Lesvos swamped by refugee flood; no relief in sight

MYTILENE – An inflatable dinghy touches the shore in darkness. Dozens of men, women and children jump into the shallow water, stumbling on unseen rocks as they scramble onto a narrow strip of seaweed-strewn beach.

“Are we in Greece?” one man asks as he ditches his life jacket. They are — on the northeastern Aegean island of Lesvos. The group breaks out in jubilation. Men hug each other, couples snap selfies, children flash the victory sign.

The four dozen Syrians and Iraqis have just made a treacherous, three-hour journey from Turkey crammed into a dinghy designed to carry less than half their number. They trudge for miles into the island’s main town of Mytilene, joining a flood of thousands of refugees and migrants in Greece that has stretched authorities to the limit — especially at a time when the country is teetering on the brink of financial ruin.

Lesvos, Greeces third-largest island, is bearing the brunt of the crisis. More than 25,000 people have arrived on the island of about 80,000 inhabitants since the start of the year — nearly half of the 55,000 who have reached Greece by sea from Turkey.

The figure is a staggering 620 percent increase for Lesvos from the same period last year, said Lesvos Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Antonios Sofiadelis, who is also the local coordinator for Europes boarder agency, Frontex. He said he needs more staff and more Frontex patrol vessels to cope.

“At the moment it’s something unreal … the numbers of migrants who arrive are enormous,” Sofiadelis said. “We are doing our duty, we are surpassing ourselves, we are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But this is now every day and as you understand fatigue sets in.”

Night after night, the packed dinghies come ashore along Lesvos’ eastern coastline. The vast majority are refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many are professionals — engineers, technicians, lawyers and translators. They come cradling infants, clutching exhausted toddlers by the hand, supporting pregnant wives and elderly parents.

“We have run from the war. … We want to just feel like we are human, like all the people,” said Lukman Muhammed Ali, from the Syrian town of Qamishli, wringing out his clothes moments after stepping ashore Wednesday. “I want to feel I am human, that I have freedom, like everyone.”

The relatively lucky ones are rescued by the coast guard, which transports them to Mytilene for initial processing and screening. Those reaching the shore themselves have to make their own way. Arrivals on the island’s north face a 60-kilometer (38-mile), two-day trek through mountains. Local transport cannot pick them up, since Greek law stipulates that anyone caught transporting an unregistered migrant can face criminal prosecution as a smuggler.

“Every day in Lesvos, (it’s like) a new village is born,” said Spryos Galinos, the mayor of Lesvos. “The numbers overwhelm us.”

A police-run registration and temporary housing center set up in former army barracks outside the village of Moira quickly reached its capacity of 600, so Galinos arranged tents outside to house the overflow. He also set up a second tent camp just outside Mytilene, in a former recreational area used to teach children about road safety. But that, too, is filled way beyond capacity, with rudimentary conditions.

“If the flow doesn’t stop, we can’t cope,” Galinos said. “Im making efforts (but) I create a center for 400 people, and then 700 arrive in one day.”

The island community is doing what it can. One group arranged a car pool — defying the law and transporting dozens of new arrivals from northern Lesvos to the main port. A local priest, Efstratios Dimou, known as Father Stratis, operates a charity providing food, clothing and a place to rest for those tackling the two-day trek. He noted that many of the island’s inhabitants are themselves from refugee stock, stemming from a 1922 exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey.

“Lesvos has always been responsive to issues of refugees,” he said. “They have the plight of refugees in their skin.”

One of the biggest problems is the long delay in registering migrants.

In the crowded camps, tempers fray at the slightest affront. Several hundred Syrians and Iraqis demonstrated in the port Monday after a fight broke out with Afghans, apparently over access to a cellphone charger. At least three people required hospital treatment for injuries, and the Syrians complained that the coast guard special police who intervened beat people on both sides indiscriminately.

On Wednesday, another protest by refugees demanding their papers degenerated into violence between the asylum seekers and local authorities.

Police officer Dimitris Amoutzias, deputy head of the Moira registration center, said that while 700 to 1,000 people are arriving each day, the facility can process up to 400.

“As the number of migrants increases and we can’t process and release more people,” he said, “theres a problem.”

For the migrants and refugees, most of whom who have fled horrific violence in their home countries, the poor conditions and uncertainty are almost more than they can bear.

“For three days weve been sleeping in the street, all of us, with the children,” said Jamil Moghrabi, a 47-year-old Syrian from Aleppo who traveled with his five children and his sister-in-law’s family. “There is war in Syria — we had to leave.”

Two days later, Moghrabi and his family were still sleeping rough, even though authorities had registered them. A clerical error had left Mustafa, his 9-year-old son, and Amira, his 11-year-old daughter, without papers.

“I can’t leave here without my children,” he cried in despair. “What am I to do?” [AP]

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