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Lesbos: art and culture challenged by the migrant crisis

Jean-Luc JanotAEIDL / FARNET Support Unit

As part of SIE's Beyond Crisis: Innovative Approaches to the Integration of Migrants, Jean-Luc Janot (FARNET Support Unit) writes about an important gathering of the partners in a cultural cooperation project involving eleven Greek island local action groups, which took place on the island of Lesbos in May/June 2015, just as the numbers of asylum seekers arriving on the island began to explode.

Since 2005, the "Nisson Periplous" (“Sailing around the islands”) network has brought together 11 Greek local development agencies, all of which act as Local Action Groups (LAGs) in the framework of the LEADER (rural development) and EFF Axis 4 (coastal and fisheries development) EU programmes. LAGs are local partnerships that bring together the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as other stakeholders, to facilitate integrated and participatory area-based development.

The Nisson Periplous network seeks to foster cooperation and the transfer of good practices in local development between the different islands of the Ionian, Crete and Aegean seas. Beyond mutual assistance in programme management, this includes working together to enhance the identity and image of the Greek islands, to both tourists and the local population. The emphasis is on showing visitors that the islands have more to offer than “sea and sun” tourism, and on reminding islanders that the place they live in is a treasure trove in terms of know-how, traditions, architecture, gastronomy, art, etc.

"The whole point of the local development approach, which is now called CLLD, is to be responsive to the real needs of the inhabitants of our islands  by supporting citizen-led projects," says  Anastasios M. Perimenis, director of ETAL, the Lesbos local development company. "It is a matter of economic development but also of social cohesion. As for culture and identity, we are convinced that cultural events allow local people to exchange ideas and generate social innovation."

Since 2014, the network has been implementing a cooperation project, ‘Culture as a Lever for Sustainable Development’. In May/June 2015, the project partners met in Lesbos for the ‘Greek Islands Art Spring’ festival, a series of artistic and cultural events (exhibitions, workshops, etc.) involving many local people.  A total of 143 artists from across the Greek islands participated in nine events and exhibitions during a three-month period. Thirty-five of these came to Lesbos to paint, draw and exhibit their work. The timing of the event also coincided with the period that saw a significant increase in the number of refugees arriving on the island.

"It was a total surprise!”, says Anastasios. "Migrants had been arriving on the island for several years, but this was beyond anyone’s imagination: 7000-8000 refugees were arriving on the island every day, all heading to Mytilene, the capital of the island, where the ferry leaves from. They were everywhere, on all the roads, in the parks, on the streets, in the port and all along the pier. It was difficult sometimes to get around on foot or by car. There were many Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians with almost nothing, sometimes without shoes ... it was a real shock for our colleagues and visitors from the islands of Corfu and Euboea, who had no experience of this… And as the event brought together a large crowd of people, including local inhabitants, it soon developed into a large forum where we discussed and tried to analyse the human tragedy that was unfolding. As far as I can remember, the issue was raised in every meeting, gathering and workshop related to the event. "

The tone of the discussion was always sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, not least because many of the inhabitants of Lesbos, and other Greek islands, can trace their descendants back to the great deportation of Greeks from Asia Minor in 1922. "The local population still remembers this terrible story", says Anastasios.

Local fishermen are also at the forefront of the tragedy: "They often find bodies at sea or help to tow boats that do not have enough fuel to reach the coast. They also assist the coastguard in rescue operations. This is what one of our EFF Axis 4 beneficiaries recently told me: 'we do not have the right to approach the boats of refugees, but I know the sea and when you hear a cry for help from a boat with 50 people, which is designed for 20, I know it will definitely sink ... How could you even consider turning away? So I inform the port authorities and, no matter what they tell me, I bring the refugees ashore. Once they are safe and dry, they cry and express their infinite gratitude ... "

About the event itself, Anastasios also has many stories to tell: "A number of participants asked that their lunch or dinner be packed and given to the refugees. Some went to the supermarkets and bought food to distribute."

As for the artistic outcome of the event, it was also heavily influenced by the refugee crisis: "Many of the pieces produced in the different workshops were inspired by the crisis, war and social issues. The result is a series of highly sensitive paintings, works of art and an illustrated story that we are now trying to promote through a catalogue and a book, which we had not expected."

More than one million refugees have arrived in Europe this year and, according to forecasts from the European Commission, this massive migration is expected to increase further in 2016. It is a huge challenge for the EU, for all Member States and for many regions, whether rural, urban and coastal. Community-led local development has created a culture of dialogue and partnership between all stakeholders - public institutions, the private sector and civil society. To address this enormous challenge, these exemplary partnerships can play an important role in facilitating the reception of refugees, promoting solidarity, and also, whenever possible, turning this crisis into an opportunity for local development.

Interested in reading more? See more from Beyond Crisis: Innovative Approaches to the Integration of Migrants