According to the UNHCR, up to now nearly 430,000 migrants arrived in Lesvos in 2015. During the sole month of November, 65% of the total arrivals in Greece have been concentrated in Lesvos. This counts 83,000 persons, with an average daily arrival of 3000 migrants.
The top nationalities include Syrians, forming almost half of the arrivals in 2015 (47%), followed by Afghans, who represent more than a quarter of the influx (37%), and a smaller percentage of Iraqis and Iranians (7% and 4%).
The situation might change quickly, as a consequence of the agreement reached last Sunday between the EU and Turkey. The latter received €3bn to support the 2.2 million Syrians now in Turkey to encourage them to stay in the country, rather than attempt the perilous crossings to the EU via the Greek islands. In exchange, Turkish citizens will obtain freedom of movement within the Schengen area. An historic step forward, as defined by PM Ahmet Davutoglu.
Summit chairman Donald Tusk stressed the condition that “both sides will, as agreed and with immediate effect, step up their active cooperation on migrants who are not in need of international protection, preventing travel to Turkey and the EU … and swiftly returning migrants who are not in need of international protection to their countries of origin.”
The aim to prevent the migrants to cross the Turkish borders translates into increased police control and the externalization of EU policy of border closure. The consequences of the new policy are already visible. BBC News reported that already on Monday, the day after the agreement has been reached, 1,300 migrants have been arrested at the Turkish border with Syria. In Lesvos, arrivals have considerably decreased over the past few days, notwithstanding the stable weather conditions.
The feeling from the field is however that this might be only the immediate result of the response of Turkish authorities. The commitment towards the freshly signed agreement will probably become less strict soon as the migratory pressure is particularly high and the Turkish border covering a broad area, difficult to control in all its extension.
The forecasted situation sees instead migrants engaging in even more dangerous routes and departing from the coasts mainly at night, when they have a higher chance to leave without being detected.
Such policy alone, if not accompanied by a contextual solution providing a legal passage to Europe to those entitled of international protection, might also lead to an increase of the smuggling business, as they would invest in the added role of “protectors” of those trying to cross illegally the Turkish border, with the risk of increasing exploitation and extortion at the expenses of the migrants.
A similar situation is already reported in the Central Mediterranean, even if in a very different political context of the country of departure being Libya. In the coastal cities of Libya, the smuggling network offers temporary accommodation to the migrants waiting to be embarked towards Italy and keeps them in containers by the beaches before the departure, which takes place always at night. This is because they would be arrested and detained by the authorities (if not assaulted and persecuted by other entities).
The result of a restrictive border policy in Turkey, while in principle preventing the deaths at sea, might most likely result in heightening the hardship faced by the migrants, while simply shifting and increasing the major threat to their human rights from the maritime to the territorial context.