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Crunch time for refugees on the island of Lesbos

The 1,500 refugees at the Karatepe camp on the Greek island of Lesbos are nervous. Since the EU struck a deal with Ankara, they fear they will be sent back to Turkey. Spiros Moskovou reports from Mytilene.

The word is out - both at the Karatepe refugee camp and the Moria registration center on Lesbos - that refugees are to be evacuated and taken to Kavala in northern Greece. The huge ferry "El Venizelos" is ready and waiting for its involuntary passengers at the island's main port of Mytilene.

The refugees fear deportation to Turkey. It would be an abrupt end to their odyssey to Europe.

Holding her young son in her arms, Nour asks Lesbos mayor Spiros Galinos where they are actually headed. The fear in her eyes is obvious. Galinos assures the microbiologist from Damascus that Kavala is in fact their destination. Nour gives him a skeptical look. Another Syrian, Mahmoud, tells the friendly mayor that he, his wife and three children urgently need to go to Athens to join up with other family members already waiting in the Greek capital. Mahmoud presents tickets for Wednesday.

The mayor promises that he and his family will arrive in Athens as planned - and Mahmoud is visibly relieved.

Many refugees, however, refuse to board the ferry, despite assurances by the local authorities. Only half full, the ferry leaves port. In the end, for reasons unknown, it heads neither to Kavala nor to Turkey, but docks in the port of Eleusis near Athens.

Griechenland Flüchtlinge auf Lesbos

Refugees on Lesbos are being ferried to the mainland as part of the EU-Turkey deal

Protecting the victims

The situation is confusing for everyone as quite a few details of the deal between Brussels and Ankara are still not clear.

Over the last few months, the authorities on the island of Lesbos have done their best to structure registration and accommodation for the refugees. Last summer, about 30,000 asylum-seekers lived in tents in and around the island's capital Mytilene, which has about that many inhabitants. Since then several camps, small and large, have been erected, complete with bathroom facilities and playgrounds.

More than 180 aid organizations are active on the island, and about 2,000 international volunteers help streamline the registration process. "From the start, we knew that our guests - refugees and migrants - were victims of the war, and that we had to take care of them," Lesbos mayor Galinos says, adding that the people aren't the problem, but "the bombs that destroyed their homes." Unfortunately, he says, political decisions have been made that punish the victims. "We wanted to protect them."

Griechenland Flüchtlinge auf Lesbos

Just in the last few days, ten overcrowded boats with refugees arrived on Lesbos

Burden on society

Despite the Greek economic crisis, the island's residents also looked after the newcomers. Almost one third are descendents of Greek refugees from Asia Minor who sought refuge on the island in 1922.

The daily arrivals, the incidents of refugees stranded and drowned, are a huge strain on the local population all the same. Few people on Lesbos believe that the EU-Turkey deal will curb the number of refugees in the long run. Since the pact was sealed just a few days ago, ten overcrowded boats have been coming ashore on the island's northern coast every night, and two refugees have died.

The vacation island of Lesbos has turned into a refugee island, with incalculable consequences for the tourist industry. Authorities, so far, have record 80 percent fewer reservations for the summer vacation period - bad news for countless families dependent on tourism.

Meanwhile, the hotels in Mytilene are currently sold out due to a surge in the number of aid workers, journalists and politicians on the island. However, it's anyone's guess what will happen to Lesbos in the long run, whether the number of refugees will really go down and whether illegal migrants will really be returned to Turkey.

The islanders are trying to make the best of the new situation. Some even believe that a few refugees might be integrated on Lesbos. It's no coincidence that Averof, a traditional port-side restaurant, has put up two signs assuring potential Arab-speaking customers that the kitchen also prepares meals without pork.

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