A couple of people have expressed worries about how the refugee crisis might impact on their sailing holiday. It is a serious concern which I completely understand. I hope this post will give you some facts on which to base your decision about sailing here this year.
As you’re probably aware, refugees who arrive from Turkey are now stuck in Greece as neighbouring countries have shut their borders. Here’s a map from the UNHCR for early April, showing where the refugees are located. The red figure shows how many people are at each site; the blue number shows total capacity. As you’ll see most sites are now over their capacity, creating poor living conditions for the people confined there.
If you look at the right hand side of the map, you’ll see the islands close to Turkey – the Dodecanese – such as Lesvos and Chios. This is where most of the refugees arrive by boat.
Below and to the left of the middle of the map you’ll find Athens, and below and to the left of that you’ll see a small purple cross. This is the island of Aegina, where we are based. We are 300 – 400 km / 200 – 300 miles from where most refugees land.
Until recently the Greek government arranged ferries to transport refugees from the Dodecanese to Piraeus port, close to Athens. They then made their way north by bus or taxi. Most crossed the border at Eidomeni, where one of the largest groups of refugees are now camped out.
Under the new arrangements refugees are no longer being dropped off in Piraeus. They must stay in special centres and either apply for asylum in Greece or be returned to Turkey. The blue dots throughout the country show these centres.
Our base is on the island of Aegina, south-west of Piraeus, and our sailing area is the Saronic and Argolic Gulfs. Aegina is shown in purple on the enlarged portion of the map below. Our main sailing area is within the purple dotted line. We are to the south-west of Piraeus, far from the area where the refugees arrive. There are no detention centres in this area or anywhere in the Pelopponese.
You won’t come across any refugees or migrants boats when you sail here. There are no refugees walking the roads or camped in this area.
The only place where you may see evidence of refugees, if you specifically look for it, is when you take your ferry from Piraeus to Aegina. As you leave the port it’s possible to see the tents outside the terminal building in the distance on the starboard side of the ship as you steam out of the port.
These tents belong to some of the thousands of refugees currently stranded at the port.. They are mostly accommodated inside the buildings at Gate E2.
Piraeus is a huge port and Gate E2 is a long way from Gate E8, which is where you will catch your ferry or hydrofoil to Aegina. I’ve shown the two gates on the map below, with E8 in purple and E2 in blue. I’ve been in Piraeus several times recently and have never seen any refugees on the way to the ferry, although, as I say, you may see their tents as your ferry leaves the harbour.
There are sometimes a few people begging or selling sunglasses or watches at the port but these are generally gipsies or immigrants living in Greece and they’ve been there for years.
What About Sailing in Other Areas?
If you intend to charter you may want to sail in other areas than the Saronic and Argolic. The Cyclades is the most famous sailing area in Greece, with its picturesque blue and white architecture and hundreds of islands. The Cyclades are in the middle of the bottom on the first map.
What I have written about our sailing area also applies to the Cyclades. These islands are too far from Turkey for refugee boats to attempt the voyage, and no refugees are being taken there to be housed awaiting asylum or deportation.
We ran a very successful mile-building trip to the Dodecanese in 2014 and planned to do the same last year but changed our minds. Personally I would still sail in the Dodecanese but can fully understand why you might choose not to do this. I think, if you intend to sail in this area, you must balance the benefit your presence will be to the local economy against any discomfort you might feel seeing refugee families camped out in poor conditions.
If you sail on the Turkish side of these islands, please note that you should first notify the Greek Port Police if you see any boats in distress. Technically, if you pick people up you could be accused of smuggling, although I don’t know of any instances of this happening. Your charter company will be able to give you details of phone numbers to use.
I spoke to several sailors who came across refugees in the Dodecanese last year, mainly Syrians. Without exception they all commented on what pleasant, educated people they were.
Compassion or Fear?
I’ve tried to make this post factual and haven’t commented on the morality or ethics of what is happening. I know people have very different views on the refugee crisis. Some people’s primary reaction is compassion; other people’s is fear. I think how you react is a combination of your previous life experiences and the information being fed to you by the particular media you look at..
In my opinion it is foolish not to recognise that the movement of vast numbers of people like this will cause problems, but I think our response should be to try to find the best ways to counteract these problems, not to let our fear outweigh our compassion.
In the past Greeks have often been displaced from where they live. Many Greeks have ancestors who were refugees. Old people may even have been refugees themselves as children. This could be a reason why the majority of people here look upon these arrivals, not as potential terrorists, but as fellow human beings desperately in need of help.
There is also a great tradition of hospitality to strangers in Greece.
The saddest thing to me is that Greeks are in danger of suffering for their generosity. If tourism is affected the livelihood of many will be in jeopardy. While I completely understand anyone not wanting to take a family holiday where there may be bodies being brought ashore this is really only the case in a few islands.
I don’t know what will happen in the future but for now there is absolutely no reason to avoid the majority of places in Greece and I can assure you Greek hospitality will be as warm as ever this year, perhaps even warmer.
How to Help
If you want up to date information on what is happening on the Dodecanese islands and to help one of the charities working with the refugees, can I suggest the Starfish Foundation who are volunteers working on the ground in Lesvos? There’s information about them and how you can help on their website here and their Facebook page here. They frequently ask for specific donations in terms of clothing etc. from time to time, as well as money to help of course. You can also volunteer.
The Full Picture of Latest Developments
You can see the latest UNHCR data on refugees in Greece here.
There are many problems with the recent agreement between the EU and Turkey. If you want a full picture there is some worrying information in this document produced by ACAPS, a consortium of NGOs that aims to support the humanitarian community with needs assessments..
A Final Message
Come to Greece. It’s as beautiful as ever. The people are as welcoming as ever. They need your support. You have nothing to fear.