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Over 1,000 migrants have reached a tiny Greek island in recent months

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The tiny Greek island of Gavdos has seen at least 1,180 migrants arrive since the beginning of 2024. Authorities on the island, which has a population of 70 people, say they are overwhelmed.

Is a “Greek Lampedusa” in the making? The tiny island of Gavdos, located south of Crete, is currently overwhelmed by an influx of migrants. The island recently became a new point of entry into Europe for migrants setting off from the port city of Tobruk on Libya’s eastern Mediterranean coast, some 200 kilometers away.

According to data provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 1,186 Egyptians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have arrived in vessels that landed “in the vicinity” of the micro-island in the past three months.

The situation is unprecedented for the 29-square-meter island with 70 inhabitants, including only two families with four children. The rest “are all old people mostly living alone,” said its mayor, Lilian Stefanaki, who was contacted by The Guardian.

Read more: At least three dead as migrant boat capsizes near Lesbos

 A total of 860 migrants reached Gavdos in 2023

Unlike this year, the small island, which resembles a paradise, didn’t witness any arrivals in the initial months of 2023. Over the course of the entire year, some 860 migrants reached the island, according to the UNHCR.

This “micro-world”, as the Guardian described it, only has a school, a bakery and two mini-markets. It does not have a migrant reception structure.

“The absence of a center obviously poses great challenges for the island,” said Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Greece.

Gavdos is located some 180 kilometers from the Libyan coast
Gavdos is located some 180 kilometers from the Libyan coast

Since the weekend of March 9, boats carrying dozens of people have been arriving almost daily, Stefanaki told Reuters. “This is a big burden for us. We’re a small island, we haven’t got supplies or shops. Food is a big problem. Our finances are limited,” she added.

Read more: Punishment beatings: Migrants beaten, isolated in Greek refugee camps

‘Transfers from Gavdos are impossible when the weather is bad’

The UNHCR ensures it is tackling the problem. “We are in contact with Athens and with local Greek authorities. We are currently providing non-food items, including blankets, sleeping bags and hygiene kits to meet initial basic needs,” said Nanou.

 Most new arrivals are quickly transferred to Crete and then to mainland Greece. “They are accommodated at reception centers at the port of Rethymno, the port of Heraklion, or the port of Chania,” added Nanou. “But transfers from Gavdos are impossible when the weather is bad. People have to stay and sleep on the island.”

It is hard to know where exactly. According to Reuters, they were sheltering in an abandoned building.

On the island, only one police officer is on permanent duty. He is responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of residents. Efsevios Daskalakis still can’t believe how many people have arrived. “It’s incredible […] They’re young men mostly, who arrive in boats carrying four times their capacity after more than a day-and-a-half at sea,” he told the Guardian.

A boat carrying 483 migrants arrived in Crete in 2022. | Photo: picture-alliance
A boat carrying 483 migrants arrived in Crete in 2022. | Photo: picture-alliance

‘Under pressure from migratory flows in the south of Crete’

Unsurprisingly, the Greek authorities are not prepared for this new influx. Boats leaving Libya generally steer towards Italy, not Greece. Athens fears the establishment of a new migratory route linking Tobruk to Gavdos.

Read more: Eastern Mediterranean: Hundreds of migrants rescued, some missing

On January 28, a boat carrying 74 migrants, including 20 children, wound up on Trypiti beach, in the south of Gavdos. On January 20, 149 people were rescued off the coast of Gavdos. A Danish merchant ship, the Maersk Brownsville, helped locate and collect the migrants, returning them to the port of Kali Limeni.

All the exiles had left from Tobruk, a Libyan border city near Egypt. 

“We are under pressure from migratory flows in the south of Crete,” Sofia Voultepsi, secretary of state at the migration ministry, said recently.

An economic crisis in Egypt is driving an increasing number of people to head to Tobruk in neighboring Libya. From there, they hope to reach European shores by sea.

The European Union announced a new strategic partnership with Egypt on March 17 that included an aid package of € 7.4 billion euros.

Some of that money will be used to stem migration towards Europe by reinforcing “the protection of the borders, in particular [Egypt’s] southern border”, which touches the Gaza Strip and Sudan, according to a senior European official. The package aims to curb the potential mass arrival of Gazans and Sudanese on European territory.

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