Inside the Fight to Help Refugees in Lesbos, Ground Zero for … – Vanity Fair

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If the Arab Spring was the Facebook revolution, we are now looking at a WhatsApp migration. WhatsApp is the messaging platform of choice for volunteers and refugees alike, who communicate in various ad hoc groups. Volunteers across the island coordinate boat sightings, and refugees send their location in real-time to friends and volunteers waiting onshore as they make the crossing in hopes that they will be met when they arrive, or that they can be rescued if their boats start to sink.

The crossing between the Turkish coast and the Greek islands is known to Syrians making the perilous journey as rihlat al moot, or “the route of death.” Refugees and migrants pay smugglers an average of $1,000 per person to get on rubber dinghies stuffed with as many as 60 people and then cross treacherous waters in freezing conditions. One refugee is made to drive the boat, sometimes in exchange for a discount on the price of the journey. Often there isn’t enough fuel to make it out of Turkish waters. Other times an inexperienced driver guns the engine to get to Greek waters as quickly as possible, and burns out the motor.


“You can imagine what the options are if someone is willing to risk their life in this way, Boris Cheshirkov, spokesperson for UNHCR in Lesbos, says while standing on a bluff overlooking a beach where rubber rafts arrive in freezing rain and high winds. The scene is all the more poignant when you realize that you can take a safe, fast ferry from Lesbos to Turkey for as little as 10 euros.

From his office overlooking the harbor in Mitilini, Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, told us he had proposed a plan with the mayor of Izmir in Turkey to provide a ferry for the refugees, but the Turkish government wouldn’t allow it.

The boats arrive day and night in a continuous cycle. Volunteers race up and down the beach spotting boats with binoculars, waving thermal blankets and bright-orange life vests to guide the boats away from the rocks to a safe landing spot on the beach. At night, they shine flashlights on the water, trying to guide boats, looking for the faint light of cell phones from refugees out on the dark seas.

As a boat approaches, rescuers in wet suits wade into the water to pull in the boat, shouting “slowly, slowly” in Arabic. Volunteers grab the children first, helping the rest off one by one. Some refugees kiss the ground, some pray, some try to call relatives on cell phones wrapped in plastic for the journey, others yell, “Thank you, U.N.! Thank you, Europe!” when they see our camera.

An inflatable rubber dinghy carrying refugees and migrants arrives on the shores near Mytilini on the island of Lesbos, Greece.

But most just stand shivering in the wind, drenched from the three- to four-hour journey, unsure of what is next. As quickly as they are offloaded, the boat is dismantled by locals, the plastic is deflated and left like a carcass on the shore, the engine and wood is removed and scurried away. Rumors abound that the engines go back to Turkey, closing the circle on smuggling. But with Greece’s struggling economy, it is just as believable that they are simply sold for money. Across the beach, at least one small farm uses the remains of a dingy as the covering for a sheep pen.

With 856,723 sea arrivals in Greece in 2015, smuggling along the route of death is a billion-dollar industry. It’s a shady business replete with fake life jackets, armed men on Jet Skis who board the rubber boats in the dead of night to steal the motors and the valuables of refugees, and even firsthand reports of Turkish Coast Guard boats ramming and puncturing the rubber boats to stop the refugees.

One Syrian family we met on the beach had tried six times to cross, only to be turned back by the Turkish authorities. On the seventh attempt, they made it.

Over the fall, during the peak of the crossings, most refugees landed on Skala beach on the north of Lesbos. Since December, many more are landing along the beaches just south of the main city of Mitilini. No one is quite sure why. Maybe they’re responding to the winter currents and weather patterns, or maybe it’s the reports of increased Turkish patrols in the north.

Those who make it to shore are greeted by a gathering of NGO workers and volunteers who quickly wrap them in silver and gold thermal blankets, give them dry cloths, then usher them onto UNHCR buses bound for the Moria refugee registration center. The operation runs much more smoothly than it did at the height of the crisis last fall, when there were few volunteers and no buses.

Moria was built as a detention facility, and it still looks like a prison, with chain link fencing topped with barbed wire. But the center has grown beyond the confines of the steel gates, with makeshift tents dotting the olive hills to the north, an area known as Afghan Hill.

When refugees arrive in Moria, they are taken to a registration area run by Frontex. They’re photographed, asked for their country of origin, and in compliance with a new EU initiative, fingerprinted, but Frontex doesn’t have the authority to verify their identity. Many arrive without papers anyway. As refugees flee the fighting, there is often no time to grab documents. Even those that they can take with them often disappear en route— along with cell phones and passports—stolen by thieves or smugglers, taken by border police, or lost at sea.

Once a refugee’s country of origin is determined, the Greek authorities issue temporary papers. Refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are given transit papers allowing them to spend three months in Greece; refugees from other countries get just one month.

Most refugees say the same thing when asked where they are headed: Germany. But others aim for Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy—wherever they have personal connections. Refugees from North Africa and Pakistan, some stranded for weeks, ask for our help, unaware that they will likely be deported.

A refugee who has just landed on the shores of Lesvos Greece makes a call to relatives telling them he arrived safely.

Inside the Fight to Help Refugees in Lesbos, Ground Zero for … – Vanity Fair