Sunrise over the Mediterranean. The island’s hills brighten as the chug of boat engines can be heard over the lapping waves. These aren’t your typical Greek fishing boats returning from a night at sea, but a flotilla of black rafts, nine total carrying some 400 refugees to land on the north coast of Lesbos island. Under five miles off the Turkish coast, Lesbos has become a beachhead for a flood of refugees that has come as unannounced as a tsunami, and for which local communities are even less prepared.
There has always been a trickle of refugees across the narrow channel. In the ten years that I have been coming here, every week I would find one or two rafts abandoned on the beach with ten or so life jackets or paddles. Until recently, most had been young men from Afghanistan and Iraq, escaping wars they didn’t want to fight, who would later be spotted on a road walking the forty miles or so to the island’s capital, Mytilini, to be processed and transferred to a camp in Athens. In the whole country, the number of such migrants has increased five-fold over the same period last year; but for the islands offshore Turkey, the numbers have risen far more dramatically. On Lesbos, the count has gone from a few dozen a month to over two thousand in one three-day period alone.
A surge in Taliban-led violence in Afghanistan, the rapid spread of the barbaric Islamic State in Iraq, and Syria’s devastating civil war have sent millions fleeing for their lives. Over half of the Syrian population has been displaced, and now accounts for half or more of the new arrivals. Often members of the middle class—teachers, IT specialists and engineers—more often Syrians come as families, forced to leave when their children’s school was bombed; or if from Aleppo, when their neighborhood was razed. On the whole, Syrians have more money than others, but that doesn’t mean much when they have nothing else but the clothes they are wearing.
Some Afghani refugees have walked from as far as Kabul, taking weeks to hike over Iran’s mountains and cross the length of Turkey to its west coast. The odd Syrian has flown to Istanbul, and taken buses to where, even if he or she has money, still has to hide in forests, waiting for days until his turn for the ‘trafficker’ to bundle him aboard a rubber raft. With the craft’s captain (usually one of the refugees) given an hour of training, they are launched for Greece with nothing more precise nautically than a pointed finger.
It’s a harrowing journey for everyone, not the least because of the real risk of capsizing their overloaded rafts even in light seas—sometimes purposefully. The traffickers instruct them to slash their pontoons if the Greek Coast Guard approaches to keep from being turned back to Turkey, which inevitably tosses forty-some non-swimmers into the sea with a crew of only four frantically trying to save them. Ironically, the Coast Guard’s mission is not to turn them back, but to ensure their safe arrival.
Ahead of them, the journey will still be hard. They don’t know it yet. Their dream—their safety—is their first footstep in Europe. It’s only one step in a perilous journey that will take them to processing centers, overcrowded camps, and force them into the hands of other traffickers, more malevolent than anyone else they have met on their way, who, for extortionist prices, promise to get them to Germany or Austria—the current popular destinations.
That emotional first step on European soil can not be overestimated. As their rafts slide ashore, it’s a celebration. The journey has ended and they have arrived safely. Regardless of their wariness of what’s next, they scramble ashore, some feeling the need to run a short distance from the water; but others, overcome with their first sense of security in years, weep, embrace each other, believing—rightfully—that they have made it to a better place. Certainly a safer one.
It’s different, too, from what they imagined. There is little officialdom at this northern point of the island. No police to register them, no information other than the latest rumors that their rescuers—sometimes the Coast Guard, sometimes local volunteers—can pass on. Frequently they don’t know where they landed, only that they need to register with the police to get in the long line to be processed.
Where are the police?
Seventy kilometers away.
Will there be a bus?
Probably not. But maybe. It changes daily.
What do we do?
Walk? My wife is pregnant. My boy is three years old.
I’m sorry. Walk.
The rules, and the probability of a bus, change daily. It’s not because of some great inefficiency by Lesbos’ government, though the elimination a few years ago of village mayors to create a central authority in Mytilini has complicated providing services as essential as portable johns at the bus park where people are often stranded for several days. Earlier this week, that meant thirty persons crowded into a bus shelter on a chilly and rainy night; among them, eight children and five women—two of them pregnant.
While it was foreseeable that the Syrians would mass in camps just over the border in Turkey, it was far less predictable that they would become such a massive wave of refugees headed for the West. If someone saw it coming, that message never got to frontline Lesbos. It might not have mattered if it did. The country is bankrupt. Local officials can hardly provide basic services, let alone cope with an explosion of refugees. International NGOs haven’t caught up with the crisis either.
Local volunteers are making extraordinary efforts to meet the rafts on arrival, and ensure that they have food, water, clothing, shoes, and even Pampers because there are so many infants. Of course, not everyone agrees on what assistance, if any, should be provided.
Most refugees don’t plan to stay in Greece. Some will, of course, but the locals, seeing first-hand the dimension of what is happening, are starting to ask the bigger picture questions: What does it mean for Europe? Who are these people, coming from war-torn countries, possibly armed because in war zones people have weapons? How many refugees can be absorbed before fundamentally changing the culture of Europe itself?
Closer to home, the concerns take on an economic aspect. What if tourists stop coming because they don’t want to be confronted with the plight of refugees, as some reports suggest has started to happen on other islands? No one denies they need water and food, but what beyond that might actually encourage the next groups to make Molyvos their destination? Tents? Toilets? The worry is that if the refugees, using their cell phones, report back to those following in their footsteps that they are being helped, even more people will come here.
The refugees expect to be met and confronted in some way. The lack of even one policeman in my village, or the absence of a bus to take them to Mytilini, puzzles them. A couple of days ago, a few staged a sit-in, blocking traffic on the road in the village, demanding to be arrested and taken to Mytilini. It lasted only as long as it took to convince them that there really was no one in authority who could arrest them.
One of the young men asked me why not a policeman? Why not a bus? I told him that Greece was a poor country, but he didn’t buy it. His was poorer.
I tried the argument: There are too many of you. The village can’t cope. You are sending messages back that here you get water, food, and until a few days ago, we had a small camp where you could sleep. Now too many people are coming.
He shook his head sadly at my obtuseness.
Mister, they’re coming anyway.
Timothy Jay Smith is a frequent visitor to Lesbos. Using private donations, he has been working closely with volunteers in Molyvos and Mytilini to provide food and water to refugees, as well as try to improve conditions at the largest refugee camp (Kara Tepe) by installing toilets and showers. He is also working towards establishing a primary care medical unit at the largest camp in Mytilini. If you wish to contribute to these efforts, you can donate through his PayPal account – email@example.com — or with a personal check in U.S. dollars or Euros (French banks only). For details, please contact him through his web page.
Photo by Michael Honegger at www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com.