Report from Lesvos: without safe access to asylum, people will keep risking their lives in the Aegean

Report from Lesvos: without safe access to asylum, people will keep risking their lives in the Aegean

Heaven Crawley, Coventry University.

I stood in the corner of a dusty cemetery on the Greek island of Lesvos and watched a mother bury her child. As the tiny body of a baby boy wrapped in a white sheet was lifted from the boot of a car, she fell to her knees and howled with pain.

The child had slipped from her arms into the cold waters of the Aegean as she made the journey from Turkey to join her husband

, who had already travelled to Germany to seek protection from the war that is ravaging their home country, Syria.

Her baby should not have died. The journey from Turkey to Lesvos is short and safe. If I wanted to take a ferry trip from the port of Mytiline to Ayvalik on the Turkish coast, the trip would take around an hour. I could get there and back for just €30.

That’s because I’m British. I am not Syrian, Afghan, Palestinian, Iraqi, Somali or Eritrean. I am not required to put my life at risk by paying a smuggler hundreds or even thousands of euros to sit in the bottom of a motorised dingy with 30 or 40 other people to take the exact same journey.

I do not need to close my eyes and pray that my children and I will make it to the other side without drowning.

After a long summer of protracted negotiations about how to respond to the crisis in the Mediterranean region, this is what European asylum policy still looks like in practice.

Pushed back

In just a few weeks’ time the waters will become colder and rougher – and the risk of crossing them even greater. At the same time, Turkey has been offered up to one billion euros by the European Commission to improve policies for “integrated border management” and to tackle trafficking activities.

Our research on the Mediterranean migration crisis has found evidence that the Turkish authorities are trying to prevent people from accessing the coastline or even pushing them back to the shore once they are on the water, with potentially deadly consequences. Reports about push backs by both Turkish and Greek coastguards have been circulating since mid-2014 but seem certain to increase.

Meanwhile, vigilante groups, including Golden Dawn, are heading into the sea at night to incapacitate the boats and prevent people reaching safety on Greek territory.

Everyone is bracing themselves for a significant increase in the death rates. And the pressure is on the EU to do “something” – as it has been since the Lampedusa tragedy that claimed 274 lives in Italian waters back in October 2013. Since that time more than 6,000 people have died trying to cross to Europe.

The baby I saw being buried was not the first to die – and he certainly won’t be the last. Two days after his funeral, I spent the day at the beaches in the north of the island where the refugee boats mainly arrive. Shortly after I arrived I was told that three people – a woman, a child and an infant – had drowned the previous evening when the boat they were travelling in flipped over in the water.

Then, just a few hours later, there was a collision between a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel and a wooden boat carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees. The boat sank. At least eight people died. The cemetery in Mytelini is running out of space to bury the dead.

This article was originally published on here on The Conversation.