tourism, being an important occupation for some of the areas of Lesbos, was negatively affected resulting in a decrease of arrivals in 2016 and 2017. This opened a public discussion of the “catastrophic consequences” of the refugee crisis to the economy of Lesbos despite the area of Mytilene gaining the presence of a considerable number of volunteers and NGO members that contribute to the local economy. Since 2016, more and more voices underline the negative consequences of the presence of a proportionately large number of refugees/migrants in the area, in relation to security and public health. In addition, the relationship between the locals and NGOs has been worsened since 2016. More and more locals have now a negative opinion about NGOs, mistrusting their intentions and purposes; some even speak of the NGOs as “occupational powers” having a “colonial mentality.” To make matters more challenging, Lesbos and Greece in general often suffer from environmental stressors like earthquakes affecting their infrastructure. An area that should be paid special attention to is the health system. Suffering from severe cuttings in budget due to austerity measures, the health system of Lesbos (mainly the hospital of Mytilene) has been the last three years pressed to its limits, as the number of patients has been increased intensively.
Now, the situation is very challenging, as the number of refugees/migrants on Lesbos remains high and the absorptive capacity the island is continuously challenged. The area in Lesbos we have identified for research is its capital Mytilene. Mytilene has a rich tourism industry and most people and agencies involved with refugee support live in or close to the city. Lesbos has two camps where refugees are hosted: Moria (in the City of Moria) and Kara Tepe (in Mytilene). Refugees are free to move in and out of both places. Transport to and from Moria, by being farther from the city, often is cut if there are disruptive events in the city center.
As mentioned, Lesbos has a history with earthquakes. The last noteworthy earthquake took in 2017 in the city of Plomari affecting infrastructure and killing one person. Greece, as a whole, is projected to experience changes in environmental conditions. Soil conversion to dryland may adversely affect agricultural production (large portion of Lesbos economy). While temperature increases may lengthen the tourist season, the country will cope with water supply issues, rising sea level, and increased frequency of extreme events. One study showed a €825 million revenue loss for the tourist industry annually due to environmental conditions (Ciscar et al. 2009).