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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Curious November: movement and winter

More than 30,000 (30,138) people have arrived in Greece by sea since 1 January 2018: 254 more than arrived by sea in the whole of 2017.

Although only 1,945 people arrived in the whole of November (the third-lowest total since April 2017, and the lowest since February 2018), the first six days of December have seen 762 new arrivals – more than a third of the previous month’s total in just a fifth of the time.

Added to this, an estimated 16,300-18,700 people have crossed the ‘land border’ between Turkey and Greece so far this year – at the lowest estimate, roughly three times as many as made this crossing in the whole of 2017.

In total, the number of new arrivals to Greece is already 11,054 – 31 per cent – higher than the total for 2017 as a whole (35,384 in 2017; 46,438 in 2018). Twenty-five days remain of 2018.

1. New arrivals by sea, 1-6 December, and all of November 2018

2. Transfers from the islands

3. Detention centre populations

4. Combined land and sea arrivals to 6 December 2018 (land arrivals still using lower estimate – 16,300 – from 26 November 2018. Higher estimate is 18,700)

5. Mainland refugee population (‘confirmed’, as at 6 December)

6. Monthly arrivals and daily averages

*2017 daily average arrivals, 81.87 people

Since our last update on the situation in Greece, we have been away, working with an organisation based in Turkey which is providing services not only to men, women and children who have been forced to flee Syria for the south of Turkey, but also – through partner organisations – to people displaced within Idlib.

Any of you who are interested can of course contact us for more information about this, but here in Greece, we have returned to review an… interesting month, not least in terms of the movement of people to and from the Aegean islands.


Despite the advantages of up-to-the-second news coverage, it can sometimes be useful to take some time to consider events in a little more depth. The movement of people into Greece in November 2018 is one example.

a) Sea arrivals

In terms of basic numbers of arrivals, November has been a remarkable anomaly. From 1-30 November 2018, 1,945 people arrived on the Aegean islands by sea.

By comparison, in the 11 months of the year so far, the number of arrivals has been smaller in only two: January and February.

In fact, the 1,945 people who arrived on the islands in November is less than half of the 4,042 who arrived in October, also less than half of the 3,955 who arrived in September, less than two-thirds of the 3,206 people who came to the islands in August, less than four-fifths of the 2,548 people who entered in July, 441 fewer than the 2,386 who arrived in June, less than three-quarters of 2,705 of people who arrived in May, less than two-thirds of the 3,129 entrants in April, and 528 fewer than in March.

This is a significant difference from 2017, when only three months – August, September and October – saw more arrivals than November, and in fact 1,236 fewer people arrived in November 2018 than in November 2017, in stark contrast to the fact that from 1 January-30 November 2018, 3,196 more people had arrived to Greece by sea than had in the same period of 2017 – an increase of 12 per cent (this is of course down on the period to 31 October, at which point the percentage increase was 22 per cent).

Indeed, in a month-by-month comparison of arrivals in 2017, only two months – August and September – saw more people arrive than in the same months of this year. Even then, this was by a small amount: even in these terms, November 2018 remains a significant outlier.

As a further example of just how remarkable November 2018 has been – just how many fewer men, women and children arrived by sea than we might have expected – more than a third of the number of people who arrived in November, arrived in the first six days of December alone: 1,945 in November, compared to 762 from 1-6 December.

We must, too, consider that the almost immediate and significant upturn in arrival numbers in the last seven days is an important counter to the idea that the drop in arrival numbers by sea is an indicator that the movement of refugees is at even the beginning of an end.

At this stage, we must lay our cards on the table: to a certain extent, we have a duty to consider reasons why this drop-off occurred. While we have noted that none of the evidence suggests that there is reason to believe that November 2018 is a signifier that people are not moving from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other states, or do not wish to move (even without December’s immediate spike in arrivals numbers, the fact that a large number more people have arrived in 2018 so far than in 2017 – including an extraordinary increase in the number of men, women and children entering Greece by the ‘land border’; between it and Turkey, would effectively rule this out as a sensible conclusion) we have to admit that at this stage, we simply do not know why the numbers fell so drastically.

What follows, however, are suggestions of some things we can consider and examine in more detail.

First, we should touch upon the sources of the data available to us. The major source of information on sea arrivals to the Eastern Aegean islands is the Greek government.

These figures are often mildly inaccurate (at present, because of our interaction with a number of organisations on the islands and elsewhere in Greece, we operate on the basis that the government data is incorrect to a level of roughly 200 people per 7,000: we should note that this is by no means an extraordinarily-poor accuracy rate in statistical terms, though ‘margins for error’ become significantly more important when we are talking about human lives).

However, the government statistics on arrivals do, this month, match very closely those compiled by UNHCR and the organisations with which we work on the islands. While there are some significant concerns about certain statistics related to the refugee response in the last month, there is little to no reason to seriously question the arrivals figures issued in November.

The following factors should also be considered, but themselves contain significant weaknesses.

The number of people prevented from leaving Turkey in November by the state’s coastguard did not reveal that the fall in arrivals in Greece came because of unusually high activity from the coastguard: in November, the coastguard dealt with 42 incidents, involving 1,187 people – the lowest number of people stopped in one month since February 2017. In October, by contrast, the coastguard stopped 3,227 men, women and children crossing to the Eastern Aegean islands in 85 incidents. In November 2017, the coastguard dealt with the same number of incidents as November this year (42), but they involved 2,052 people.

The fall in arrivals is not because more people than usual were prevented from leaving. In fact, fewer people tried to leave than in the preceding months.

Other potential contributory factors include the fact that on 17 November Eid al Shuja fell. This celebration, like many others in the Muslim calendar, leads to men, women and children pausing to celebrate – and for many in Turkey to attempt to cross back into Syria for short periods to spend time with family.

However, Eid al Shuja is a Shi’a celebration, marked by the ‘Twelvers’, and only around 0.5 per cent of the pre-war Syrian population were Twelvers.

However, on 20 November (for Sunni Muslims) and 25 November (for Shi’as) it was Mohammad’s birthday, which may have had a significant effect also, not only on the day(s) themselves, but throughout the month, as people with family to visit might have postponed any attempt to enter Europe, and others decided they would rather celebrate the event where they were than in transit or the island detention centres.

There was in fact a significant drop in the number of people travelling to the islands on 30 November to 1 December 2017 (the dates on which the birthday celebration fell last year). But this was not repeated this year: in fact, 943 of the 2,002 people who travelled to the islands in November arrived in the period of 16-26 of the month.

One possible final factor, however, might be the ongoing situation in Idlib. There are currently at least three million people in the Northern Syrian region (on 8 November, the Syria Response Coordination team reported the results of its most recent census, which suggests that in fact there are 4.7m people now in the Idlib governorate, compared with 1.2m before the state’s civil war).

The reason why what is happening in Idlib now may have had some effect on the numbers of people attempting to move is that surrounding the region now – and therefore the people who have fled Syria as a state – is a sense both that this may well be the final ‘stand’ of those who oppose Assad (though we would strongly advise that in fact when Idlib ‘falls’ to Assad, Iran, Russia, Hizbollah, and the more than 80 foreign militia organisations fighting for Assad, this may very well in fact simply be the prelude to years of desert guerrilla warfare), and that there is now almost even a ‘holding of breath’: that people are genuinely waiting to see what happens next there, before making a final decision on what they do, and where they attempt to move.

To explain this, one must consider that Idlib and the ongoing negotiations surrounding it and the Kurdish regions to its north offers both the ‘last chance’ (in the short-term) to those who oppose Assad and would love to return to Syria but cannot while he remains in power, and is at the heart of a variety of proposals which include but are not limited to a ‘peace agreement’ which might see it and the Kurdish regions separated from the rest of Syria (the Kurdish regions would not, however, be very likely to be ‘unified’ with Idlib in any such agreement).

Assad, of course, absolutely opposes any such separation, but Iran is under increasing pressure to remove its forces from Syria, Hizbollah faces ongoing criticism within Lebanon for its role in the civil war, while Russia might (though this appears unlikely) accept an end to the war which saw Assad still in power if this were at the cost of one of Syria’s poorest regions.

All of these may have played some part in inspiring a ‘pause’ among refugees from Syria, who could return at least to a region of the state they regard as home.

However, as with every other factor, there are significant reasons to believe that this, too, is at least not the sole inspiration for the drop in entries in November: not least amongst them the fact that attacks on rebel groups in Idlib have continued even as the negotiations have been ongoing, and that, as noted above, a significant number of people have travelled to the Eastern Aegean islands since 1 December, despite no final agreement having been reached.

b) Inland transfers and Winter

Earlier this week, Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Amnesty International, published observations following his visit to Moria camp at Lesvos.

He described conditions at the detention centre as ‘inhumane’ and ‘dire’, explaining:

Hugely overcrowded with a lack of sanitation and drinking water, the camp suffers from infestations of mice and rats. When I was there almost 7,500 people were jammed into a camp with an official capacity of 3,100.

People queue for hours for meagre portions of food. Shoeless children play beside streams of raw sewage which seeps into people’s makeshift shelters or tents. This accommodation has no heating, insulation or even proper flooring and is woefully ill-suited for winter. Their ongoing suffering is an indelible stain on the conscience of Europe.

We have written, at length, on the inexcusable situation in the island detention centres – their overcrowding, the lack of even basic amenities and the fact that it is simply unacceptable to cram thousands of men, women and children into spaces the Greek government and EU accept can safely host only a fraction of their current population. We have also stated publicly and repeatedly that forcing people into detention centres of any kind – let alone ones with such horrific conditions as those on the Eastern Aegean islands – is both immoral and an affront to human decency.

We have also documented – at length – the fact that although seven people were killed due to cold, in the EU, in the 21st century, in the winter of 2016-17, because almost no preparation was made to make the detention centres habitable by human beings through Winter, very little real winterisation was carried out last year, and it was only the relatively mild weather last Winter which prevented more deaths.

As we write this, the temperature across Greece has consistently been below 0°C overnight for the last fortnight, and little winterisation has taken place – once more – at the detention centres.

However, one effort has been made: from 1 September-30 November 2018, 10,984 people have been moved from the islands to the Greek mainland.

This mass movement is unheard of at any point since the EU/Turkey Deal came into effect in March 2016, and must be welcomed.

But we have to note that in the same period, 9,999 people have arrived on the islands – that is, despite the last month recording the third lowest number of new arrivals to Greece since April 2017, and the lowest since February this year, the difference between the detention centre population in September this year, and today, is just 985.

A second concern is that it is far from clear who the 10,984 people to have left the islands are, or where they have been moved to.

This is not least because since the Greek government took control of funding the mainland response (though most organisations are still funded by outside donors) from ECHO in August 2017, it ceased to publish information about the population of camps on the Greek mainland. From what we do know, however, by 31 October, at ten camps in north and eastern Greece – more than a third of the 27 open camps on the mainland – the population had increased by a total of 679.

Even then, a significant proportion of this – at least one-third – was made up not of people who had been transferred from the islands, but by people who had arrived in Greece via the River Evros ‘land border’ between Greece and Turkey.

Effectively, 94 per cent of those moved from the island detention centres to the mainland have been placed in just two-thirds of the mainland camps, and many of those (as well as several of the ten already noted) are effectively collections of containers, in which people must spend the Winter – the third, in many of their cases – in Greece.

c) Land crossings

A final aspect to consider as we are now well into the final month of 2018, is that by 26 November, between 16,300 and 18,700 men, women and children had entered Greece by ‘land’ crossing the Evros river which separates Greece and Turkey.

The estimated number of people who made the same crossing in 2017 was 5,500 people.

Of those, a significant number remain unregistered and therefore unable to fully access the services provided at camps to those recognised as in need of assistance.

Once again, Greece is entering – indeed is now within – a winter in which many will be left to face the worst of the year’s weather almost unassisted.

And, for the third year running, this is an unacceptable situation in the EU in the 21st century.

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