Lesbos' Refugee Disaster

Letter from the Greek Islands

Members of the Greek coast guard rescue migrants and asylum seekers from an overcrowded rubber dinghy off the coast of Lesbos, October 2015. Zalmaï / Human Rights Watch

As she was about to board an overcrowded rubber dinghy on the Turkish coast late one October afternoon, Hanan, 22 years old and pregnant, felt her water break. The Turkish gang smuggling desperate migrants and asylum seekers across a narrow stretch of the Aegean Sea to the Greek island of Lesbos pushed her onto the boat anyway, along with more than 50 other people, and forced it to set off. 

Hanan gave birth to a baby on the rocks at the beach at Lesbos, assisted by a volunteer aid worker from Iceland. My photographer and I, who had come to Lesbos for Human Rights Watch to document the plight of those making the dangerous crossing, arrived soon after. Next to the new mother, we found two young girls writhing in pain: smugglers had placed them at the bottom of the boat, piling dozens of adults on top of them, and their limbs had turned blue. After a doctor and volunteers cut off their wet clothes, checked them for injuries, and helped to restore their circulation, the two girls were carried off the beach and ultimately recovered. With the assistance of volunteers, so did Hanan and her newborn baby, Ahmed.

Many others have not been so lucky. A few days after Hanan arrived in Lesbos, an elderly Iraqi woman had what appeared to have been a heart attack during the boarding process on the Turkish coast. The smugglers insisted that the unconscious woman be brought aboard anyway; during the crossing, as the boat filled with water, she died with her fellow passengers piled on top of her. Earlier in the month, a seven-month-old baby named Omar was squashed to death; his mother, a 17-year-old Syrian traveling alone with two young children, was unable to create enough space for him to breathe as she held him and her other child among the crush of passengers.

In October alone, dozens of people, many of them children, died trying to reach Lesbos.

Such tragedies offer only a

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