Greek island gateway to EU as thousands flee homelands

Lesvos is doing its best to help huge numbers of refugees seeking a safer life in Europe

As he looked out at the five-mile stretch of blue sea separating Greece and Turkey, Eric Kempson knew he should be worried.

Clearly overloaded with people, the inflatable boat, which he had been observing from a vantage point near his home on the northern shore of the Greek tourist island of Lesvos, was in difficulty. With a stiff northeasterly breeze at its back, the eight-metre vessel was veering off course and risked ending up running aground on the sharp rocks at the foot of some cliffs.

But luckily for this boat’s 75 passengers – who would turn out to be Somalis, Afghans and Pakistanis – help was at hand, as Spyros Kontomichalos, a well-built professional soldier, quickly dropped his plans to go spear-fishing and rushed to direct the boat towards the nearest beach.

As it approached the rocky shore, the boat's passengers leapt out into the water, delighted to finally step foot in the European Union after setting out at daybreak, almost three hours beforehand, from the Turkish coast. And with traffickers back in Turkey charging anything up to €1,000 a head for the crossing, which in better boats and more favourable conditions can take as little as 25 minutes, it's undoubtedly the most expensive journey these migrants will ever take.


“Excuse me. Is this Greece?” asked a 24-year-old Pakistani man, whose suit was soaked to his waist.

Behind him, a group of young Somali men struggled to lift the sole woman passenger from the boat to her wheelchair, the only possession she managed to bring from the other side. Later, Riyan (30), would explain that she had been shot in the back 15 years previously. She said she was making the journey on her own, and her aim was to reach Germany where she hoped she could have an operation.

This migrant vessel was one of four to land last Tuesday morning near the beautiful town of Molyvos, with its medieval hilltop fortress that can be seen from miles around. Tourism is the lifeblood of the place and the permanent population of about 1,500 relies almost exclusively on the money they make during the summer to keep them going during the difficult winter months after the tourists have gone.

For weeks, Kempson, a British painter and sculptor who made his home in Molyvos 16 years ago, and his wife Philippa have been daily witnesses to the rapid increase in the numbers of refugees and migrants arriving from Turkey.

"It's been a nightmare for the last few weeks. We really need some help. Only a few of us have been trying to help. This story needs to get out there and Europe really needs to send some help," he says.

Humanitarian crisis

About 70 per cent of those arriving on the boats are Syrian refugees, including many families with young children. They are fleeing the four-year civil war that has devastated their country and, according to the

United Nations

, triggered the largest humanitarian crisis since the second World War.

An estimated 7.6 million people are now displaced within Syria, while almost four million have fled to neighbouring countries, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where the vast majority have remained, often in appalling conditions.

Syrians in Molyvos say only Europe – by which they usually mean Germany or Sweden – can offer them and their families the safety and opportunities they desperately seek.

Last week, the head of EU border agency Frontex said 40,000 migrants had arrived on Europe's shores through Greece since the beginning of 2015, compared with 37,000 through Italy, which has been at the focus of the EU's efforts in the Mediterranean recently. Greece's eastern Aegean islands experienced a fivefold increase in migrant traffic in March and April compared with the the same period last year.

Fatma (34), who fled Damascus a month ago and arrived in Molyvos on Monday, said she paid a trafficker in Turkey €3,000 to put her, her two teenage daughters and her eight-month-old son in an inflatable boat to Greece.

She is from Yarmouk, a Palestinian suburb with the formal status of a refugee camp on the outskirts of the Syrian capital. Under siege by government forces for almost two years, parts of the district, much of which is in ruins, were overrun by by militant jihadist group Islamic State (IS) in April. She too wants to reach Germany.

Temporary permit

During their short stay in Molyvos, the refugees generally gather in the unpaved car park at the entrance to the town, where many spend the first night sleeping out in the open. If they’re lucky, a bus will take them to Mytilini, the island’s capital.

There they can expect to wait with hundreds of others for days at the city’s port before being admitted to a camp, processed and handed a temporary permit to remain in Greece.

That paper gives them the time to make plans to continue their journey into western Europe which, despite EU rules stating refugees must apply for asylum in the country of entry, is what thousands have already managed to do.

No bus was sent to Molyvos on Monday or Tuesday, leaving men, women and children to walk the 65km to Mytilini in daytime temperatures that reached 30 degrees. As offering any assistance to undocumented migrants is illegal in Greece, locals and tourists are reluctant to offer them lifts, although some do.

“The authorities have been putting barriers in our way and making Greeks afraid. Greeks are not like that; they are family-oriented,” says Kempson.

Finding itself at the start of the tourist season and in the midst of the Greek financial crisis, Molyvos can barely cope with the surge in the numbers of refugees and undocumented migrants. There has been no official response and no humanitarian NGOs have shown up in the town, which has been without a public doctor for eight months, Kempson says.

Filling that gap is a small team of locals, among them many expats, who are struggling to offer basic assistance to the refugees, which at best includes some food every morning and evening, fruit, water, clothing, blanket, toiletries, nappies and other essential items.

Others try to offer women and children a bed at least once a week.

“I’m half-Croatian, so I know what it’s like to be put out of your home,” said one Molyvos resident, Emma, who declined to give her surname, as she took Fatma, her children and five others home for the night.

But it’s an uphill struggle. Without any outside help, the volunteers know they can’t keep up with the sheer number of arrivals which, going by previous years, are expected to peak between July and September.

Many of the volunteers earn their living from tourism themselves, as Dina Adam, a hotel employee, and Hannah, owner of a children’s clothes shop, explain as they make 90 sandwiches one evening for that day’s arrivals. They say finding the time to help out is becoming more difficult as the season gets into full swing.

Wholly dependent on public donations, the volunteers have been heartened by the response from many tourists staying in the town, including a Dutch couple who offered the €100 that they had earmarked for a boat excursion.

“We are on holidays in Greece and see the good work you are doing for the refugees . . . Keep on helping people,” the holidaymakers wrote on a note accompanying the money.

But among locals in Molyvos, there’s no agreement on how best to deal with the issue. There is a fear that the considerable international publicity generated by the crisis, in particular exaggerated tabloid reports that claimed refugees were turning the island of Kos into a “disgusting hellhole” for British holidaymakers, will affect tourism.

Refugee crisis

“Yes, we get looks from some people because of what we’re doing for the refugees. But we tell them we don’t want them to stay here and remind them they don’t want to stay here either,” says one volunteer.

"I do worry about how my guests view the situation," says hotelier Dimitris Vatis, as a migrant boat comes ashore near his hotel. "Some say they've heard about it, others seem to be unaware. But in general no one knows about the refugee crisis here in Greece as all the focus is on the situation between Libya and Italy."

For one of his German guests, the scene unfolding in front of her is a wake-up call, one that she and others need to see. “This is part of life. It’s no longer something we see just on our TV screens.”