Just 10 kilometres separate the Greek island Lesvos from Turkey. In the early morning, when the sea is calmest, small, inflatable dinghies can be seen approaching the island’s northern shores of Molyvos and Skala Sykaminias.
More than 150 migrants are arriving every day on the Greek island of Lesvos. Locals are doing their best to receive them but many are left to fend for themselves
Relieved but disorientated, the boats’ weary occupants wade to shore, carrying backpacks and small children and searching the rocky beach fronts for signs of life.
Greece is fast catching up with Italy as the main entry point into Europe for migrants and asylum-seekers.
An average of 600 a day are now coming ashore in the eastern Aegean and a total of 42,000 have arrived so far in 2015, a six-fold increase on last year.
Zoe Livaditou from the Hellenic Rescue Team, a search-and-rescue NGO, describes the situation on the Aegean island of Lesvos as “out of control.”
The popular tourist island, which has a year-round population of just 86,000, now serves as a temporary sanctuary for those fleeing conflict and persecution in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The migrants have turned the main town Mytilene from a hub for fishermen and tourists into an open-air dormitory. “I’ve been sleeping on the streets for three days, and no one cares,” says Vahab, 26, from Afghanistan. “We were given neither food nor a blanket to cover ourselves up in the night, and women had nothing to wash and feed their babies.”
Two weeks ago Vahab left Kabul with three friends and travelled across Iran and Turkey by train and bus. “Life in Kabul is too dangerous and there is no future for us there,” he says. “One side of the city is controlled by the Taliban and the other by Da’esh (Arabic for the Islamist group IS or ISIS). Every morning you leave your place without knowing if you’ll make it home safe.”
Migrants pay smugglers about 1,000 euros per person to sit side-by-side with 40 or 50 others on a small rubber boat in the hope they might eventually make it to one of the Greek islands that scatter the Aegean.
Almost 5,000 arrived in Lesvos alone in the month of May, according to Eleni Velivasaki, a lawyer who works with asylum-seekers on the island. “We expect the numbers to increase in the summertime, when better weather arrives,” she says.
The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, put the number of arrivals in May at closer to 7.000 and called on the government and NGOs to urgently devote more staff and resources to helping the island community deal with the influx.
The lucky ones come ashore in Molyvos, a tourist town overlooking a picturesque harbour, where a small shelter has been set up by local villagers and restaurant staff to provide food and clothing.
But the majority of the migrants who land on Lesvos are not so lucky and arrive on deserted shores. They have no option but to walk to Mytilene, where they must be registered by the coastguard before being sent to the island’s only detention centre on the outskirts of the village of Moria.
The huge number of new arrivals has complicated the task of transferring them there. Rather than spend days sleeping rough in Mytilene waiting for transport, many decide to just walk the seven kilometres to Moria.
When IRIN visits the detention centre, more than 600 people are queuing for a glass of tea, including Vahab. “We have been without food and water for 14 hours,” he says. “People are tired and angry. We just want to leave the island and continue our journey north, but this procedure is exhausting.”
Of 1,500 migrants currently staying at the centre, around 1,000 are sleeping outside in tents where there are no toilets or blankets and food rations are minimal.
Tensions in the tent camp have been rising between Syrians and those of other nationalities, who claim the Syrians have a privileged status.
The Syrians deny they are receiving special treatment. “In Aleppo, my husband was an engineer and I was a well-known hairdresser,” says Obeyda, a 40-year-old Syrian. “And look at me now!” She lifts her hijab, unveiling a tangled mass of hair.
The Lesvos mayor, elected last October, is threatening to shut down another unofficial reception centre for the migrants, called PIKPA, which is run by locals as a charity and shelters 30 migrants in huts and one-bedroom flats.
“If the mayor is so adamant about this, he should at least think of other places for migrants (to go). Our demands are falling on deaf ears,” say PIKPA founder Efi Latsoudi.
The migrants usually only spend two or three days in the Moria centre before being issued with documents that allow them to board ferries to the mainland. Syrians with the correct documents are given six-month residency permits while other nationalities are issued with deportation orders from the police, which give them 30 days to leave the country or apply for asylum.
“This paper states that migrants can’t go near either the border areas or Athens, but this is ridiculous and contradictory,” says Velivasaki. “Firstly, temporary accommodations are often in the Greek capital; secondly, the authorities push people to leave, but don’t let them approach the borders.”
Most have no interest in applying for asylum in Greece and stay in the country only long enough to connect with smugglers and organise their onward travel to northern Europe, using an increasingly treacherous route through Macedonia and Serbia.
For their part, the Greek authorities are turning a blind eye to the European Union regulation that asylum-seekers must be fingerprinted in the first European country they arrive in.
Livaditou was dismissive of a recent EU proposal to ease the pressure on Greece by relocating 16,000 asylum-seekers to other member states over the next two years:
Photographs by Giula Bertoluzzi and Eleonora Vio. Story by Eleonora Vio / Nawart Press