Europe’s Front Door: The Refugee Crisis on Lesvos Island

by Joel Hernandez

Record numbers of refugees have crossed from Turkey into Europe this year through Lesvos and other Greek islands amid the world’s largest migration crisis in decades. Propelled by unrest in Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries, hundreds land on Lesvos’s shores each day. Before an underwhelming response from the European Union and the international community, resident and touristvolunteers have borne the effort of receiving and providing for them. The photos below describe a typical day on Lesvos this summer, as lived by the thousands who risk everything to deposit all their hopes in finding safe harbor in Europe.

A stone’s throw from Europe: The sliver of the Aegean Sea separating the southern coast of Turkey’s Çanakkale Province from the northern shore of Lesvos by a mere eight nautical miles has become a major transit corridor for refugees entering Europe to seek asylum. As of August 2015, close to 125,000 refugees have made the crossing, at a rate of several hundred to a thousand per day. This rate will likely continue until temperatures drop in October or November.

Money for nothing: Though the Greek coast is visible from the start and the crossing usually takes less than one hour, the journey is fraught with danger. The rubber dinghies provided by smugglers in Turkey, meant to seat fifteen or twenty people, are packed to double or triple capacity. Vessels invariably take in water during the trip. Nevertheless, refugees must pay between U.S.$1,000 and $1,200 to cross, and an additional $60 to $100 if they wish for a life jacket. A ticket for the same crossing on a regular ferry runs at about $22.

Hallowed ground: Refugees arriving in Lesvos hail mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, fleeing forcible recruitment and persecution by the Islamic State group, the Taliban, or government security forces. During the crossing they must eludeinterception by the Turkish and Greek coast guards as well as seaborne militias, who are known to assault refugee vessels, rob their occupants, disable their engines, and puncture their rubber hulls. Having survived the harrowing crossing, refugees are understandably euphoric upon reaching Lesvos’s shores.

“We are safe. We are in Europe.” One factor distinguishing this wave of refugees from its predecessors is their level of Internet connectivity, particularly among those coming from Syria. Upon arriving on European shores, many refugees unpack tightly wrapped and waterproofed phones to inform family members they have arrived, take celebratory selfies, and, if necessary, confirm their arrival to their smugglers. Men and women kiss and hug each other, children play in the water, and relatives at the country of origin or of destination rejoice.

The things they carry: Yet euphoria quickly gives way to hunger, thirst, heat, and exhaustion. After arriving on Lesvos, wet with seawater and weighed down by bags holding all their waterlogged possessions, refugees must often walk for miles to reach the nearest town and find help. In many cases they have already gone several days without food or water while waiting on Turkish shores for smugglers to outfit them with a vessel for the crossing.

“Welcome to Europe.” Every morning, volunteers in Lesvos gather at seaside hilltops to scan the waters with binoculars and meet boats where they beach. They provide refugees with water, a little bit of food, and orientation. Convoys form to drive women and children to the nearby town of Molyvos, where other volunteers provide more water and food, toys for children, and a resting place. A nearby café owner generously allows refugees to use her restroom. Many a tourist passing by, moved by the scene, has spontaneously joined the volunteer corps.

Resting and recovering: Days of anxious waiting without food or water in 100F temperatures take a toll, as does the hours-long walk from Lesvos’s northern beaches to Molyvos. Refugees are often exhausted by the time they make it into town. Outfitted by volunteers with dry clothes, hats, sanitary products, and toys, they must wait, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for as long as a day, before they can move on to transit camps.

From Molyvos to Mytilene: From Molyvos, refugees board UNHCR-provided buses to travel to Mytilene, the largest city on Lesvos. There they register with local authorities and are taken to either Kara Tepe, pictured here, or Moria transit camps, where after a few days’ wait they receive papers from local authorities allowing them to stay in Greece for up to six months.

 Heat, dust, hunger, boredom: Life in the transit camps is less than pleasant: even experienced aid workers are shocked by the conditions in Lesvos’s refugee camps. Local and international NGOs provide health care, activities for children, and guidance—yet arriving refugees yearn only to receive their papers, leave the camps, and move on to mainland Greece.

Childhood on the run: As dangerous as the journey to Europe may be, staying put is often even more unsafe, so many refugees travel with their entire families. Children as old as one month might have crossed the Aegean with wheelchair-bound, elderly relatives. Children are provided with toys, drawing paper and markers, and supervised by volunteers and NGO workers at the Kara Tepe playgrounds.

In the face of difficulty: Though refugees endure scorching heat, shower in the open, use squalid bathrooms, live among accumulated garbage, and are fed only irregularly by camp authorities, many of them are never short of delighted to sit down and share coffee with visitors, like this group of mostly Afghans. They pass the time with visitors by singing songs and playing music on improvised instruments, talking about politics or sports, or retelling their own travels from their home countries to Europe.

A new birth of freedom: Once furnished with temporary residency papers, refugees are allowed onto ferries which will take them to Athens. Most anticipate crossing Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary before entering Austria and from there reaching final destinations in Northern Europe. Once on site, they hope to apply for asylum and then complete studies, find work, and pursue opportunities denied them back home. Many wish to return when war ends in their countries—though not as many expect this outcome anytime soon—if ever.

About the Author

Joel Hernàndez is a Spanish-American advocate for migrant and refugee rights. He studied at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and is currently working in Greece. You can follow him on twitter at @joelhdz.

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