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The Camps of Lesbos

From the Bronze Age to the Byzantine era the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean Sea consisted of several thriving city-states and was famous in antiquity for its wine and culture. Its history, through to the present day, has been shaped by its location at the edge of the Greek world, separated from Turkey by the narrow Mytilini Strait, with a maximum width of eight nautical miles. Its eminent early inhabitants included the poet Sappho, the philosopher Theophrastus, and the sage and statesman Pittacus of Mytilene. Lesbos appears in the Odyssey and the Iliad and is said to be where the head of Orpheus washed up, with his lyre, after he was torn to pieces by a pack of frenzied Maenads. In recent times, thanks to crystalline waters, picturesque villages, the famous petrified forest, and medieval fortress, its economy has depended on tourism but the visitors arriving right now haven’t come to take selfies against a backdrop of ancient walls besieged by Achilles. Numbering approximately 20,000, they are among some 42,000 refugees scattered around the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Leros, and Kos, prisoners in a tourist paradise of the EU containment policy.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, there are more than 25.9 million refugees in the world. They have survived all kinds of horrors, have had to flee, and face many perils only to face different dangers in places they hoped would offer succor and safety. As national governments are adopting emergency measures against coronavirus to protect public health, international protection for refugees is being undermined as the right to seek asylum is being suspended together with the legal norms that are supposed to protect them. Aren’t refugees “public” too? Don’t they have a right to health? They do, but in these times, they are the disease because using disease as a metaphor is an old nativist ploy which, with “scientific” presumption, is used to stigmatize people who are already doomed to exclusion and ill-treatment.

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