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Lesbos, a postcard-perfect vacation island in the northern Aegean Sea, is a haven for people fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It symbolizes the hope that somewhere in Europe there is refuge. It is also a graveyard for the countless corpses that have washed ashore on its beautiful coastline. And it’s hell for the thousands who are trapped there, victims of the European Union’s determination to stem the tide of asylum seekers and other migrants by sending a message that they are unwelcome. For all of its natural beauty, there is much fear on Lesbos. Fear caused by the traumas of war, violence and displacement and of harsh camp conditions, insecurity and uncertain futures. Fear of rejection, detention, and deportation. Fear of going to the toilet in the dark at night, or not eating after two hours in a food line. Fear of lice and scabies. Fear of winter, cold and damp.
Metal towers of lights reached out of the sea and flames belched into the midnight sky as the Aquarius reached Bouri Field, the largest oilfield in the Mediterranean, about 65 nautical miles north of Libya. I had been sitting cross-legged on deck of this rescue ship, listening to a group of West African men telling unbearable stories of captivity and brutality in Libya, the country they had just fled. Amadou concluded, to earnest nods all around, “God left Libya a long time ago.”
“What will happen to us?” “Will they fingerprint us?” was the constant refrain as we watched a human wave of asylum seekers and migrants from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan crossing the Serbia-Hungary border.