On Lesbos

Oscar Webb

If you look out the window as you come in to land at Mytilene airport on Lesbos, the coast appears to be outlined in orange; the lifejackets and deflated black dinghies are distinguishable just before you touch down. I took the last charter flight of the tourist season from London, on Saturday 3 October; my ticket cost £50 and the plane had barely two dozen people on it. If you’re coming from Syria or Afghanistan, getting to Lesbos is more difficult.

Four thousand people landed on the island’s beaches on the day I arrived. They’d each paid people smugglers around €1000 for a perilous boat trip across the Aegean from Turkey. They have to wait before they can get on the boats, often for weeks, mostly in Izmir and other coastal towns. Some wait in Istanbul. The smugglers block-book hotels; it’s a package trip. Typically, when the time comes to leave, they’re driven at night to the coast to the north of Lesbos, where they wait in the woods until dawn. Sometimes, the smugglers give one of the refugees brief instructions on how to motor the boat and where to head for; in other cases, a smuggler will motor the boat 100 metres out then dive off and swim back in, leaving the refugees to figure it out for themselves. If the boat can avoid the Turkish coastguard, sinking and being blown off course, the journey to Lesbos takes around an hour. According to UNHCR figures, 210,000 refugees have made the trip so far in 2015; 70 per cent come from Syria; 20 per cent from Afghanistan; others from Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia.

Driving down a steep mountain road on the north coast of the island on the way to my hotel, I spotted five or six boats coming in, one after the other in a line. Screams and cheers travelled across the water and up the hill. I watched the sea through a gap in two olive trees as the taverna owner checked my passport. Every ten minutes, a boat with fifty people on board went past.

I walked a hundred yards down the road to where the new arrivals were gathering. Young European volunteers handed out gold and silver emergency blankets. Behind them, in a temporary tent, arrivals from the previous boat changed into dry clothes. Sandwiches and water bottles were handed out; the medic examined a baby who was crying. A Greek woman stirred a giant pot of soup.

Most of the boats land on a six-mile stretch of Lesbos’s northern coast, where the journey from Turkey is shortest. About 150 volunteers from Europe and the US, along with local Greeks, help the boats in, help people disembark and provide what food, water, dry clothes and shelter they can. Greek fishermen and a team of Catalonian lifeguards go to the aid of any boats near the coast that get into trouble; further out, the overworked Greek coastguard patrols. The volunteers take as many people as they can in hire cars to various ‘waiting points’ along the coast. From here, the larger NGOs and the UNHCR provide help. Médecins sans Frontières and the International Rescue Committee run buses from Molyvos and Skala Sikamineas to the refugee camps in Mytilene. The buses have been going since August. Before that, people were having to walk the forty miles to the town, where they have to register with the Greek authorities and Frontex before they can take a ferry to Athens.

At one of the main landing beaches, children, babies, elderly, sick and disabled people were waiting for Norwegian volunteers to pick them up and drive them three miles west to another makeshift waiting point at Efthalou. It used to be illegal to transport refugees on the island and the police arrested a few people, but the law has since been relaxed. A Danish woman asked me to drive a family of four. They were from the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp just outside Damascus, which is now mostly controlled by Islamic State. Rami, the father, spoke excellent English. He was an engineer who’d worked in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. They’d paid €1200 euros each to cross the sea and only had 200 euros left.

‘Somebody, somebody will help us,’ he said. His wife was pregnant and had had bleeding problems in the boat. ‘Oh my god, very beautiful,’ Rami said as we drove round a bend on the dirt track overlooking the sea. ‘On the boat I cried. My children asked me when we got to the beach: “Papa, you take us to the beach for swimming?” My children are small, they trust me. I swim good but I cannot swim for four.’ I dropped them at Efthalou and took Rami’s wife to the medical tent where Dutch doctors from the Boat Refugee Foundation were working.

On Sunday I went to Moria refugee camp, near Mytilene, where non-Syrians have to go to register. The police were firing tear gas. At any given moment, thousands of refugees are waiting at Moria to register with the Greek government. Some have to wait for weeks. Anger erupts almost every day at four or five in the afternoon, when the police stop registering people. Eight men from Afghanistan were boiling water in plastic bottles on an open fire. One of them, an ex-waiter, had perfected a method that didn’t melt the plastic. They offered me tea. ‘Welcome to our restaurant,’ they said, pointing at their tent and laughing. They’d been at the camp for five days but had registered and had tickets to Athens for the next day.

Since Tuesday there have been very few boats and only a few hundred people arriving on the island. The Turkish navy are blocking them from leaving; from the north coast of Lesbos you can see refugees’ orange lifejackets on the decks of the Turkish coastguard boats. But some are still getting through, especially at night. There have been breaks like this before, people tell me. ‘It happened six weeks ago,’ Eric Kempson, an Englishman living in Efthalou, said. ‘They stopped the boats, smashed the engines and sank any that got off the coast for a few days, and then it started again. We got forty boats in three hours.’

The main concern now is the approaching winter. There’s often snow on the mountains in January and February and the sea gets rough. ‘The number of people will go down but the amount of care of those arriving will go up significantly,’ said Magne, a Norwegian logistics manager for MSF. The big NGOs are putting up insulated tents and buying woodburning stoves, Bob Kitchen from the IRC told me. ‘It will become more and more dangerous and we’ll lose more and more people,’ Eric Kempson said. ‘It’s going to be hell out there.’