Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Lives Wasted: Garbage as a Forgotten Dimension of the European “Refugee Crisis”

by Maximilian Feichtner and Theresa Leisgang

A deflated rubber boat is washed up on the eastern coast of Chios. Once the waves have buried it under rocks and it becomes even more entangled with seagrass, you will hardly be able to see it. But for tourists strolling along the beach, this isn’t the only reminder of the boat landings by refugees who crossed Europe’s borders at night. All across the beaches of the Aegean Islands, where tourists usually swim and sunbathe, refugees leave their life jackets, water bottles, soaked clothes—and the boats on which they started their journey to a new life. The waste is what connects both, tourists and refugees, in their everyday life, as both are caught up in a circle of producing and managing waste. Beyond that, the waste is a material trace of countless people’s struggles to survive and escape violent conflicts. It is a trace that tourists and islanders would like to ignore; a trace, however, that won’t disappear by itself.

About one million people arrived on Greek shores in 2015 and the first few months of 2016, most of them fleeing war and persecution in Syria. Since March 2016, when the EU signed a deal with Turkey to halt the flow of migration to Europe, arrivals via the Aegean Sea dropped dramatically. However, possibly due to rising tensions regarding EU-Turkey relations, numbers are increasing again: 4,609 people reached Greece via boat in September 2017 according to the UNHCR. With them, the amount of discarded rubber dinghies, sports boats, and other waste on the islands will likely amount to tonnes. Their waste comes in addition to the already existing refugee boats, carelessly piled up in the hinterland, turning pastures into ship graveyards. What remains undiscussed in the broader public and political debates is the potential environmental crisis that risks adding another level of complexity to the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe. Continue reading