On Island of Lesbos, a Microcosm of Greece's Other Crisis: Migrants

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LESBOS, Greece — The immigration center here, a cluster of prefabricated buildings surrounded by rows of chain-link and barbed-wire fences, was full again on a recent evening, leaving hundreds of families, some with infants, to find a place among the piles of garbage outside.

The toilets were clogged and the temperatures still well above 90 degrees. Flies and mosquitoes were everywhere.

“Look, her eyes are sick,” said Ibrahim Nawrozi, a desperate 27-year-old Afghan mechanic, holding up his 10-month-old daughter for inspection. “We are in this garbage three days. We can’t stay here another day.”

Since the beginning of the year, the number of refugees and migrants arriving here and on other Greek islands has surged to full-scale humanitarian-crisis levels. Arrivals by sea have surpassed 107,000 through July, according to United Nations figures, eclipsing even the numbers of people reaching Italy. Most of those who arrive on the shores of Lesbos, a popular tourist destination just off the coast of Turkey in the Aegean Sea, are fleeing the wars in Syria and Afghanistan and hoping to head deeper into Western Europe.

In June, 15,254 migrants and refugees arrived on Lesbos, according to the Greek Coast Guard, compared with 921 the same month last year.

But only squalor awaits them here. They arrive in a country that is deep in its own crisis, with an unemployment rate over 25 percent, banks not fully open and its government all but broke.

There are volunteers, both tourists and Greeks, scraping together what assistance they can, offering crackers, water and sometimes dry clothes. But what they muster does not come close to the need. Some of the families outside the center had been unable to get any food that day, elbowed out of the way by others, they said. Some who had gotten food said it made them sick. Human rights groups have called the conditions here and on other nearby islands appalling.

Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Lesbos, agrees that conditions are “awful.” But he said the scale of the problem had been mind-boggling, with 1,500 people arriving on some days.

“We had 3,000 people outside the center the other day,” he said.

The migrants and refugees land at all hours, packed into inflatable boats that should hold 15, according to the manufacturer’s instructions stamped clearly on the side of boats. But they usually hold 40, sometimes more. They cross from Turkey, where they have paid smugglers about $1,200 for a place on the boat, more if they want life jackets.

The distance is as little as three and a half miles in some places. But the overloaded boats, taking in water because they sit so low in the sea, can take hours to make the crossings. Passengers that arrive in the night are often exhausted and freezing. Others arrive sunburned. Some end up throwing everything they own overboard, even wheelchairs.

Still, the volunteers who watch for the boats from cliffs say that many of the passengers fall to their knees with happiness when they make it to the rocky beaches here.

It was that way for Rosh A., a 32-year-old Syrian teacher, who asked not to be identified by her last name for fear of what might happen to her family back home on the outskirts of Damascus. Rosh said she had made the trip in less than 24 hours, flying to Beirut, Lebanon, and to Istanbul before climbing into an inflatable boat with her two children and three friends. In Damascus, she said, the bombs arrived regularly and basic services were gone.

“I was dying there every day,” she said, as one of her traveling companions used his smartphone to show a video of explosions and fires erupting in the suburbs of the city. “Yes, it was frightening in that boat, but when I got in it I had a future again.”

Once ashore, however, the group faced a 30-mile walk to register with the authorities. The roads are filled day and night with refugees and migrants trudging toward the port town of Mitilini. Some, like Mr. Nawrozi’s wife, get so exhausted carrying their children that they abandon their belongings along the road.

It is a measure of how few official services there are that those who are rescued by the Coast Guard in the north of the island are brought to Melinda McRostie, who, with her husband, runs a restaurant called the Captain’s Table in the nearby town of Molyvos.

With donations solicited from a Facebook page, Ms. McRostie has rented a space behind the rows of restaurants overlooking the port. On a recent evening, as tourists chatted, ate grilled fish and tried ouzo out front, 33 young men from Afghanistan, many with blistered lips, were lining up for turkey and cheese sandwiches in the back.

Afterward, they bedded down for the night on plastic sheeting. By early morning, another group of 100 Syrians had arrived, one man suffering from hypothermia.

“Me,” Ms. McRostie said, “I was dealing with it, like I know anything about what to do. We were trying to get his wet clothes off and I think now he was really embarrassed. This morning he wouldn’t look at me.”

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