Lesvos, Greece

Aegean Migrant Solidarity

Partnering with local and international organizations committed to solidarity with refugees who are nonviolently defending their human rights.

The island of Lesvos and its relationship with migration did not begin with the media storm in 2015 when it became internationally known as the epicentre of the “refugee crisis.” On the contrary, Lesvos has a long history of people on the move, which sometimes goes hand in hand with the history of Greece and other times deviates. From the beginning of the establishment of the State, Greece has traditionally been a country whose people moved abroad, not a country that accepted immigrants. It has never been a rich country and only manages small industrial production without significant need for workers.

The first time Greece accepted refugees en masse was after the Greek-Turkish war (1919-1922) and the pogrom against Greeks in Asia Minor, resulting in the exchange of populations. The lives of people who came from the Turkish coast, even though they spoke the same language and had the same religion as the natives, have been particularly difficult for many decades. Although of the same ethnicity, they were treated as foreigners.

In the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its consequences in the Balkan countries, many migrants came to Greece crossing its northern borders, mainly from neighbouring Albania, in search of a better life. 

At the same time, Greece was experiencing significant economic growth, especially in the construction sector. The new arrivals gave the country the cheap labour it needed, especially during the construction of the 2004 Olympic Games. This migration period was marked by deaths in mountain passes, the first detention centers, illegal work and devaluation of migrants, accidents at work (due to poor working conditions) and the rise of racism.

Lesvos followed in the footsteps of the rest of Greece during that time, as mainly Albanian migrants offered cheap labour in the fields, collecting olives for the production of olive oil, the principal agricultural activity of the island.

With the “War on Terror” in 2001, the first consequences became visible in Lesvos, where migrants from Asia and Middle Eastern countries began crossing sea borders. But the main gateway from the east remained the land passage of Evros (North/East land borders with Turkey). Between 2003-2005, the old and abandoned Lagada Prison was unofficially used to detain new arrivals just outside the city of Mytilene, the island’s capital.

With this influx of migrants, the first solidarity groups were formed, mainly by students of the University of the Aegean. These initiatives collected and distributed necessities and visited Lagada Prison, where the migrants were located. Solidarity groups also made an effort to educate the local society on the unreasonable incarceration of innocent people and to give visibility to imprisoned migrants.

The Lagada Prison was followed by the opening of the Pagani Detention Center in 2005. The building that held newly arrived migrants was a large warehouse prison with seven rooms, two kilometres outside the city of Mytilene. Pagani could accommodate 300 individuals, but the number of migrants detained there often reached 1000 with miserable conditions. Despite migrant protests, hunger strikes, and uprisings, local and national authorities did not take action for years.

In August 2009, the No Border Camp was organized in Lesvos, with collectives and activists participating from across Europe and Turkey. Among the demands of No Border Camp was the closure of Pagani and an end to illegal pushbacks and deportations by the Greek Coast Guard and Frontex. Through dozens of marches and actions of No border in Lesvos, these inhumane border policies became widely known: policies that violate all human rights and unnecessarily imprison thousands of people who manage to cross the borders. It is worth noting that at that time, the rate of positive outcomes to asylum applications in Greece was 0.6%, leading thousands of people to live undocumented.

Finally, after the struggles of the migrants inside Pagani and the pressure created by the movement outside it, Pagani closed permanently in November 2009, and government officials were forced to admit that it was a “hellhole.”

Until 2013, there was no official immigration structure in Lesvos for migrants arriving on the island. The port area and police station cells were used to detain newcomers without proper care. In response to these poor conditions, the PIKPA facilities (children’s summer camps) from the “Village of All Together” (local mutual aid collective) started to host migrants in 2012.

In 2013, the Moria Detention Center opened in old military facilities. Its original design was meant to house 180 people. Nevertheless, the state’s intention to turn some Greek islands on the borders into prison islands was becoming clear. At the same time, Greece erected the fence in Evros on the land border with Turkey, restricting this passage from the East.

2015 was a milestone year for the island of Lesvos for the management of migration at both the Greek and European level. As 800.000 migrants arrived in Europe via Greece that year, 445.037 of them arrived to Lesvos island (the original population of Lesvos is approximately 100.000).

Throughout these years, Lesvos has countless human stories to tell. Stories of struggle and solidarity as well as stories of racism, indifference and pain. A small part of these stories are told through the contribution of the CPT-Aegean Migrant Solidarity team to the mosaic of Lesvos.

Latest Stories

Prayers of solidarity from Lesvos

migrants handprints in red and blue paint cover a white wall

Guarantee the human right to movement

Pray that migrants may safely make their journeys towards a better life and that governments will choose to guarantee the human right to movement.

a street art mural of diverse faces, an olve-skinned person wearing glasses and a beard, a brown person wearing a purple hijab, a black person with dark curly hair and yellow headband, a white person wearing a traditional Jordanian headscarf, an Asian person with long dark wavy hear and wearing glasses.

Building our communities together

Pray for our CPT communities around the world as we meet virtually and physically to continue the work of liberation.