In 2015, a million refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in search of safety and a better life. The vast majority (84%) of these people arrived by sea to Greece, crossing the Aegean from departure points dotted along the Turkish coast. In the last four months of 2015 the narrative of Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ – which had been dominated by the stories of hundreds of people drowning in the Mediterranean between Libya and Italy earlier in the year – came to be defined instead by stories of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people arriving every day on the Greek islands of Lesvos, Kos and Chios. Images of boats carrying desperate men, women and children landing on the beaches, to be met by volunteers who had travelled to Greece to assist with the humanitarian effort, and of celebrities and politicians visiting to see what was happening for themselves, filled newspapers around Europe and across the world.
But these stories of ‘mass movement’ into Greece conceal a much more complex picture. Migration policy is currently driven by moral and political panic, patchy knowledge and broad assumptions about the people at the heart of the story: refugees and migrants themselves. Understanding the dynamics of migration across the Aegean provides an insight into the needs, fears and aspirations of those on the move, enables a more effective humanitarian response and challenges political and media representations of refugees and migrants as an undifferentiated mass.