Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: "How are small children supposed to survive this?"
Refugees from Turkey continue to land on the Greek island of Lesbos. The situation has worsened dramatically, especially in the winter months. Only recently, around 2000 demonstrators from the overcrowded camp Moria in the island capital demonstrated and chanted "Freedom, freedom". Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger visited the camp to get a picture of the situation.
FOCUS Online: You went to Lesbos. At that time, about 2000 demonstrators left the overcrowded refugee camp Moria and demonstrated in the island capital. According to reports, the police intervened massively. What have you heard about this?
Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger: We saw in the afternoon that there were demonstrations. There were many police officers in the streets. Refugees were sitting at the roadsides, many ran into the city. There were no arguments in the afternoon. What happened in the morning, we did not really notice. But we saw tear gas clouds.
You were also able to talk to the mayor of the island capital Mytilini. How does he consider the current situation?
It was a very interesting and emotional conversation. The local politicians here feel left alone by all politics. They see help coming neither from their Greek government, nor from the EU. In the last six months the situation on Lesbos has again massively worsened. Hardly any refugees are being brought back, and hardly any are coming to the mainland. The local politicians keep addressing their problems and they support the citizens of Lesbos who live here to demonstrate. They should make it clear how difficult the situation is for them. I understand that.
There is currently a debate here about the fact that there are supposed to be camps on the Turkish-Greek border. Refugees shall stay there and the asylum procedure shall take place directly. But this requires a drastic acceleration of the procedures. So far it is unclear how this can work in practice. At present, the procedures take up to three years. And you cannot lock people up for that long.
You have also already visited two refugee camps on Lesbos. What do you take with you?
I remember how the children in their slippers bouncing through the stones and dirt and playing catch. They are curious, plucked at our jacket and smiled at us. The children have a pole there where they can do gymnastics. Otherwise, they have no other possibility to play. The living conditions of the families are miserable. The people live there in tiny holes with tarpaulins weighted down with stones. They have to crawl in there to even get into the huts.
How emotional is such a visit?
Very emotional. It doesn't go unnoticed. When you have taken a close look at the situation there, you can't just go back to business as usual. Probably not all these people have the right to asylum. But when you consider that the refugees have lived there for three years, it is dramatic. If you then consider that the situation in people's homes is even worse, you get a different approach to the issue of asylum and refugees. Of course, it is also true that some people are not legally recognised and are returned to their homelands. But if you have to live in such an environment for three years here in Lesbos, it can destroy an entire life. How small children are supposed to survive that, I can hardly imagine.
What do the people there need most urgently?
Up to 15,000 refugees live here. And no matter what happens next: medical care must be provided here, regardless of a political solution. The only hospital on the island is overcrowded and this causes tensions with the locals. Containers have to be brought here, where the people can at least receive initial medical care.
In Germany, there is a constant debate about getting children out of the camps in particular. Should the Federal Government become active in this respect?
It is good that there are cities in Germany that want to accept refugees. But that can only be done in clear procedures. The Federal Interior Minister must now take the initiative and respond to this offer. He must do so in conjunction with talks with his European colleagues. Even if not all EU member states want to accept refugees, Germany can act with other European partners. The EU member states that do not wish to accept refugees must then be called to account in the course of a concept in another way - for example, through financial payments, the development of better infrastructure, for example on Lesbos, the organisation of waste disposal here on site.
For this to work, Mr Seehofer has to exert pressure. If Germany is prepared to help, he must move. And this must happen quickly. The fact that the sun will soon be shining on Lesbos does not reduce the problem - on the contrary. Especially when it is hot here, it becomes particularly unbearable.
Of course, all of this must be integrated into a concept. You can't just take in a few refugees and then think that the problem is over.
Now it has become known that the Greek Ministry of Defence wants to install floating barriers to prevent migrant boats crossing from Turkey to Greece. Was this also a topic on your trip?
I talked about this with the very committed governor here on the island, who is doing a great job here. And he told me it was complete nonsense. He's an engineer and he says that these barriers couldn't be fortified. Furthermore, the Greeks are only allowed to take this measure in their own territorial waters and if the refugees are stranded there, they are already on Greek territory and can apply for asylum. This will not therefore solve the real problem.
What will you remember most about the Lesbos trip?
I remember above all the situation in the camps. And the incredibly emotional conversations with the local politicians who are so desperately seeking support. There are very concrete things that urgently need to happen here. All the basic programmes and ten-point plans can be forgotten. Concrete help is needed here.
This article first appeared in German on Focus.de on 4 February 2020.