The twin engine plane banked to the left, as we skirted the beach and lined up for the island runway. Something bright and orange caught my eye. It was a life jacket on the beach, not just one but thousands upon thousands, littering the beaches of the Greek island of Lesbos.
[A little New Testament history: The harbor of Mitylene Lesbos is where Paul the apostle landed when he sailed from Assos Turkey, just a few kilometers across the Aegean Sea (Acts 20:14).
Nik Nedelchev and I traced the refugee highway from its point of arrival – beginning on the Greek island Lesbos, just a few kilometers across the Aegean Sea from Turkey – up through Greece, the Balkans and into central Europe. We had already visited Iraq, Syrian refugee camps in northern Jordan, Syrians and Iraqis in the Bekka Valley on the Lebanon/Syrian border and Turkey. But here in Greece the arterial system that carried a million refugees just this year (2015) was clogged and was suffering an uncertain future. As part of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Nik and I knew it mattered that we walk their roads, bearing witness to ministries alleviating suffering and serving as a window on this escalating human tragedy.
This buildup of refugees didn’t just happen. It has been growing, like a surging giant wave, breaking out on beaches of Europe. For years there has been a trickle of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East up through Greece (and some through Italy) seeking a better life in Europe. Then wars raged, creating not just “economic” refugees but “war” refugees. Three years ago when Assad began bombing his people, and then as ISIS infiltrated the heartland of Syria and swept into its clutches large swaths of Iraq, war, hunger and a bleak future watered a resident seed of hope for a better life and the plant of human aspiration and desperation grew and blossomed.
The word got out – gossip swished down the refugee pipe line with unbelievable speed, enabled by ubiquitous smart phones – that Greece was opening its doors, allowing refugees who reached its shore to go on through to the north; that Germany would make itself home to a million refugees. Anyone wanting to escape their homeland, for reasons multiple in their variety, moved quickly. I spoke with a father from Cameroon Africa. He had brought his eight family members, up across Africa, moving north, through Chad, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, across the Aegean Sea into Greece. Three months. Nothing would stop them.
On the island of Lesbos we drove north to the beach closest to Turkey’s mainland, 11 kilometers away. Often up to 10,000 a day risked their lives crossing the straight. That day a family crawled out of a rubber dingy holding fifty people. Bribing and paying their way across Syria then Turkey, they had hidden in bushes on Turkey’s western seashore. It wasn’t long before smugglers found them: for a thousand euros (minimum) each, the smugglers provided a rubber dingy powered by a small 25-horse outboard motor and life jackets (some were children’s plastic water wings). But here was the surprise. The smugglers didn’t steer them across. Refugees had to drive themselves. After a three-minute instruction on how to operate the motor, they set out. (Imagine an Afghani from the mountains running an outboard motor, guiding a rubber dingy across a treacherous, windy and wavy sea.) These refugees were fortunate. The sea was calm, the winds modest and weather 10 degrees Celsius. For others caught in storms and confused by direction, many are lost or drowned, most often struggling for hours to make it to land. The most fortunate do it in about 90 minutes. Others this summer weren’t so fortunate: 3,692 drowned or are missing in the Mediterranean area in 2015, according to The Missing Migrant Project.
Amidst the calamity, aid agencies were busy at work, swinging into action before boats got close to shore. A marine lifeguard unit from Spain was on the prowl. High on the cliff a lifeguard with binoculars watched for boats. As soon as one was spotted they’d alert their team and a sea-doo watercraft would head out to the boat directing it to the best landing spot, and if in trouble, hook on a rope pulling it to shore.
Once on shore, agencies jumped into action: helping them out of the boat, providing dry clothes – boats usually over loaded would take on water – soup, coffee and sandwiches. On the beach a Seventh Day Adventist medical bus treated aliments, often respiratory especially with children.
A father wrapped his arms around his children as tears flowed. They were safe. Two young men high-fived each other. They had travelled a challenging road with more roadblocks around the corner.
This human tide funneling through Greece into central Europe raises tough issues for both migrants and governments. First, governments didn’t see this coming. The buildup of refugees exacerbated by wars expanded into a full-blown movement. But war is only one contributing factor. Those who wanted a better job (or a job at all) or longing for a place in which to raise a family, when news came of a chance, they dropped everything, risking all.
Second when people-waves move in vast numbers who can stop them? The pressure of their presence, the sheer numbers and public picture of desperate people present such a picture that governments find it almost impossible to deny help. When news flashed of the little Syrian boy lying dead on the shore of Lesbos, governments wilted, a picture ironically that became media fodder in the generating of good will.
From various Greek islands (a million this year) the government takes them by boat to Athens and then busses them up to Idomeni on Greece’s northern border with Macedonia (FYROM). Refugees, as was the plan, would go from that border to the border of Macedonia and Serbia. Then from country to country until they reached central Europe – the “Schengen zone” in which one is free to move to any country within the zone.
Diplomatic constraints created two problems.
First Europe distinguishes between “war” and “economic” refugees: only those from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq were considered war refugees and allowed into Europe. The EU instructed Greece to only allow them into Macedonia (FYROM). We arrived just after the order had come down from Brussels: a human bulge was forming. Greece was allowing anyone who reached their shores to go the northern border with Macedonia (FYROM). But it wasn’t only “war” refugees on the march, there were others from countries including Pakistan, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Libya, Cameroon and Sudan.
At the north border of Greece “economic” along with “war” refugees gathered. But here the “economic” refugees were stuck, with nowhere to go. We listened to stories, watching anger build. A riot broke out. Hundreds of thousands had bartered their meager savings, spent exhausting days, weeks, months walking, crossing a dangerous Aegean Sea, and now were bottled up. Just when it seemed they had reached the bridge into a better future, a gate was slammed shut. Finally the military moved the “economic” refugees onto busses, shipped back to hastily constructed camps near Athens, there for them to find a way back home or another more circuitous route to Europe.
But there was another policy at play. The day we arrived at Lesbos, the EU had struck a deal with Turkey: “stop allowing migrants to boat across into Greece and we will ante up three billion euros (US$3.2 billion).” The Turks complied and for a few days the migrant stream trickled, but not for long. Desperate people, will find a way to move across land and sea in search of a better place.
Leaving north Greece we drove through Macedonia (FYROM) to the next checkpoint on Serbia’s south border. But something didn’t make sense: we were sure we had missed something.
“War” refugees allowed from Greece into Macedonia go north by train to the Serbian border. But the train stops one and a half kilometers from the border, inside Macedonia. We walked the one and half kilometers but there was no train. When we asked “Why?” we were told the train the refugees would board is a further one a half kilometers ahead. “Why don’t the trains meet at the border allowing the refugees to get off of one and on to the other without having to walk three kilometers?” we wondered out loud. Their rational was, by making it more difficult for refugees, maybe fewer will come.
The path for the three kilometers walk is one and half meters (five feet) wide. On our left was a newly ploughed field and on our right the railroad. Soon the gravel turned to dirt, then to mud. On this path one million refugees, this year, have walked.
It was 5 PM: temperate close to zero; snow was in the air. I knew in just a few minutes a train carrying 500 refugees would arrive. They would disembark, carrying their belongings, holding on to children, struggling along this path, in the dark and cold. I thought of the family from Syria, three children, all under five whom I had just met in the camp in Macedonia. They would have to carry their children and meager belongings some three, unnecessary kilometers: Inconvenient and needless.
There has never been such a flow of refugees since WWII. This demographic shift will take decades to decipher. The proportion of people on the move not only alters the country they left, but those they will inhabit. Core to concerns are possible Islamic terrorists, mixing in, only to locate in countries in which they can do harm. While this is a legitimate concern, terrorists probably won’t wait around in refugee lines when ISIS has attracted 30,000 recruits from 86 countries, all possessing passports on which they can return and carry out their killings. When humans surge in such numbers, the world has no choice but to accept such reality and find ways to both accommodate need and mitigate harm.
The stories of refugees are old and biblical. Hebraic law recognizes the frailty of a refugee. They are desperate, afraid and vulnerable to abuse and treachery: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33/34)
Jews knew what it was like and so did Jesus, fleeing murderous King Herod, living as refugees in Egypt. It is not surprising the Hebrew Scriptures links refugees with widows and orphans who deserve and require protection.
Today major global population shifts alter our planet. People are on the move everywhere. The Internet has made the world known. News where one might go and how to get there, is known in a flash. Hopes and dreams are powerful drivers, and with the sharp divide between the quality of life from nation to nation, people will live in unimaginable conditions to reach their desired goal.
I asked a Greek guard in full riot gear, guarding the gate from Greece into Macedonia how he saw the situation: “Hope always rules,” he noted. I then asked him about solutions: “Fences never solve problems,” he wisely reflected. A diplomat could not have been so exact or judicious.
The ‘how’s” and “where’s” of refugee settlements are socio/political decisions governments will make. Most of us won’t have much to say about that. What we can do is follow the biblical call. Not only are we called to give special attention to refugees, it provides for opportunity to care for and in the love of our Lord build into their lives goodness and truth. The Spirit takes our offer of friendship, and by so doing makes known the Savior who called us to attention with the two great laws: love God with everything you have and “your neighbor as yourself.”
Here feet and hands do the talking. In desperate situations, it is telling who shows up. In the places we visited on the refugee highway, the missions we met included Euro Vision, a humanitarian service of Hellenic Ministries, Samaritan’s Purse, Child Evangelical Fellowship, Agape (ministry of Campus Crusade), the Seventh Day Adventist, Caritas, Youth With A Mission (YWAM), World Vision, World Relief, local churches and mom and pop ministries. Obvious by its absence was the Orthodox Church where in Greece it is the state religion. While most refugees on this highway are Muslim, Islamic agencies were not seen, except in Macedonia where they make up 20% of the population. The United Nations (UNHCR) was impressive in their organization, presence and quality of service.
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance