The so-called lifejacket graveyard in the Northern parts of Lesbos, Greece.
Text: Veera Vehkasalo
Photos: Vanessa Riki
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.
The lifejacket graveyard is a place where they bring things that have ended up in the sea or were left behind by refugees after they have gotten ashore the island.
The lifejacket graveyard made Inger Asheim and Johanne Saltnes think about the people who had been wearing these vests.
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.
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”
Life jackets, pieces of rubber dinghies, clothes, and a travel guide to Austria that have been collected from the beaches and brought to the lifejacket graveyard.
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.
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.
The lifejacket graveyard will probably not disappear any time soon.
“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.”
A piece of a rubber dinghy buried on the shore of Lesbos.
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 works at the Safe Passage workshop in Lesbos, making upcycled products out of discarded lifejackets and dinghies.
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 are slowly degrading in the landfills.
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.