Gaia Giletta is an Italian 25-year-old graduate student in Paediatric Nursing. She started doing her first volunteering experiences in high school and these eventually transformed into medical missions with the evolution of her professional formation. She went to Kenya 7 times, collaborating directly with an orphanage and with their heart surgery projects. In 2014 she stayed 3 months in Somalia to work in a children’s hospital. In 2015 she spent two months in Lesvos where she counts to return in May, as soon as the ski season ends. In fact, she affords to work as a volunteering nurse by working as a Snowboard instructor, her other great passion.
Could you start by telling me a little bit about your experience on Lesvos Island? What kind of work were you doing there, and what volunteer organization were you collaborating with?
For the two months that I was on Lesvos I worked with a Norwegian NGO called A Drop in the Ocean (Dråpen i havet), which was founded in August 2015 with the scope of providing first aid help to refugees landing on the shores of Lesvos. The main work of the NGO is to patrol the Northern coast of the island, where 95% of the arrivals is occurring because of its proximity to Turkey. Teams of volunteers are positioned with binoculars in several strategic points along the 22km of the northern coast to look out for the rubber boats leaving from the Turkish coast.
Is the Turkish coast so close that you can see the boats leaving from the opposite shore?
Yes, you can with a binocular. Turkey is only 10km away from Lesvos: paradoxically you could cross from one country to the other swimming. However, most migrants have never seen the sea before and do not know how to swim. A child can drown in half a meter of water, so it is no surprise that so many people die in such a short stretch of sea.
Also, the route to Lesvos is managed very differently from other trafficking routes in the Mediterranean. The smugglers do not ride on the rubber boats, but they briefly instruct one of the migrants on how to drive it, they direct him towards the Greek coast and then leave them to their own destiny. Therefore, if anything happens to the engine during the route nobody knows how to fix it, and some boats remain stuck for even 10 hours on that small stretch of sea, which could be crossed in 30/40 minutes in good weather conditions.
Our job was to spot the boats while they were approaching Lesvos and to help them land in the safest points when they were close enough to the shores. This is actually the most dangerous part of their journey because when people on the boat see the shore they get really excited and most of the accidents happen during these last minutes.
These boats are probably overloaded, so landing safely must be even more complicated..
Yes well, these rubber boats are normally for 10 people, but we have counted on several occasions up to 90 people on the same boat. Women and children travel in the middle because it is considered the safest part of the boat; but actually it is not.
Since these rubber boats are overloaded, those who are sitting in the central part of the boat have their bodies covered with water for most of the journey and because they have to sit on top of each other for many consecutive hours, when they finally arrive to the opposite shore many women cannot move their legs and can’t get out of the boat.
Do you know how much they pay for this ride?
On average they pay €2000 each, but in practice it depends on when you are traveling. If you travel during the day with good weather it can cost up to €2500; if you travel during the night €1500, and if there is bad weather you get a discounted tariff of €1000. Smugglers obviously are interested in money only, so they get people traveling in any weather condition. What happens is that the poorest people, like the Afghans or the Somalis, travel during the night and with bad weather conditions taking greater risks.
What happens after they finally arrive on the island? How long do they remain and where are most of them heading next?
The first kind of aid they are provided with by volunteers is warm clothes, food and water.
Most migrants wait for two or three days in the woods in Turkey before leaving without eating or drinking so many suffer from dehydration, low pressure, low blood sugar and hypothermia. As soon as they get on the island they are sent to what are known as ‘transition camps’. Here they are provided with medical care and other forms of assistance.
Who manages these camps? The EU, the Greek government?
No, they are completely managed by volunteers and NGOs. A Drop in the Ocean has a lot of volunteers with a medical background like me, who operate primarily on the shores; then there are other NGOs based in Lesvos such as WAHA (Women and Health Alliance International) and the Boat Refugee Foundation. However, there are no funds or operative support coming from the European Union or from the Greek government. Lesvos is left on its own and in the hands of hundred of volunteers.
What happens next?
After this first assistance the refugees are divided based on their nationality (Syrians and non-Syrians) and through local buses they are brought to two different camps, Kara Tepe (only for Syrians) and Moria (for everyone else). These are the only two camps managed by Greek government officials. Here the migrants are registered and provided with documents which state whether they are eligible for asylum or not. In practice, however, there is no repatriation system in place on the island and there is no control over who boards the ferries heading to Athens. This sort of ‘orderly’ mechanism gets stuck most of the time: in peaks months like October and November, registration and transportation should be speeded up and made more efficient, but it is actually the contrary.
The average permanence in these governmental camps is between 3 – 8 days. There were only two officials in charge of the registration who normally work from 9am-3pm and the ferries going to Athens were often on strike to protest against the Greek government.
In October, which was the peak period of arrivals, we registered a daily arrival rate of 150 boats carrying an average of 70-75 people each, which makes 15’000 arrivals every 24hr. So imagine this situation: you have 15’000 arrivals every day, 2 government officials to register all of them and public transport companies who are often on strike. The result is that these camps are overwhelmed with people: migrants stand in line for days to get registered because there is no formal ordering system and if they get out of the line someone will steal their place. The living conditions of these people is desperate.
I believe that during these two months in Lesvos you must have met thousands of people and heard just as many stories, but was there a particular episode that has struck you more than any other which you will never forget?
Every person met is a story. I can think of many, but there is a particular one that I will never forget. There was a huge shipwreck on October 30th, which received extensive media coverage, that involved a big fishing boat carrying almost 300 people. On that day, I was on duty and I was looking into the binocular when I suddenly saw the boat. While I was trying to figure out where it was heading to, it started sinking. I immediately called the coastal guard, which did not respond, so I had to call an NGO that had two watercrafts. Together with the coastal guard, which arrived twenty minutes later, they worked from 4pm to midnight and managed to save 262 people. Some of the bodies of those who did not survive were found on the shores in the following days, but many others we will never find. This is an image I will never forget.
The UNHCR has estimated that around 58’547 migrants have landed in Greece since the start of 2016. What do you foresee for Lesvos in the forthcoming months?
During January 2016 there have been less arrivals than the numbers we witnessed during the previous months; however, if we compare this figure with January 2015, the number of migrants arriving today is 36 times greater than one year ago. Even if the migrant trend seems to have slowed down compared to October/November, this is largely due to the harsh winter weather, but the phenomenon is clearly increasing rather than decreasing. The forecasts are that in Spring we will see a huge peak of arrivals, many more than last year. Even if the global media attention has shifted elsewhere, many NGOs including A Drop in the Ocean are still desperately seeking for help because the emergency is not over yet. There is an urgent need for volunteers, clothes and food because this tide has not stopped and will not stop any time soon.