Even after four years of field missions with Refugees International, I had never seen anything like it.
Around midday, we were driving high along the hills of the northern coast of the Greek island Lesvos, with the Turkish mainland in the foreground. As we descended closer the shoreline, our interpreter pointed out little black specs, tinged with orange, that were dotting the sea. “Look over there! The boats are coming. The orange is from the life jackets.”
When we reached the shoreline, the scene was overwhelming. A small rubber dinghy with an outboard motor, completely packed with people and taking on water, arrived on shore. Immediately, aid staff and volunteers began helping the 40 or so drenched passengers – women, men, children, even babies a few months old – out of the boat and on to dry land. As soon as that boat was emptied, another boat arrived almost immediately, and the scene played out again… and again, and again, and again. Upwards of 50 to 60 boats landed on the shores of Lesvos that day. This year, more than 800,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece, and over 400,000 of them have traveled by boat to Lesvos.
This year, more than 800,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece, and over 400,000 of them have traveled by boat to Lesvos.
Many of the arriving refugees appear thrilled to have arrived safely in Europe, but there is also a great deal of confusion. As volunteers help babies and toddlers out of the boats, it can sometimes take a few minutes to locate the parents. In fact, there have been incidents of children who have been whisked off for medical care without the knowledge of the mother or father.
Upon arrival, the travelers are directed to walk a short distance to transit stations, where they are given dry clothes and a warm meal. They also receive a ticket to board buses bound 70 kilometers south for Mytilene, the island’s capital, where they can purchase a ferry ticket to Athens and continue their journey.
Visiting a transit center is like spending time at a global hub for people on the move.
Visiting a transit center is like spending time at a global hub for people on the move. While the vast majority of arrivals are from Syria, we also met asylum seekers from Iraq, Pakistan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Kenya, Uganda, and Sierra Leone over the course of a short afternoon.
Dedicated aid workers and volunteers, in coordination with local authorities, have worked hard to set up systems to facilitate the arrival process and to provide immediate care and support to refugees, but there is an information gap when people first land. Though the transit sites are just a short walk from the shore, we encountered several men and women, visibly exhausted and sitting on the side of a narrow, windy uphill road leading towards Mytilene. They told us they thought they still had many miles to walk, and had no idea they could access food and dry clothes just a few hundred meters further up the road.
Tragically, not all refugees who board boats in Turkey make it safely to Europe’s shores. This year, over 3,500 people have died or disappeared in the choppy Mediterranean waters.
On the island of Kos, we met a Syrian man who had just arrived ashore with his wife and four-month-old baby that morning. The man, who asked that his name not be used, is from Deir al-Zour in eastern Syria and decided to flee his homeland ten days prior. He said that he felt lucky to have survived bombings by the Assad regime and threats from ISIS, but that the breaking point came when Russia started its bombing campaign. “The Russian air strikes are hitting everyone, even civilians.”
After negotiating himself and his family past ISIS checkpoints by claiming that he was just taking a short trip for medical treatment, he paid smugglers to take them through Turkey and, eventually, get them aboard a rubber dinghy bound for Greece. He said that he wants to take his baby away from the war and to somewhere where she can have a future.
On the boat’s first attempt, they were turned back by the Turkish coast guard. On the second attempt, they made it part way to Greece’s shores before the engine ran out of fuel and the boat started taking on water. “We were all so scared,” he said. “I thought my daughter was going to die.” Only by a stroke of luck, a Greek fisherman came about their boat and towed them into shore.
Recalling the experience, with tears welling up in his eyes, he said, “People are fleeing Syria to flee death. It’s not reasonable that you come here to die.”