Freelance journalist (BBC, RFI, magazines), writer (first book on Massive Attack and Bristol), I work with Raoul Peck on his film projects. Born in Paris, I have been based in Prague, Miami, London, Nairobi (covering Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia) and Bristol, UK. Travelled to Italy, Haiti, Tunisia, Liberia, South Africa, India, Mexico, Niger, Turkey, Iraq... Passions: Africa, Europe, literature, music, arts. This blog is to share thoughts and cultural discoveries from around the world.
‘The noise and chaos is deafening; humanity is laid bare on the shores of Europe’
Photographer Giles Duley is on the Greek island of Lesbos where every day thousands of refugees are landing, to be told there is nowhere they can stay. He introduces a new series of images documenting the plight of the world’s displaced people
Photographer Giles Duley is currently on the Greek island of Lesbos documenting the terrible human impact of the vast European refugee crisis
THEGUARDIAN.COM|BY GILES DULEY
mid-October I arrive in Skala Sikamineas on the north coast of the Greek island of Lesbos. I am here as part of a long-term project for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), documenting the refugee crisis across Europe and the Middle East. For more than a decade I have documented the effects of conflict and humanitarian disaster across the world, and much of that work has been in the countries from which these people now flee. From Afghanistan to South Sudan, in the past years I have seen growing instability across the globe.
I understand the fear that is driving people to leave their homes. I thought I had seen it all, but I have never been so overwhelmed as by the human drama unfolding on the beaches of Lesbos. In its sheer scale, it is hard to comprehend; the lack of response impossible to explain or excuse.
The events of the past few years are unprecedented in size and scope. Not since the second world war have so many people been on the move. The UNHCR estimates there are more than 60 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with over 4 million Syrians alone leaving their war-torn country to seek safety in neighbouring countries and Europe.
On Lesbos, I have watched thousands land, fleeing wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Again and again they say to me: “We thought we would die on that boat, but at least there was some chance; what we left behind was certain death.”
On landing, men break down into tears, women stand lost in visible shock, children cry hysterically. The noise and chaos is deafening; humanity is laid bare on the shores of Europe and the response from politicians is a shambles. It is volunteers who hold this frontline; often taking unpaid leave from work, bringing their own equipment and living in whatever accommodation they can find; a nurse from Palestine, a doctor from Israel, lifeguards from Barcelona; from Bolton to Oslo, everyday people are making a difference.
When survivors, upon landing, shake your hand and say “thank you”, I turn ashamed, for they have nothing to thank us for. If this were ever to be my family seeking safety, I hope the world would treat them better. We can argue about the root causes and possible solutions; we can discuss the difference between refugees, asylum seekers and migrants; we can blame traffickers and smugglers. But the simple truth is that men, women and children are suffering terribly and dying on the coasts of Europe, and for the sake of humanity alone we must help them, not turn our backs.
I still work on film, so it’s some time before the first rolls are developed and contact sheets delivered. Working this way gives me the time to consider what I’m doing, especially for a project like this, which is focused on documenting the breadth and depth of this crisis. In the relative calm of Goji, a harbour-side cafe, I start looking through the images, seeing with clarity the fear and emotion now frozen on the faces of the refugees. It’s almost too heartbreaking to look. As I sit there, the mayor of Skala Sikamineas, Giorgos Saroglou, joins me for a coffee. He talks of how the local population is struggling with the impact of this crisis too; he’s trying to hold together a community battered by tragedy. “How can anything be normal when each day you see a drowned child?” he says, dropping his head. “This coast has become a cemetery of souls.”
It’s nearly 11pm here in Lesbos. Today, 3 November, has been one of the busiest on record for refugees arriving, and despite the dark, boats are still landing. Estimates put the figure at more than 7,000. Two men and two children drowned. The camps are full, the volunteers and agencies overwhelmed. Families are sleeping wherever they can. An Afghan father with a baby in his arms asks for somewhere to sleep. He offers to pay three times the price in a hotel, even just for his wife and baby. When it’s explained there is nowhere left and no blankets, he says: “Touch me, am I not human too?”
This is Europe, this is today.
Donations towards UNHCR’s relief work can be made here