The Greek island of Leros, nestled among the Dodecanese in the southern Aegean, is a place accustomed to outcasts. In Antiquity it was a place of exile for the nearby town of Miletus, now on the Turkish mainland. Later, during Ottoman times the island was the site of a leper colony. After the Second World War the island was used as a prison for political prisoners opposed to the military junta and in the late 1980s it was in the spotlight following revelations of embezzlement of funds and maltreatment of patients at a notorious mental institution. Finally, in 2015, Leros was chosen as the site for one of five "Hot Spots", large enclosed refugee camps, which now hosts 800 refugees and migrants who are stranded on the island due to the haphazard European approach to the recent migrant crisis. Georgios Makkas visited the island on 1 June 2016 after an agreement had been reached between the EU and Turkey by which Turkey would help stem the flow of refugees crossing between Turkey and Greek islands in return for financial aid and the waiving of short stay visas for Turks travelling to the EU. Migrants arriving illegally in Greece or those whose asylum claims had been rejected would be sent back to Turkey while the same number of legitimate asylum seekers in Turkey would be resettled in Turkey.
The port of Lakki, which had seen thousands of migrants and refugees passing through on their way to other EU countries in 2015, among them the Paris terrorist Abdelhamid Abaaoud, lay deserted, nothing but empty tents, empty children's play rooms and clothes left behind. A similar eerie silence reigned at the Villa Artemis, a centre run by the Leros Solidary Network (LSN), which had housed thousands of vulnerable women and single mothers with children. In March 2016, the Greek government had decided to close all "unofficial", NGO run camps in anticipation of the fall in numbers following the EU-Turkey deal.
Those refugees left in Leros were moved to camps surrounded by barbed wire and overseen by the Greek Army and police units. Luckily for refugees who were moved from the Lakki port camp in March 2016, their new government run facilities hadn't been completed yet so the authorities allowed Matina Katsiveli and other Leros Solidarity Network staff to take them to them to PIKPA, an old psychiatric hospital still hosting around 50 patients. PIKPA, now the only volunteer-run shelter on the island, has been renovated and offers 160 beds, a kitchen, a utility room and a children's playroom.
Upon returning to PIKPA in September 2016, however, Georgios found a dispiriting situation. Some of the centre's residents had decided to return to the countries where they had come from, assisted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) while others had paid smugglers to take them to the Greek mainland where they melted into the general population.
Few had any illusions about a Europe that would welcome them and allow them to fulfil their dreams of starting a new life. Only the children felt a sense of adventure about their families' migration ordeal. The island has once again become a place of outcasts.