On the Greek island of Lesbos there is a rubbish dump of life jackets, discarded now but forever witness to the hope and suffering of those who fled war, poverty, and oppression this year.
Almost 500,000 people crossed the Aegean Sea to Lesbos in 2015, many of them Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans. The dump site stands as a statue, a silent reminder of the risks they took and the many more who still hold out hope of a safe crossing.
It also includes the life jackets of those who never made it, of those who lost their lives at sea and can never return home or continue their journey north.
In November, 97 people died in the eastern Mediterranean. That number rose to 187 in December. They are the victims, casualties of their desperation and the ongoing failure of EU leaders to provide safe passage.
In honor of these people and with hope of better times, the Doctors without Borders-Greenpeace response teams used some of these life jackets to form a peace sign in the hills of Lesbos earlier this week.
They joined groups like Sea-Watch and the Dutch Refugee Boat Foundation and local community groups such as Starfish to create the peace sign on New Year’s Day to bring in 2016 with a message of hope. More than 100 volunteers used around 3,000 life jackets to create the image.
The peace sign was positioned above the dump and in view of the 10 kilometers of sea separating Lesbos from Turkey, a gulf like no other — but a gulf that must be bridged.
Since Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace started a joint maritime operation around Lesbos in November to provide rescue activities at sea in coordination with the Greek Coast Guard, we have helped thousands of refugees and migrants arrive safely to shore.
On December 16, Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace helped pluck 83 people from the water after their old wooden boat capsized. At least two died. Since then, further rescues have occurred.
Although the number of arrivals has declined since the autumn months, in December more than 100,000 people still made the crossing to the Greek islands, daring the winter seas and stormy weather in overcrowded, flimsy boats.
As war and violence rage unabated in their countries of origin, there is undiminished need for a safe haven. More than 3,700 have died while trying to cross the sea to Europe this year. More than 1 million have arrived by sea.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) forecasts continued mass arrivals in 2016. Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace remain operational in the Aegean Sea, doing whatever we can to assist refugee boats in distress.
We also urge our supporters to share the peace sign image in honor of the refugees and migrants and as a way of thanks to the volunteers and local communities on Lesbos working to ensure that 2016 can start with a safe passage.
By Aaron Gray-Block
Aaron Gray-Block is a crisis response campaigner with Greenpeace International.
Photo: (c) Florian Schulz | MSF | Greenpeace