Lesbos: Europe’s gateway that cannot bury its refugee dead

Capital’s cemetery can no longer accept the remains of those drowned fleeing war

Like most urban burial grounds in Greece, space is at a premium in the main cemetery in Mytilene, capital of the country's third largest island, Lesbos. As is the case in Athens and many other congested cities and towns, most graves have to be recycled to make way for new burials. For decades now, the remains of the Christian Orthodox dead are exhumed three years after burial, the bones washed and boxed, and then deposited in an ossuary.

But even this expedience is not enough to deal with the current demand for space, gravedigger Stratis Giannakis explains as he walks around a section in a back corner of the cemetery. Here, rudimentary markers indicate the final resting place for people who never set foot on the island; these are graves for people who fled war and destruction for a better life elsewhere and didn’t make it.

“Unknown”, a number and the presumed date of death – written in Greek characters with black marker – is the only information most of these simple, white marble headstones contain. Some stones bear names written in Arabic or Pashto, others in Latin script, such as the one for Sidoo Faumo, who died on September 3rd, or for Syrian Omar Alasaad, on October 13th.

They are among the most recent burials in the section of the graveyard for refugees and migrants who have drowned while trying to make the 9km (5½ mile) crossing from Turkey to Lesbos' northern shore.


And they may be the last, as the cemetery can no longer accommodate those who have drowned off Lesbos in the past three weeks. A few days of bad weather at the end of last month claimed a number of lives. At least 43 people died – including 20 children, 17 men and six women – when their wooden boat fell apart in rough seas off the coast late on October 28th. More than 270 people were rescued and volunteer medical teams and the island’s overstretched ambulance service spent hours frantically trying to revive many of the shipwreck victims.

Over the days that followed, local fishermen retrieved bodies from the water while corpses were washed up on beaches. As the dead piled up at Mytilene’s hospital morgue, a refrigerated container had to be brought in to accommodate the overflow.

‘Special space’

At the cemetery, Giannakis the gravedigger, who recalls burying 13 migrants on a single day in January 2013, says, “We need a special space for them. There’s no room here in this cemetery. The authorities need to sort it out.

“We put numbers on the grave markers because DNA has been taken in the hope of identifying the remains. Since I’ve been here, one body has been repatriated. It was someone who died in August and about six weeks later the remains were repatriated by the deceased’s family.”

At the end of last week, there were 75 bodies – with many babies and children among them – awaiting burial, according to the island's mayor, Spyros Galinos, who said the authorities were desperately trying to find a final resting place for them. "Even in death, their adventure continues," he told state TV.

Since the start of this year, more than 500 people have drowned while trying to make the sea crossing between Turkey and Greece’s islands, including Lesbos.

The eastern Aegean island became the main point of arrival in the European Union for refugees and migrants, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, this summer.

Deteriorating weather

Its inhabitants are bracing themselves for even greater numbers of arrivals this winter, despite the deteriorating weather conditions that have already made the perilous journey from the Turkish coast in overcrowded dinghies and often unseaworthy boats even more deadly.

Of the almost 626,500 refugees and migrants that arrived by sea to Greece this year up to November 2nd, more than 350,000 of them passed through Lesbos. And with the UN refugee agency anticipating up to 5,000 arrivals a day at all Greek islands between now and February, Lesbos could see another 175,000 arrivals by end of the year.

After processing at a reception centre outside Mytilene, where Greek police have been joined by the EU border agency Frontex to assist in screening and identification, most of the refugees and migrants move on towards their desired destination elsewhere in Europe.

The rising human toll of a policy that leaves refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria with almost no safe route to seek asylum in the EU has focused hearts and minds among those living on the island, locally based volunteers say.

“This week has been very subdued and even the nasty voices are quiet. There have been too many bodies. It’s given voice to the moderates, the quiet ones, who haven’t said much up to now but who now ask why we’re fishing dead bodies off the beach,” says Phillipa Kempson who, with her husband Eric, has worked around the clock since before the summer offering assistance to the tens of thousands landing on the island just metres from their home.

That 10km stretch of beach and rocky coastline could be called Greece’s orange coast, not after the fruit tree but because of the colour of the thousands upon thousands of life jackets – many of which are not fit for purpose – left there by those who made the crossing. A few municipal trucks that have the Sisyphean task of trying to shift the fluorescent flotsam trundle along the coastal road, most of which is unpaved.

About a quarter of those who attempt the sea crossing are minors, such as 17-month-old Judy, the youngest of the three children of Firas (34) and Nusaiba, who fled the Syrian war and their southern home city of Daraa over the border to Jordan about three years ago. The vessel that she and her family arrived on was just one of 50 or so people-laden boats that made the crossing to the Lesbos coast one morning last week.

Much warmer and calmer than the previous week, it was the busiest day since the Turkish general election two days before, when arrivals amounted to just five vessels. Boats came in at a constant pace, sending the gamut of NGOs and volunteers that have set up operations along the coastline rushing to offer assistance.

Family’s story

As Judy doodled on this reporter’s notebook, her father described his family’s story.

"Life in Jordan was really impossible for us. Work was very difficult to find and rent alone cost $600 [€560] a month. We had no future there so, using what I'd left of my savings, I flew my family to Istanbul and paid to cross over to Greece," says Firas.

An accountant by profession, he said he paid $4,000 (€3,700) to a people smuggler to get his family and a nephew across on a dingy, an astronomical price considering tourists only pay around €25 for a round trip from Turkey to the same island.

The joy that Firas and Nusaiba had about getting their family to Europe in one piece didn't seem to be tempered by the realisation that they still had a long journey ahead of them before reaching their intended destination – Germany.

They had already cleared the most expensive and dangerous 9km stretch on their journey to what they hope will be a better life for them and their children.

Emergency response – Ambulance service stretched to limits

On the night of October 28th, when at least 43 people are known to have died when their crowded boat collapsed on itself while crossing from Turkey to Lesbos, the island’s already overstretched ambulance service did what it could to save lives.

Battered by austerity, only "four or five" of the island's fleet of eight ambulances are operational, according to ambulance driver Panagiotis Chamalellis, who is based at the island's hospital in Mytilini.

On that frantic night, one ambulance clocked up 600km after it did the round trip from the fishing village of Skala Sikamineas, on the north cost, to Mytilini, five times.

Following the incident, Chamalellis and his colleagues staged a small protest to highlight the problems facing the service on the island. “Despite the problems with the vehicles, we’ve just about managed up to now. But we’re now facing a whole new challenge with the refugees, many of whom are taken ashore suffering from hypothermia. We also encounter diabetics who haven’t had access to medicine, and pregnant women,” he said.

Three weeks ago, two much-needed ambulances – sponsored by the rival Glasgow football clubs Celtic and Rangers in a rare sign of unity – arrived on loan to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). But due to Greek red tape the only action they have seen has been for a photo shoot along the island's northern coast.

Each emblazoned with the crest of one of the teams, the ambulances have lain unused in a warehouse while the rescue committee seeks permission to use them.

Chamalellis, the local ambulance man, won’t go as far to say that lives could have been saved had the Glasgow ambulances been in use on October 28th. “But they could have been a great help,” he says.

An IRC spokesperson said the NGO “was working with local officials to get the ambulances into service as soon as possible for those in need”.

Greek officials pointed out that under to Greek law “formalities such as the registration plates of the ambulances and their operation in the framework of the national health system had to be taken care of first.

“The good news is that the ambulances are expected to operate starting [this] week.” On Thursday there was still no sign of this happening.