Refugee Crisis

Lesbos Struggles with Surge of Refugees

Pakistani refugees arrive Lesbos
Refugees from Pakistan arriving on the Greek holiday island of Lesbos in July.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Greece’s economic crisis means the country is incapable of handling the flood of people washing up on the shores of Lesbos.

  • Facts


    • Every week, up to 9,000 refugees arrive on Lesbos, which has a population of just 86,000.
    • The United Nations estimates more than 77,000 immigrants have arrived in Greece since the beginning of the year.
    • Refugees are housed in overcrowded camps on Lesbos, while they wait for their papers to travel on to other destinations.
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Tourists in the cafés along the promenade sip their breakfast lattes as the coast guard boat chugs into the harbor of Mytilene. Like almost everyday, it brings new refugees to the main town on the Greek island of Lesbos.

Today, there are 43 Syrians crowded on deck. Men, women and children wearing water wings and red life vests, who only minutes earlier were adrift on the open sea. The coast guard vessel tows their gray rubber boat in its wake. The refugees have been saved, at least for the time being.

Some are calling Lesbos the “Greek Lampedusa,” as it is as swamped with refugees as the Italian island. It’s a humanitarian crisis in the making in a country already in dire straits itself.

How is it the main route for refugees to central Europe now goes through Lesbos, a tiny place with only 86,000 local inhabitants? How are thousands of foreigners to be fed and cared for, with Greece itself on the brink of ruin?

The coast guard ship docks on the quay wall. Meryam, six, lets herself be picked up and set on land by a man wearing a facemask and rubber gloves. She slips out of her brightly colored plastic life preserver and looks around at her new world. Her mother holds her two-year-old sister, Zaynab, in her arms. Leyla Rawadi, 32, beams with joy as she imagines she and her little girls are now safe. She is, after all, in Europe. Yet she and the other Syrians – the names of the refugees have been changed in this story to protect them – have little idea what awaits them on Lesbos.

Some new arrivals press buttons on their smartphones, looking in vain for a WiFi. “When do we get something to eat?” asks a woman with red fingernail polish. Most of the refugees were middle class back at home: students, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Greece is just a way station for them. Most of them want to go to Germany.

“We’re traveling to a place near Berlin, to my husband,” said Ms. Rawadi. Her husband, Ahmad, is a civil engineer who fled the civil war and the forces of the Islamic State in May. Immediately after arriving in Germany, he applied to bring over his family. Authorities told him it could take some time, so his little family set off on its own, taking a refugee smuggler’s bus to Beirut, a smuggler’s boat to Mersin in Turkey, a refugee smuggler’s bus to Izmir and, finally, another illegal boat to Lesbos. They paid $1,000 (€920) per person.

According to the United Nation’s refugee agency, up to 9,000 people a week travel from Turkey to Lesbos with 77,000 refugees arriving in Greece since the start of the year.

Many consider the route across North Africa to Italy too dangerous because of chaos and conflict in Libya, so more and more people attempt the eastern Mediterranean route with the new path leading directly through Lesbos. Most refugees likely are unaware Greece is fighting bankruptcy, banks are closed and municipalities are running out of money.

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