| 11.4°C Dublin

Europe's dirty little secret

Journalists and aid workers come under attack from angry islanders after the recent migrant surge


SQUALID: A man drags a cart with water in the overcrowded Moria migrant camp on the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos last week. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Getty

SQUALID: A man drags a cart with water in the overcrowded Moria migrant camp on the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos last week. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Getty

AFP via Getty Images

SQUALID: A man drags a cart with water in the overcrowded Moria migrant camp on the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos last week. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Getty

It is the kind of quiet little Aegean village that summer visitors might dream of during the long winter nights.

But there was nothing quaint or charming about the tiny port of Thermi on the island of Lesbos last week, when a German journalist was beaten up by a bunch of hooded Greek thugs.

Michael Trammer (25) was photographing a standoff with a dinghy full of refugees who had just crossed from Turkey, with locals determined to prevent them from landing when he was set upon by five or six young men in tracksuit bottoms and puffer jackets. They grabbed him, threw him to the ground and started kicking and punching him.

"I wanted to get a photo of the people who were stopping people on the boat from getting off," he told reporters.

"A group formed and they started harassing other journalists, then they split off and sprinted toward me."

Mr Trammer, who was alone, was subjected to a 30-second attack during which his camera was thrown into the sea. He was left requiring stitches to his head. He left Lesbos the next day, fearing for his safety after receiving death threats on social media.

The attack was just one of a series of assaults on journalists and aid workers on Lesbos in the last few days - the island's nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for its handling of the refugee crisis now a distant memory.

The island has seen a fresh wave of refugee arrivals in boats this week, arranged by smugglers on the Turkish coast. The exodus was prompted by Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after he announced last week that his government would no longer stop asylum seekers from trying to reach Greece by sea and by land.

The announcement, apparently designed to extract more money from Brussels and diplomatic support for Ankara's military offensive in Syria, has resulted in violent clashes between refugees and Greek forces on the border with Turkey. On Lesbos, young men have targeted reporters and NGO workers because they perceive them as being sympathetic to the plight of the refugees.

It is unclear if they are locals or outsiders from the mainland, possibly connected to far-right organisations. Last Friday there were reports that members of German and Austrian far-right organisations had arrived on the island. Their presence was deeply disconcerting for aid workers and journalists who were already feeling that they being made scapegoats.

Lesbos, where 20,000 refugees and migrants are squeezed into the squalid Moria camp built to accommodate less than 3,000 people, has been on the front line since the great migration crisis of 2015, but the attacks and the makeshift road blocks set up by extremists represent a worrying new development.

In another incident, four young women working for an NGO were stopped in their car by a group of men who dragged them out. The women escaped unscathed after another group of locals saw what was happening and intervened, giving the women sufficient time to get back into their car and drive away.

On Monday, two German journalists were attacked on a road leading to Moria camp. Franziska Grillmeier and Julian Busch were left shaken when a group of men in hoodies and dressed in black emerged from the roadside. They blocked the car and began hurling rocks and sticks at it.

"We tried to turn around and then they were jumping on our car and throwing stones and wooden sticks. We had to turn around in the car and drive away very fast," said Mr Busch.

"They tried to open the doors and it was really aggressive - we were afraid."

Giorgos Christides, a correspondent for Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, also came under attack when protesters who had built road blocks threw objects at his car.

"We were beaten up, threatened, chased, harassed, attacked on social media, berated in the street and pursued by masked men on motorbikes. It went on like this for days," he wrote, saying he was relieved to leave the island. "I can understand the frustration of the locals. They feel abandoned by Europe. They seem to believe that the problems will disappear if the journalists and aid organisations disappear.

"They want Moria shut down and for the migrants to be moved elsewhere."

Even doctors treating sick and injured refugees have been targeted.

A member of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) was told by an angry group of people in Moria village, a couple of miles from the refugee camp, that if he did not pack his belongings and leave within a week, there would be "consequences". NGOs have expressed anger that their employees have been attacked, as have journalists' groups.

"We note with great concern that certain groups on the island of Lesbos move in an organised manner to intimidate and attack journalists covering the flow of refugees and migrants arriving from Turkey," the Foreign Press Association of Greece said in a statement.

Gulnoza Said, the Europe coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said: "Greek authorities must quickly and thoroughly investigate the attacks on reporters covering refugee movements on the island of Lesbos and ensure that they can continue their reporting safely and without fear."

The tension has been building for years even if, in the past, Lesbos has shown itself capable of extraordinary solidarity with migrants and refugees.

Islanders were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for their efforts to help those arriving on their shores at the peak of the refugee crisis.

But the rise in tensions on islands like Lesbos has come as little surprise, said Dimitra Kalogeropoulou, Greece director for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organisation.

"Local communities have been impacted by the government's policies toward asylum seekers, especially the containment policy, which has trapped over 40,000 people on the islands," she said.

"Overcrowding on the islands is good for no one; local communities feel their islands have been transformed into giant prisons, while asylum seekers are forced to live in dangerous conditions."

Not everyone on the island has turned against journalists and aid workers - many locals are appalled by the actions of the extremists.

"Just after the attack happened there was an old lady and some men from the island who told me that they would take care of me and protect me," said photographer Mr Trammer.

Dimitrios, an islander who asked not to be named in full because of the tensions on Lesbos, believes most islanders are outraged by the attacks.

"Humanitarian relief is still the initial reaction towards the situation by the majority of the population," he said.

Small bands of black-clad extremists do not represent the majority of islanders.

"Most are civil and laid-back people, but they feel like they have been betrayed by the European Union and exploited by Turkey.

"For some, this has hardened their views."