When vacationers and refugees meet in island paradise

2015-10-02 22:18
A volunteer holds a Syrian child after arriving with a group of migrants from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (Santi Palacios, AP)

A volunteer holds a Syrian child after arriving with a group of migrants from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos. (Santi Palacios, AP)

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Mytilini - After guiding two tourists through a chaotic sea of refugees in Lesbos' Mytilini harbour to his office, a car rental firm employee apologises.

"It's appalling here, that's true," he says, adding quickly: "In the island's west you won't have any more of that, everything quiet."

Crowds are normal on most summer holidays. But vacationers on the Greek island of Lesbos have encountered a unique crowd: masses of refugees fleeing poverty, violence and persecution.

Lesbos - the third-largest Greek island and home to nearly 90 000 people - has been overwhelmed with migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq trying to reach Europe. More than 200 000 refugees arrived on the island this year alone, according to the UN refugee agency.

Many of the refugees begin their journey to Lesbos across sparkling Aegean waters in Turkey.

Turkey's ancient castle hill of Assos faces southward toward the island. At the base of the hill sits Kadirga Bay, a pool of aquamarine water encircled by numerous hotels, resorts and traditional beach restaurants.

Tourists recline in lounge chairs, soaking up the warm Mediterranean sun. In the olive groves behind them, plastic bottles, used diapers and other trash litter the ground. Refugees idle on dirt roads, waiting for word from their smugglers on their departure for Lesbos.

"It's all very, very sad," says a middle-aged restaurant host in Assos, shaking his head. Accidents happen again and again, he says, and the refugees, among them women and children, are losing their lives in the crossing.

For the average vacationer, a seat on a ferry from Ayvalik in Turkey to the island's capital of Mytilini costs just €20 ($22).  The same trip on a smuggler's boat costs €1 200, with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq risking their lives to reach EU soil.

Regardless what a traveller pays for the sea crossing, the view of the island's capital is the same as one approaches: Thousands of migrants crowd Mytilini's harbour, with tents and bodies covering the pier and the wharf in front of the ferry.

Once on land, one sees wet clothing laid to dry at the base of a harbour statue and young men sleeping on footpaths in Mytilini's rubbish-filled park.


It's a scene that some vacationers are avoiding at all costs.

"We're not driving [to Mytilini]," says one Belgian couple staying on the island's southern coast. "Too many refugees, too much garbage, too much misery there."

Most boats land in the island's north in Molivos, its most popular tourist destination. The beaches here, as in Mytilini, are littered with life-jackats and deflated lifeboats.

"The situation has escalated since May," says Melinda McRostie, the owner of The Captain's Table, a restaurant in Molivos' harbour that has become a centre of private aid to refugees.

"In May, 200 refugees were arriving per week, now it's sometimes 3 000 on one day," the native Australian says. As part of her efforts to help with the migrant influx, McRostie co-ordinates the work of several aid organisations and dozens of volunteers.

In a house a few hundred metres away from McRostie's restaurant, 64-year-old Ruediger Kolmann surveys stacks of cardboard boxes packed with donations for the refugees.


A native of Germany, Kolmann originally came to Lesbos for a peaceful vacation, but decided to help the island's aid efforts when he saw the desperate situation facing the migrants.

"You can't just simply do nothing," he says, sorting through tents, sleeping bags and clothing and bringing them to the different rooms of the house.

Meanwhile, at the temporary refugee meeting point near Molivos, hundreds of migrants wait for buses to bring them to Mytilini or to a former barracks facility in the area of Moria.

Among them is Fahad, a Syrian, whose trousers are still wet from his €1 200 sea crossing in a rubber raft with 45 others only hours earlier.

He says he fled the Islamic State extremist group in his war-torn country.

"They are teaching 15-year-olds how to kill," Fahad says. "I never want to go back to Syria again."

Gada has also recently arrived on the island, joined by her husband and her two daughters.

"We had to buy the life jackets ourselves," Gada says. "And then they put us in the boat and said, 'There's Lesbos, good luck.'"

A few days earlier, a cruise ship ordered by the government picked up 1 700 refugees from Lesbos and brought them to the mainland port city of Piraeus.

"Far too few," says Sofia, a holiday resort manager. She say she fears the situation on the island will only get worse.

"Before the election [last month], the politicians were taking action so that it wouldn't get too ugly here," Sofia says.

"But the election is over now," she adds.

Read more on:    greece  |  migrants  |  refugees

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