Dead migrants float belly-up, stripped of their clothing by churning seas. On shore, wailing women search for loved ones among the shivering, wide-eyed survivors. A rescuer tries to revive a toddler who lies unconscious in her sodden striped sweater.
The scenes bring home a sobering reality: While the flow of migrants into Europe tends to abate as winter nears and the journey becomes more dangerous, this year it has only risen as thousands of people brave death in raging seas and freezing temperatures.
On the beaches of Lesvos, children who looked as young as 4 appeared to be in shock as rescuers wrapped them with blankets to protect against the cold. They were among 242 people rescued from a boat that sank overnight in rough seas off the Greek island’s north coast. Seven people drowned and 34 remained missing.
In all, five separate incidents in the eastern Aegean Sea on Wednesday left at least 11 people dead, most of them children.
Europes largest refugee crisis since World War II is entering a perilous and uncharted phase, as the usual pattern of migrant season ending by autumn is overturned by intensifying fighting in Syria and overcrowding in refugee centers in Turkey and Lebanon. Asylum applications in the European Union are expected to exceed 1 million this year, higher that the peak of 700,000 recorded in the early 1990s, when wars tore Yugoslavia apart.
Lesvos has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis in Greece, with more than 300,000 people reaching the island this year on small boats from Turkey, police say. More than a third of that number has come in October alone.
After the latest tragedy, paramedics and volunteers scrambled on the seafront to resuscitate infants, tearing off their soaked clothes, as survivors were carried or staggered onto land and were wrapped in emergency foil blankets. Eighteen children were hospitalized, three of them in serious condition, local officials said.
Local fisherman Manolis Galanakis said the boat sank in gale-force winds, and smugglers on the nearby Turkish coast would have been aware of the risk.
"Crossing in those conditions would be very tough," he said. "They are criminals. They took their money, put them on boats, and sent them to their death."
Greek officials called on the European Union to speed up financial aid to Turkey to prevent more fatal accidents.
"We can’t have a situation continuing with dead children in the sea every day," Giorgos Pallis, a member of Parliament representing Lesvos, told state-run radio. "Thousands are coming every day, escaping war. We have handled the situation with dignity, but the truth is that we can’t even meet their basic needs."
As Lesvos runs out of burial space for dead migrants, the outspoken mayor has called on the government to dismantle a border fence at the frontier with Turkey to open a land bridge, to reduce sea crossings and relieve the island’s burden.
Many of Lesvos’ beaches are strewn with discarded orange life vests. In the main town of Mytilene, a small tent city has sprung up next to the port, where children play with stray dogs and parents hang washing on fences.
Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch said there is an urgent need to boost Greeces search-and-rescue capacity with more vessels from Frontex, the EUs border protection agency.
"The Greek Coast Guard is severely under-resourced. The EU has to get the rescue boats in the water right now," Sutherland said. "Leaders have pledged to increase the Frontex presence in the Aegean. It’s shocking that so many people had to die before we heard that pledge, and theres no more time for delays."