Members of the Greek coast guard rescue migrants and asylum seekers from an overcrowded rubber dinghy off the coast of Lesbos, October 2015.
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 partial view of the humanitarian emergency now unfolding in the waters around Lesbos, where thousands of migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere are arriving every day. In October alone, dozens of people, many of them children, died trying to reach the island, for almost all the first stop in the European Union on a long journey to northern and western European countries. On October 14, five members of a Lebanese family drowned when their dinghy sank; four others remain missing and are presumed to have drowned. On October 15, a Greek coast guard vessel collided with a wooden fishing boat packed with migrants. The impact killed at least seven people, including a baby and three other children. On October 17, an overcrowded dinghy sank in Turkish waters, with at least 12 dead. And on October 28, an even deadlier tragedy took place. Turkish smugglers packed a large fishing vessel with some 300 people and sent it toward Lesbos. The sheer weight of the people on the boat’s upper deck caused it to collapse, crushing those down below. As the boat quickly sank, hundreds were thrown into the water. One of the Spanish lifeguards who responded to the disaster on a Jet Ski told me that he and his colleagues spent four hours trying to rescue the victims, together with the Greek coast guard, Greek fishing boats, and a boat dispatched by Frontex, the EU border security agency. When they returned long after nightfall, they had to dodge the bodies of some 30 people who had drowned, many of them children, he said. For days afterward, those bodies washed up on the coast of Lesbos.

The danger will only increase as winter approaches and the weather worsens; people are rushing to make the crossing before the cold sets in and out of fear that the EU will complete a deal with Turkey to crack down on people smuggling. As a result, the number of people arriving in Lesbos has increased at an astonishing rate recently, more than quadrupling between July and September, when some 111,000 people arrived on the island, according to figures provided by the Greek coast guard. On some days, up to 60 boats arrive, many of them carrying injured or hypothermic passengers. 

One night in October, with the wind off Lesbos so strong that the Greek and EU flags on shore were in shreds, we were with a group of international rescue workers when they got a call from a group of migrants in distress. A Syrian said his boat was rapidly sinking, but he was barely audible over the cries of the terrified children on board and the sound of the wind. He said that they had no idea of their location. And then the signal cut out and the line died. A Greek rescue effort found nothing. We later learned that the water-filled boat had miraculously reached Greece the next morning. The man who called us had called a Syrian contact to report his safe arrival. Then he swapped his Turkish SIM card for a Greek one and disappeared into the crowd.


The dangers of the sea and the brutality of the smugglers are not the only risks faced by the migrants traveling to Lesbos. They must also endure attacks from unidentified vigilantes. Just one such attack took place on October 9. On the morning of that day, a group of Afghan men, women, and children set off from the Turkish coast in a dinghy. As they headed for Lesbos along with three other vessels, an inflatable boat suddenly approached at high speed. It was carrying five masked men in unmarked military outfits. They were armed with handguns, passengers later recalled. “At first when they approached, we thought that someone was coming to help us,” said Ali, a 17-year-old Afghan who was among the passengers. “But then, by the way they acted, we realized they didn’t come to help.” 

Pointing their guns at the passengers, the attackers quickly detached the boat's engine and dropped it into the water, Ali said. They then did the same with the three other boats before turning back to Greek waters. Such attacks have been occurring for months, always carried out by unidentified masked men dressed in black military outfits, their motivations unknown.

The Turkish coast guard towed three of the disabled boats back to Turkey and took the women and children from Ali’s boat. But the authorities never returned for the men, who were left afloat without an engine. For the next eight hours, Ali and the other migrants paddled and swam alongside the drifting dinghy, slowly pushing it toward Lesbos. As they neared the island, a Greek coast guard vessel briefly approached the dinghy but sped off without rescuing the passengers. That task was left to a group of Spanish volunteers working from the beach, who towed the stranded migrants to shore. 

Such attacks can and should be prevented. Greek and Turkish authorities, in cooperation with Frontex, should step up their efforts to investigate and bring to justice those responsible and should make a clear pledge that their respective forces will not engage in such practices. 

Unfortunately, the Turkish coast guard has at times been nearly as violent as the criminals it is tasked with policing. On October 15, a group of international academic observers watched in horror through their binoculars from Lesbos as what appeared to be a Turkish coast guard vessel made an overpacked rubber dinghy capsize by repeatedly circling it at high speed, creating dangerous waves. The passengers of the overturned dinghy frantically splashed in the sea for around ten minutes, the observers said, while the boat attempted the same maneuver on a second dinghy before returning to pick up the people in the water.   

One Afghan man told me that two days earlier, he’d seen the Turkish coast guard try to stop the boat in front of the one he was on by filling it with water from a high-pressure hose and by firing what appeared to be tear gas at its passengers. Needless to say, if these allegations are true, such tactics put the lives of migrants in great danger. As the EU increases the pressure on Turkey to stop the flow of boats, it should be concerned about Turkey resorting to brutal methods to meet its demands.


In Lesbos, the work of bringing the boats to shore and caring for the sick and injured is handled almost entirely by volunteers, ranging from inexperienced but enthusiastic youngsters from Norway to lifeguards and doctors who have spent time in war zones. All day long, they swim into the sea to straighten out the boats, calm the people on board, and bring to shore any babies and children. Their work is heroic but ad hoc; some volunteers, for example, are raising private funds to bring their own Jet Skis and rescue boats to the island.

Asylum seekers and migrants warm themselves around an open fire on the beach in Lesbos, October 2015. 
Zalmaï / Human Rights Watch

As winter approaches, the care provided by these volunteers will become increasingly inadequate. It is nearly impossible to treat people for hypothermia on a beach when the temperature is near freezing and there are no heated facilities nearby. And although the local population has been generally welcoming, the residents of Skala Sikaminias, a town near the beach where most of the migrants arrive, asked local police to shut down a volunteer reception center there, saying it was a blight on the town’s reputation as an attractive tourist destination.

For now, the people who arrive on the stretch of beach on Lesbos’ northern coast have little choice but to try to warm themselves with blankets and fires before walking about eight miles up a mountain road to the town of Mantamados, where they can wait to catch a bus to Mytilene, the island’s capital city. Buses organized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tend to carry women and children up the mountain, but most men have to go on foot, and many women and children prefer to walk alongside them rather than risk separation.

Many of these migrants simply would not make it through this journey without the help of volunteers. We met an elderly Syrian man from Homs who said he lost his right leg to a barrel bomb dropped by the Syrian government. Although he had arrived on a large fishing boat carrying some 250 people, all of his fellow passengers had simply walked past, too eager to continue their journey to bother to help him reach the road to Mantamados. Not all are so unlucky: the day before, we met the 18-year-old Mohammed Bayoush, who lost both legs to a Syrian government air strike in Idlib in 2012. Three of his friends and his parents had accompanied him on his journey to Europe, carrying him when needed.   

Mohammed Bayoush, who said he lost both legs to an airstrike in Idlib in 2012, is carried by friends on Lesbos, October 2015. On Lesbos, the work of bringing the boats to shore and caring for the sick and injured is handled almost entirely by volunteers.
Mohammed Bayoush, who said he lost both legs to an airstrike in Idlib in 2012, is carried by friends in Lesbos, October 2015.
Zalmaï / Human Rights Watch


Before the migrants can board a ferry to continue their journey to western Europe through the Balkans, they must register with the Greek authorities. For the Syrians, this process is relatively straightforward: they go to a tented camp called Kara Tepe, which they can enter and exit at will, staffed by prominent aid organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and the UNHCR. Within a day, most obtain a renewable registration that allows them to stay in Greece for up to six months (most, however, choose immediately to travel onward). Migrants from other countries—mostly Afghans and Iraqis, but also Eritreans, Iranians, Pakistanis, Somalis, and others—do not benefit from the expedited process afforded to the Syrians, who receive special status because they are presumed to meet the legal definition of a refugee, even though many from Afghanistan and Iraq are fleeing similar horrors. The non-Syrian asylum seekers and migrants are processed at a much more chaotic registration site called Moria, where they have limited access to shelter, sanitation, and food. Most are forced to sleep outside, exposed to the elements. There, families with babies and young children, as well as people with disabilities, find themselves surrounded by squalor.

As winter approaches, the care provided by volunteer aid workers in Lesbos will become increasingly inadequate.

On October 16, the European Union’s migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, named Moria as Greece's first migration "hot spot," with several more to follow. There, local authorities will work, supposedly with increased EU support, to identify, register, and fingerprint incoming migrants, and they will help identify people in clear need of international protection for relocation to other EU member states, where their asylum applications will be processed. Officials from Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office will participate in the triage. In the coming months, officials have said, hot spots will be opened on other Greek islands, among them Chios, Kos, Leros, and Samos. 

In the meantime, for non-Syrian migrants, the registration process in the Moria camp remains chaotic and cutthroat. Even after months of arrivals, the overstretched Greek authorities have done little to establish orderly procedures for the desperate crowds of people seeking to leave the island. Those trying to register are surrounded by razor wire, riot police, and crowds jostling for a place in line. There are no translators to explain the registration procedures or answer migrants’ questions. On a visit to the camp on October 4, Human Rights Watch found a large crowd of mostly Afghans and Iraqis desperately trying to access the registration center. Said, an Afghan man, had been there for four days, with his wife, then eight months pregnant, and his eight-year-old brother, but he was afraid to approach the unruly crowd to attempt to register, he said. So was Adee, a Somali woman who was worried about the safety of her four young children.

As Said and Adee spoke to members of the Human Rights Watch team, fighting and shoving broke out; at one point, the Greek police charged the crowd, causing many to run in panic, while women and children pressed themselves up against the fence of the camp. One officer could be heard shouting in English, “You are not human beings, you are animals!” The police fired tear gas into the crowd; as the migrants ran, one man was left unconscious on the ground, probably to be trampled by those fleeing.


Given the naked cruelty of the smugglers and the physical risks of the journey, the explosion in arrivals to Lesbos is striking. In part, the route has become popular because of the relative lack of safe, legal alternative paths to asylum in Europe. The best way to undercut the brutal exploitation of desperate asylum seekers is to change this fact. Doing so would benefit asylum seekers and European governments alike: it certainly is not in Europe’s long-term interest for criminal groups to make hundreds of millions of dollars by exploiting incoherent policies and desperate people. The EU needs to develop a coherent approach to addressing the humanitarian crisis at its borders and ensuring the right of those fleeing the horrors of war and repression to seek asylum. 

European countries do not have to throw open their borders to all those who want to come, but Europe does have a particular obligation to people fleeing the kinds of violent conflicts that are devastating Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, from which the vast majority of those migrants arriving in Greece have fled. Safe, legal paths to asylum—ones that respect the dignity and human rights of asylum seekers—are essential. As they develop such paths, EU countries should work to share their responsibilities toward those seeking asylum equitably.

Non-Syrian asylum seekers and migrants are processed at a chaotic registration where they have limited access to shelter, sanitation, and food.

As winter approaches, urgent action will be needed to limit the loss of lives at sea around Lesbos. When I met the head of the Greek coast guard in Mytilene and asked him what support he needed, his response was immediate: more Frontex rescue ships, because his force was stretched to its limits. The volunteers are also adding capacity: the Spanish volunteer lifeguards, for example, recently purchased two high-speed rescue boats to bolster their lifesaving efforts. But EU governments have a much greater rescue capacity than either local authorities or volunteers, and they should ensure a far greater search-and-rescue presence off the Greek islands.

Assistance on the beaches and in the camps should also be improved. The Greek government and EU institutions, in coordination with humanitarian organizations, should provide basic first aid on the beaches and ambulances to transport people in need of lifesaving medical intervention. The authorities need to end the squalor and disorder of the registration centers and camps. And they should work to prioritize care for the most vulnerable people: women, children, people with disabilities, and the elderly. The same goes for the various bottlenecks along the road through the western Balkans, where more should be done to meet migrants' basic needs for food, medical attention, shelter, and water. 

Caring for thousands of daily arrivals is a major task, but with the proper strategies and procedures, it is an achievable one. Indeed, humanitarian responses often deal with hundreds of thousands of people in even greater need than those seeking asylum in Europe. The chaos and unacceptable suffering in Lesbos are the result of incoherent policies and poor planning, not a lack of capacity.

It is worth remembering that Lesbos was developed by ethnic Greeks who fled Turkey during the population exchanges of the 1920s. Many of those earlier Greek refugees took the same boat journeys that migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are risking today. Among the villages they constructed is Skala Sikaminias, where most of today’s "boat people" are landing. And indeed, one of the best-known statues on the island is of a refugee mother and her children from the time of the population exchanges—a symbol of the resilience that helped develop these Greek islands and helps explain the remarkable hospitality of its residents to the thousands arriving on its shores today.

With better crowd management and an increased humanitarian response, the reception and registration of newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers in Lesbos could be streamlined, with respect for the human rights of those seeking registration and an onward journey. In the midst of a severe economic crisis, Greece's capacity to establish such effective registration procedures by itself is limited. But it should be able to count on solidarity and assistance from other EU member states as it seeks to uphold those responsibilities.

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