Each asylum seeker that lands on the shores of the Greek islands brings an estimated eight kilograms of mostly plastic trash with them. Most of this ends up in piles around the islands waiting for their destiny – and the situation of asylum seekers stuck on the islands is not very different.
There is a place in the north of the island of Lesbos, high above sea level, that has been filled with life vests and discarded boats. The orange-spotted scene opens up at the end of a small winding road between hilltops. Behind one of them lies the Aegean Sea, and the silence is broken occasionally by the sea birds that circle above the area.
Life jackets, pieces of rubber dinghies, clothes, and pretty much anything one can bring when going to a new country – like a travel guide to Austria – lie in huge mounds out in the open. Tens of broken boats repose on the outskirts of these piles and further up the hill.
Locals call this the lifejacket graveyard, and it is a resting place for things that have ended up in the sea or were left behind by refugees after they reached the shores of the island.
Even if the graveyard is far from tourist or residential centers on the island, it is not deserted. At regular intervals a car drives over, and people come out to circle around the piles of trash silently, like they were visiting a memorial.
Among those people are two twenty-something Norwegians, Inger Asheim and Johanne Saltnes, who have come to the island to volunteer for an organization that helps asylum seekers. The visit to the lifejacket graveyard is part of their volunteer training, and the place has made quite an impression on them.
“Each lifejacket that you see has belonged to an individual. A person that has their own story and background, who wanted to come to Europe. That is a lot of individuals”, says Saltnes wiping her tears.
In 2015–2016 over a million asylum seekers and migrants crossed the border to Europe through Greece. A large part of them landed on Lesbos, separated from Turkey only by a narrow strait.
When they arrived on the shores, in the beginning there wasn’t any transport and it was even forbidden for locals to give them a lift, so people had to continue on foot to get to the reception centers that were often tens of kilometers away. Obviously, they carried nothing extra with them.
They left behind everything they could, but especially the boats or rubber dinghies that they arrived in, lifejackets and wet clothes. Many vests also floated to the shore from the sea after boats had sunk.
During the peak years, the aid workers and volunteers had their hands full with even trying to help all the people arriving. It was out of the question that they would have had the time to start collecting trash.
“The problem was huge, since the boats would arrive, and nobody would clean after them”, says Alkisti.
In 2017, Alkisti coordinated the beach clean-up project for a Swedish organization called Lighthouse Relief. She does not want to give her full name in this article. The organization mainly helps asylum seekers when they land on the island, but they have also done beach cleaning projects since 2016.
“It got so bad that the layer of trash on the beaches was almost a meter deep. You would walk along the coast and see just plastic, no rocks”, she describes the situation back in 2017.
Also Demetris Lekkas, a specialist in waste management from the University of the Aegean in Lesbos, remembers the scenery well.
“It was shocking, when you approached the island on an airplane, you saw a bright orange beach”
According to an analysis by Lekkas and his team, some 1000–1500 tons of waste came with the asylum seekers between January 2015 and May 2016 on Lesbos alone.
Stelios Katsanevakis from the same university has estimated that per person, there was about 8 kilograms of waste.
Most of the weight came from rubber boats. But looking at the piles in the graveyard, you mostly see life jackets – they are light and take up a lot of space in relation to their weight, which makes them challenging to store and transport.
The above mentioned 1000–1500 tons of waste takes almost 20 000 cubic meters of space. You could fill a standard 50 meter long swimming pool with it ten times over.
Lekkas evaluates some 80% of the waste could be recovered and recycled. But it is not easy to dispose of, since the materials have to be separated mainly by hand, and it has little monetary value if sold to be burned or reused.
The challenge is the same on islands in the area, such as Chios and Samos, that have received large flows of asylum seekers.
So far, the islands have not had the resources to deal with the waste, so in practice they are waiting for funding from the state or EU-levels to either recycle or incinerate it. Lesbos aims for the former, the near-by island of Chios the latter.
Meanwhile, the waste waits under the sun. In Lesbos alone there are altogether three landfills, the so-called lifejacket graveyard, an improptu open landfill, being just one of them. It is also the only one that is accessible to outsiders.
Still the scenery in Lesbos has changed a lot since 2016. You can find heaps of lifejackets only in these landfills.
In Lesbos the cleanup was done by hundreds of volunteers and, municipal and regional workers. They were even assisted by local amateur divers and the boat owned by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Like most things when thousands of people arrived every day, the cleanup was a combined effort of many actors and more or less improvised according to the needs or emergencies of the moment.
Cooperation between them was not always rosy. Volunteers and volunteer organizations seem to disagree with the officials about who did most of the hard work, but be it as it is, the beaches are mostly clean now.
Antonis Velegrakis, a marine ecologist from Lesbos, says that also the coastal waters have been cleaned up to 4–5 meters. Deeper waters still have some boat wrecks, motors and their batteries, which can leak harmful substances into the sea. But he says locating them and getting them out of the water would be both difficult and expensive.
Even just cleaning the shores has not been simple, since it was mainly manual work and often done a bit too long after the material ended up there.
Volunteers explain that the trash had to be often dug out of sand, water or from under rocks, and the heavy dinghies had to be sliced up with hand knifes. And there was also a lot of other plastic trash on the shores that they collected at the same time.
“It was really physical work, because a lot of these beaches you would have to hike or even climb with ropes to get to some of the places”, Alkisti explains.
“And it is really difficult to extract all the material by land. So, we would package it, pile it together, and the refugee rescue boat Proactiva or some of the local fishermen would help us to tow it away if the weather was appropriate.”
There has been more time to clean now that the arrivals in Greece have diminished, partly due to the EU-Turkey deal on refugees made in 2016. After the deal, asylum seekers that arrive in the Greek islands can no longer continue to the mainland or further into Europe, unless they get asylum or an official transfer.
In practice the people have been contained on the islands, which before were just crossing points.
In the beginning of this year there were still hundreds of people a week on average arriving on the islands. But now there is approximate structure to this, the sense of emergency and hurry has diminished, and also the lifejackets and boats are now mostly collected directly after the boats land.
This also makes their recovery easier, since the longer they stay on the ground, the harder it is to get them out.
“Still last year we still found material that was two or three years old”, tells Clara Marshall, Head of communications at Lighthouse Relief, that still continues their cleanup projects every summer.
“There is always something to do, getting to some of the places is very difficult. When we start again this June, we will continue as long as the weather allows”, she says.
One of the aims of their cleanup project has been to support the local community and give something back to the people that have been affected by the arrival of the refugees in many ways.
Trash-filled beaches can affect tourism, which can for its part turn the locals against the migrants, since tourism is very important to the economy of the islands.
Also Amir, an Afghan who grew up in Iran, has thought about the effects of the trash on the islands nature and locals. He arrived in Lesbos in 2016 as an asylum seeker, and has now received asylum. In his free time he make small trips to the shores to clean them up.
It’s also linked to his job, where he prepares bags and other upcycled products out of discarded lifejackets and pieces of dinghies. The Safe Passage workshop employs around ten people with a refugee background and uses its income to support asylum seekers.
Amir, with his colleagues, make their living with the same materials that brought them over the sea. The materials give them a chance of a life outside of the refugee camps.
“The materials remind me of our trip and what goes on here in and in the whole world – about the refugee crisis”, Amir says sitting behind his sewing machine.
He, like many others, was not even wearing a lifejacket when he arrived.
“They asked 100 euros for them, I could not afford it”, he says.
“In the boat that I arrived in, about half of us had one. Different smugglers have different practices. Some of my friends say they paid some 50 Turkish lira [around 8 euros] for theirs”, he continues.When you can afford one, it is not even a given that it will save you in case of emergency.
Farshad Shamgholi, who was the Emergency Response Coordinator for Lighthouse Relief, told us last June that smugglers increasingly sell people life vests that are more dangerous than useful.
The ones made for adults often have materials that suck in water when they get wet. The ones for children are not made for saving anyone, but for assisting them to learn how to swim. In the back of those vests you can see the words “Warning, will not protect from drowning!” in clear English.
The Safe Passage workshop where Amir works is one of the small-scale recycling and upcycling projects that are abundant on Lesbos.
Larger scale solutions might be needed to empty the landfills, but ironically many recycling projects complain they have trouble getting materials from the landfills or after landings. The municipality says everyone can apply for a permission, but various activists and organizations claimed it was hard or impossible to get them.
Last summer there was even talk of people who were arrested after taking materials out of the lifejacket graveyard – which does seem absurd, since in practice you are arresting someone for stealing something you want to get rid of.
We could not confirm this. But, be it as it may, soon it will be difficult to use these materials. As one former volunteer explained, the problem is that since the lifejackets lie out in the open, UV degradation will destroy them from the top, and mold from the bottom. So even the little that could be done with them will become impossible.
The life vests may not be a major environmental problem, but they are highly symbolic. Not only in the sense that they have become essential for the image we have of the refugee arriving in Europe, but that they are also interesting not only as life vests, but also as waste.
Elia Petridou, a social anthropologist specializing in material culture from the University of the Aegean, emphasizes that waste is not only something material, it is a social concept. In the last few years she has studied upcycling projects that work with waste related to refugee arrivals.
Petridou refers to a classic anthropological theory, originating from Mary Douglas, that defined waste as matter out of place. To paraphrase it: A hair on your head is just a hair. It is not something dirty, or something you would not want to touch. But when it falls on the floor, gets out the place we consider its own, it becomes dirt.
“When you talk about environment and waste, you talk about people, and here you talk about wasted people. When you talk about how you are going to integrate waste into social life, you talk about how you are going to integrate people into social life”, Petridou says.
She explains that the thinking behind upcycling for some of the people involved is that the waste on the island is not a burden, but an opportunity.
“They don’t see it as a problem, they see the possibility of reintegrating all these people, and this material, and create new things.”
Not everyone shares this thought, and both the people and the vests are often described in surprisingly similar ways. And at the moment, even their fates might not that different.
The lifejackets lie in the landfill, waiting for someone to decide what happens to them.
Visiting the overcrowded refugee camp in Moria, Lesbos, you cannot help thinking that this is what is done to the people as well. They are stuck in camps on the island, waiting for a decision that could take them away. And only the selected few can go.
Text: Veera Vehkasalo
Photos: Vanessa Riki