At first they’re just an orange speck on the horizon, the life jackets of another boatload of refugees coming into view on the grey Aegean Sea. Slowly, the rubber raft bobs closer to shore, its outboard motor barely functioning. The Syrians and Afghans aboard lean forward as though sheer desire might speed their craft’s arrival on the north shore of this Greek island.
Finally, the grey dinghy and its 28 passengers land on the rocky shoreline of Lesbos, the gateway for so many desperate and dangerous journeys to Europe. A trio of impatient young men are first off the boat, then volunteer medics waiting on the coast shout for an unconscious woman lying in the middle of the raft to be handed forward. She’s quickly wrapped in a silver thermal blanket and laid down on a flat piece of land, where doctors revive her from apparent shock. She wakes up with a series of deep coughs.
Next ashore are a pair of toddlers, both clad in onesies made soggy by the more than six-hour sea journey from Turkey. Then, the rest of the boat’s passengers file off. There are no cries of joy as they come ashore, just a stunned silence at what they all went through.
The 28 were among 1,644 people who landed Friday on this overburdened island in the eastern the Aegean Sea. As of Sunday, 18,000 had arrived on Lesbos since the start of the year, with the year’s first snow expected early this week. By comparison, just 752 people arrived here in all of January, 2015 – a year that eventually saw more than a million arrivals in Europe – suggesting the continent could be flooded by refugees this summer for a second straight year.
“Already, it’s a record year. We don’t have a crystal ball, but the war in Syria is not going to end tomorrow. If anything, it’s becoming more deadly,” said Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman on Lesbos for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He said that while young men still make up the largest share of refugees, there were more women and families among this year’s arrivals so far on the island.
At least 42 people have drowned in the choppy and frigid waters of the Aegean Sea over the past two weeks, and those who arrived Friday on the north coast of Lesbos felt lucky not to have added to that grim total.
“We stayed more than six hours in the sea. It was incredible. The motor stopped after five minutes … and the waves [took] us to Turkey,” said Azad Ahmad a 24-year-old law student from the Kurdish northeast of Syria. He said the Turkish coast guard pushed them back toward Greece, at one point hitting at the passengers with wood before one of the refugees – a car mechanic back in Damascus – managed to get the motor working again.
Mr. Ahmad said Friday was his third try to cross the Aegean in the past two weeks, but that bad weather had aborted the first two attempts. Wearing no life jacket, he said he knew “60 per cent” how to swim.
He said his younger brother, Yousef, had made the same crossing in September and reached Germany with his wife and young child. But Mr. Ahmad’s own dream is to reach Norway and complete his studies. “Because [of] freedom. I feel it will be safest because it’s so far from the Middle East.”
After coming ashore, the refugees were put onto minibuses arranged by the International Rescue Committee, and taken to a nearby transit centre partly funded by Vancouver billionaire Frank Giustra’s Radcliffe Foundation. There they were given dry clothes, medical checks, cold meals, solar-powered mobile-phone chargers and – crucially – information about what happens next to refugees arriving on Lesbos.
Partly because of the transit centre – which is still under construction but began receiving refugees in December – the situation on the island has a more orderly feel than it did last fall, when Lesbos was deluged with 10,000 new arrivals every day.
Refugee craft now are usually spotted by volunteer lookouts as they approach and met by teams of aid workers as soon as they reach shore (aid workers and volunteers are legally barred from helping the boats until they touch the beach – unless lives are clearly in danger – since intervening earlier would be aiding illegal migration). New arrivals are processed by Greek authorities on the island and often receive permission to travel by ferry to Athens within 24 hours.
Travel agents around Lesbos’s main city of Mytilene that once sold package tours to other Aegean resorts now hang Arabic and Farsi-language signs in their windows offering $64 bus trips from the port of Athens to the border with Macedonia, the next hurdle on the refugee route to central Europe.
The new arrivals have many questions – Is the Hungarian border still closed? What’s it like in Germany these days? – but what’s ahead pales in comparison to the risks they’ve taken to get to here.
Maryam Taraf, a 23-year-old student from the battered city of Aleppo, said her own boat journey to Lesbos on Friday took only two relatively calm hours. But the days and weeks before were filled with uncertainty and fear.
Ms. Taraf, who was travelling with her husband and three male friends, said the five had been among the estimated 1 1/2-million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon before they decided last week to try and make it to Europe. They made a harrowing drive back through parts of Syria to the Turkish port of Izmir, where they put their fates in the hands of people smugglers.
The smugglers, Ms. Taraf said, charged the refugees $800 a head for transportation to Lesbos. The refugees were then made to march by night through the unfamiliar streets of Izmir; then 70 of them were loaded into the back of a windowless container truck and left there for hours with no information.
“The temperature was under zero, and we waited in the truck from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m.,” she said, speaking English she learned in Lebanon. “There were children with us and they just couldn’t take it.”
Ms. Taraf said the people smugglers they dealt with were Syrian, though their bosses appeared to be Turks. “They only care about the money. They treat people like animals.”
She said her parents and siblings are still in Aleppo and had originally planned to follow her to Europe once she and her husband had safely reached their dream destination of Germany. “When I told them what happened to us, they said they don’t want to go.”
Asked why she and her friends had risked the journey in January, when the sea trip is most dangerous, Ms. Taraf said the smugglers’ prices were lower during the colder months. “We have enough money to go now. Later, maybe we wouldn’t,” she added with a shrug.
The scale of the risks refugees take trying to reach Lesbos is on grim display at the Saint Panteleimon cemetery that sits atop a hill in Mytilene.
Most of the graves there are imposing stone Orthodox Christian shrines. But at the very back there are several dozen freshly dug mounds of dirt – the modest final resting places for some of those refugees who died during the journey to Lesbos.
The refugee graves are marked only with stones. Many have “Anonymous” written on them in black marker; others have only the date of death. Many of those buried here are children: Waterlogged teddy bears have been placed beside several graves.