Fieldset
Emergency response in Lesbos

I visited the Greek island of Lesbos in August with MSF UK director Vickie Hawkins. MSF had launched an emergency response a few weeks earlier as the Turkey-Greece sea crossing became the most popular route for refugees trying to reach Europe.

I visited the Greek island of Lesbos in August with MSF UK director Vickie Hawkins. MSF had launched an emergency response a few weeks earlier as the Turkey-Greece sea crossing became the most popular route for refugees trying to reach Europe. In July alone, 50,000 refugees arrived on the Greek islands, the majority of them on Lesbos and Kos.

The sea is calm, the distant Turkish coast is blue. Far out, an object disturbs the flat surface – a boat of Greek fishermen trawling for squid? A yacht, with tourists in bikinis sunning themselves on the deck? It’s too far away to tell.

We make our way to the shingled shore and look again. Now we see that it’s an overloaded dinghy, packed full of people. Though we can’t yet make out their faces, we can hear the sound of shouts and cheers, louder every second.

Time speeds up. The faces become distinct, the cheering louder. The boat surfs in on a wave. Even before it touches the shore, people are jumping out, splashing, grabbing bags, pulling off lifejackets, heading towards us, smiling and laughing.

An explosion rings out as the inflatable boat is punctured. A boy punches the air, young men run into the sea and whirl in circles splashing, a mother hugs her toddler with a look of wonder on her face, a middle-aged woman kisses her hands and holds them to the sky.

Caught up in their excitement and relief, we shake hands again and again with dripping, smiling people, pose for ecstatic mobile phone photos, and ask about their journeys. A pregnant woman in pink tells me she left her home in Aleppo, Syria, three weeks earlier. An Afghan man says he’s been a refugee for a year, working in Iran and Turkey, until it got too tough and he had to move on. A teenager tells me his house and his high school in Damascus were both destroyed by bombs, so he left for Istanbul.

All converged on the city of Izmir, in western Turkey, where they paid people smugglers upwards of US$1,000 each for a passage across the 10-km stretch of water separating Turkey from the island of Lesbos.

With up to 50 people in each boat, smuggling is a lucrative business. The traffickers, I’ve heard, have set up offices in western Turkey, and have 450,000 refugees waiting to pay for their services. The flimsy inflatable dinghies are used once – the beaches along the north of Lesbos are littered with their black rubber remains – but the boats’ engines disappear amidst the flurry of arrival, carried into the boots of cars by enigmatic weathered men, presumably to make their way back to Turkey. “These smugglers, they’re real logisticians,” says MSF’s field coordinator with reluctant admiration.

But the smugglers don’t treat their clients well. “They took us to a secret location. We waited there for two days, sleeping with the snakes and the scorpions in the forest,” says 20-year-old Mohamed. “There was no water and very little food. We stayed hungry for two days.”

A group of young Syrian men tell me they were robbed by the traffickers at gunpoint. “As we boarded the boat, they stole all my money,” says Ashur, from Syria. “These people are mafia. They took the 1,000 euros I’d saved up for the journey. Now I have nothing.” But he shrugs off the disaster, cracks a joke with his friends, and asks which direction they should walk. 

We point the young men towards Molyvos, a village 8 km down the coast, from where the Greek coastguard now runs buses to the capital, Mytilini. Before the MSF team arrived and set up a bus service, people had to walk the whole 70 km. In the old swimming pool in Mytilini port, they will queue to register with the police and, in time, receive the pass that allows them to continue their journey to Athens and beyond. I don’t know if they have any idea how difficult that journey is likely to be.