On Island of Lesbos, a Microcosm of Greece’s Other Crisis: Migrants

The number of refugees and migrants arriving on Lesbos and on other Greek islands has surged to a full-scale disaster, and only squalor awaits them.

LESBOS, Greece — The immigration center here, a cluster of prefabricated buildings surrounded by rows of chain-link and barbed-wire fences, was full again on a recent evening, leaving hundreds of families, some with infants, to find a place among the piles of garbage outside.

The toilets were clogged and the temperatures still well above 90 degrees. Flies and mosquitoes were everywhere.

“Look, her eyes are sick,” said Ibrahim Nawrozi, a desperate 27-year-old Afghan mechanic, holding up his 10-month-old daughter for inspection. “We are in this garbage three days. We can’t stay here another day.”

Since the beginning of the year, the number of refugees and migrants arriving here and on other Greek islands has surged to full-scale humanitarian-crisis levels. Arrivals by sea have surpassed 107,000 through July, according to United Nations figures, eclipsing even the numbers of people reaching Italy. Most of those who arrive on the shores of Lesbos, a popular tourist destination just off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea, are fleeing the wars in Syria and Afghanistan and hoping to head deeper into Western Europe.

In June, 15,254 migrants and refugees arrived on Lesbos, according to the Greek Coast Guard, compared with 921 the same month last year.

But only squalor awaits them here. They arrive in a country that is deep in its own crisis, with an unemployment rate over 25 percent, banks not fully open and its government all but broke.

There are volunteers, both tourists and Greeks, scraping together what assistance they can, offering crackers, water and sometimes dry clothes. But what they muster does not come close to the need. Some of the families outside the center had been unable to get any food that day, elbowed out of the way by others, they said. Some who had gotten food said it made them sick. Human rights groups have called the conditions here and on other nearby islands appalling.

Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, agrees that conditions are “awful.” But he said the scale of the problem had been mind-boggling, with 1,500 people arriving on some days.

“We had 3,000 people outside the center the other day,” he said.

The migrants and refugees land at all hours, packed into inflatable boats that should hold 15, according to the manufacturer’s instructions stamped clearly on the side of boats. But they usually hold 40, sometimes more. They cross from Turkey, where they have paid smugglers about $1,200 for a place on the boat, more if they want life jackets.

The distance is as little as three and a half miles in some places. But the overloaded boats, taking in water because they sit so low in the sea, can take hours to make the crossings. Passengers that arrive in the night are often exhausted and freezing. Others arrive sunburned. Some end up throwing everything they own overboard, even wheelchairs.

Still, the volunteers who watch for the boats from cliffs say that many of the passengers fall to their knees with happiness when they make it to the rocky beaches here.

It was that way for Rosh A., a 32-year-old Syrian teacher, who asked not to be identified by her last name for fear of what might happen to her family back home on the outskirts of Damascus. Rosh said she had made the trip in less than 24 hours, flying to Beirut, Lebanon, and to Istanbul before climbing into an inflatable boat with her two children and three friends. In Damascus, she said, the bombs arrived regularly and basic services were gone.

“I was dying there every day,” she said, as one of her traveling companions used his smartphone to show a video of explosions and fires erupting in the suburbs of the city. “Yes, it was frightening in that boat, but when I got in it I had a future again.”

Once ashore, however, the group faced a 30-mile walk to register with the authorities. The roads are filled day and night with refugees and migrants trudging toward the port town of Mitilini. Some, like Mr. Nawrozi’s wife, get so exhausted carrying their children that they abandon their belongings along the road.

It is a measure of how few official services there are that those who are rescued by the Coast Guard in the north of the island are brought to Melinda McRostie, who, with her husband, runs a restaurant called the Captain’s Table in the nearby town of Molyvos.

With donations solicited from a Facebook page, Ms. McRostie has rented a space behind the rows of restaurants overlooking the port. On a recent evening, as tourists chatted, ate grilled fish and tried ouzo out front, 33 young men from Afghanistan, many with blistered lips, were lining up for turkey and cheese sandwiches in the back.

Afterward, they bedded down for the night on plastic sheeting. By early morning, another group of 100 Syrians had arrived, one man suffering from hypothermia.

“Me,” Ms. McRostie said, “I was dealing with it, like I know anything about what to do. We were trying to get his wet clothes off and I think now he was really embarrassed. This morning he wouldn’t look at me.”

For many residents of the island, the wave of migrants and refugees could hardly come at a worse time of year. The tourist season is in full swing, and restaurants and hotels here depend on the summer months to stay in business. Even those who are volunteering to help the new arrivals are eager to point out that tourists will find the island unchanged. That is true to a large degree. But in the north, the beaches are littered with deflated boats and piles of abandoned life jackets and inflatable tubes.

About 60 percent of the arrivals are from Syria. The next largest group, making up about 20 percent, are Afghans. But there are also arrivals from Somalia, Congo, Eritrea and Pakistan, among others.

Few stay on the island for very long. The authorities have stepped up the processing of papers so that most can take a ferry — at their own expense — to the mainland within three or four days. From there, most say they will make their way out of Greece, through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary to Austria and beyond. Many hope to go to Germany, Sweden, Denmark or Norway.

The authorities have set up two encampments, but they are not managed in any way. There is nobody to settle disputes or answer questions about the constantly changing system of processing papers. Police officers can arrive at any time to hand out papers, but they do not even have a bullhorn, so people often fear that they have not heard their names being called.

Rosh and her children have their papers, for instance, as do two of her traveling companions. But the sixth member of the group has not received his papers and they have no idea why, or any means of finding out. So, they wait, settled in the stifling heat by a tree that they joke is their air-conditioner.

“You know,” Rosh said, “I never even had to worry about money a day in my life before.”

At the registration center, a police major, Kostas Papazoglou, said that the staff was overwhelmed, but that there were no reinforcements to be had.

The police, he said, were paying for food, but on a budget of less than 6 euros, or about $6.60, per person per day. There was no money for clearing the garbage from the area or tending to the toilets.

“Ten days ago, there were 2,000 people here,” he said. “And the Syrians had closed the road in protest, a fight had broken out up top in the encampment and there was a fire. We had 10 officers here trying to deal with all of that.”

Anastasia Christodoulopoulou, Greece’s minister of migration policy, said she hoped to start receiving more funds from the European Union soon. The country, she said, did not have the resources to do much on its own, with so many Greeks struggling themselves.

“I mean, there is a humanitarian crisis here, with 1.5 million unemployed, with three million poor, with homeless people, and we are not able to cover their basic needs,” she said. “And in this situation, we are called to also cover the needs of people who are even weaker.”

But some on Lesbos say Greeks must summon the means to help despite their own suffering. The Rev. Stratis Dimou, a Greek Orthodox priest who has provided a way station for hundreds of immigrants walking the 30 miles from the north of the island to south, said there were perhaps 100 Greek families in his town, which was once prosperous from construction work, who now depend on charity to survive.

Yet, Father Dimou said, additional efforts must still be made to help the new arrivals. “These people are just trying to take care of themselves,” he said. “They are just trying to survive.”

He said that one day a woman had become separated from her husband, so he took her in his car to search for him.

“When we found him,” Father Dimou said, “he came over to my car. He bowed and he kissed me, and at that moment I realized there are no borders.”

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