Cleaning the beaches of Lesbos

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Text: Veera Vehkasalo

Photos: Vanessa Riki

Beaches spotted with orange vests, plastic vessels and other trash related to refugee landings have been one symbol of the humanitarian emergency on the Greek islands. Volunteers have played an important role in the cleanup, and even if a lot of the trash is gone, the work still goes on as people keep arriving.

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A dinghy that carried almost 60 people across the sea from Turkey to the shores of a small fishing village in Skala Sikamineas, in the Northeastern corner of Lesbos.

The village is the base for an organization called Lighthouse Relief, that helps migrants when they land on the shores. They also started doing cleanup projects in 2016, when the shores of the islands were covered in bright orange life jackets and other waste from the landings.

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Lighthouse Relief has done cleanup projects every summer since 2016. Last year they did one in cooperation with another organization, Refugee Rescue.

Farshad Shamgholi, the Emergency Response Coordinator, goes through a pile of life vests from people who landed in Skala Sikaminia on a Sunday in June 2018.

Even if most central places have been cleaned and the arrivals have diminished since 2015–2016, people still continue coming and a lot of waste is left in harder to reach areas.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

In the summer of 2018 Rohanna Nilsson, the coordinator for the project, heads out with the volunteers to a place where they know there is rubbish on the beaches.

The project runs on a low budget: they have one car that they share with the rescue team, two diving knives and two cutters.

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Getting to the place to be cleaned can take even hours of walking from the end of the drivable road.
 

Once at the spot, the first task is collecting the trash. The hardest part is usually the dinghies that are stuck under sand or rocks. Having to dig them out makes the work much slower.

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“Usually in a day we can collect one or two dinghies if they are buried under the rocks. We also collect lifejackets if there are some from recent landings”, Nilsson says.

The life vests that smugglers sell are often fake and filled with materials that are more dangerous than helpful.

“After it has been in the water for 20–30 minutes, it will fill with water and rather than helping you float, it becomes so heavy it pulls you down”, Nilsson explains showing the insides of a life jacket found on the beach.

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Volunteers come from all over the world. Nawwar Arrouk from Syria and Leslie Reid from the USA are digging out a dinghy.

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Arrouk travelled from Syria to the island of Cos with his siblings in 2016. Now they have asylum in Sweden and he saved money all year to come and volunteer in Lesbos for the summer. 

“It was weird coming back here, but kind of in a good way. Cleaning up the beaches and getting rid of especially the plastic is really important. I just read an article that said in 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish, that’s really alarming.”

The original motivation of the cleanup project is to collect materials related to the trip that migrants take over the sea – like dinghies, life vests, clothes and pieces of boats and motors. Often that can mean also personal items, like documents or credit cards.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

“I found an ID of a girl from Afghanistan, I think she was 16 or something. And children’s clothes. It is hard to see that”, says Ana Gonzales from Spain.

She feels good about the work, but it made her wonder how people in Europe can forget about the refugee situation.

The cleaners also pick up all the other trash they find.

” Styrofoam from fishing boats, polystyrene, small plastic bags, tubes. Around 30 to 40 percent of the items we collect are bottles and bottle caps”, Nilsson says.

This rubbish has been left behind or thrown out by locals, fishermen and tourists, or washed onto the shore with the currents like on any beach.

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Other things are put into bags or piled up, but the dinghies are washed after they are dug out. They need to be clean because the plastics are used for upcycling projects.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief
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When they are clean, the dinghies still need to be cut, so that they are less heavy and easier to transport. At the same time different materials are separated. The softer, cuttable plastic goes to upcycling projects to create products like bags or earrings.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

“The aim is to recycle everything we are getting so it gets used again”, says Hernan Grecco Fenari, a volunteer from Spain who works with both the landings and with this eco project.

He thinks that since they help people arrive on the shores of the island, it is important they also take care of what is left behind.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

Everything is packed into piles and bags. This area was accessible on foot, therefore the materials can be carried to the car.

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crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief

Often it is quite a hike to get back to the road. But many places can be only reached by climbing or from the sea, which means the cleaners have to get a refugee rescue boat or a local fisherman to take them there and back.

This is also why they still have rubbish that has been lying there for even two or three years.

crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief
crisisandenvironment crisis and environment crisis&environment lighthouserelief Lighthouse Relief
Nilsson and Nick Wright from England greet a local, back at Skala Sikamineas. Nilsson says one important aspect of the cleanup is that it is a way to show that people working on refugee issues also care about the local community and environment of where they are based.
 

“We want to do our part as well and give a little bit back to the local community, to help bring the tourists back”, she says.