On a windswept, rocky outcrop high above the north coast of the Greek island of Lesbos, a small group of volunteers peered through binoculars at an inflatable boat bobbing across the waves a few miles away. Their jackets bore the insignia “A Drop in the Ocean,” the name of an NGO which sprung up from a Facebook page in August, populated by self-funded volunteers from all over the globe, which monitors boats bringing migrants from Turkey and prepares help for them when they arrive.
A Turkish coastguard ship loomed large and approached the little dinghy, briefly eclipsing it, before sailing away and anchoring idly nearby — raising questions about how effective the billions of euros recently pledged by the European Union to Turkey to help with sealing its borders to refugees will actually be — but boosting spirits among those on board.
Further down the coast, Joaquin Acedo stared out to sea and braced himself. The 33-year-old is a one of a small group of trained lifeguards from Barcelona who have traveled to Lesbos to rescue refugees.
The Proactiva Open Arms group, who work unpaid, are feted as heroes on the island after saving countless lives at sea. Suddenly Joaquin’s radio squawked. He paid close attention to its message, then relaxed.
“Everyone on board is fine. They are getting towed by Greenpeace now,” he said. “The engine works, the weather is good, not rainy. Everything is cool.”
The dinghy was towed gently to the beach of Skala Sikaminias where the bedraggled occupants were met by a motley crew of Greek anarchists smiling and bellowing ‘Khosh amadid’ (“Welcome” in Farsi) to the mainly Afghan group who were fed, clothed and drinking tea within ten minutes of arrival. Many of the Greeks had been helping out in Athens’ notorious Pedion tou Areos park, host to swathes of refugees and other homeless people during the summer months, before decamping to the islands.
This Aegean island was once synonymous with being the birthplace of tangy liquor Ouzo and the ancient poet Sappho who professed her love for women. In 2015, it became the symbol of Europe’s refugee crisis, as the principle landing pad for refugees mostly fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
‘The refugee story is eternal’
More than 460,000 are estimated to have passed through the island this year, their usually defective orange lifejackets becoming one of the iconic images of the refugee exodus to Europe, one now burned into the collective memory of the island of 90,000. The majority of the population are themselves descendants of refugees who fled from Turkey during the population exchanges of the 1920s.
The humanitarian effort evident on Lesbos is a far cry from the summer, when those arriving by sea were met by just a few local volunteers and benevolent tourists who would drive weary refugees to the port of Mytilene. The rest would face a 40-mile hike through the mountains. A few months later, after the crisis on the island belatedly grabbing the world’s attention, there is an profusion of helpers from the grassroots groups to international NGOs up and down the island, hailing from all over the globe.
For the islanders, it was not always easy to cope with the deluge of incomers. Late one night in a Mytilene bar, Tasos, a local IT worker, spoke of his initial reservations of the situation.
“During the summer I thought we had lost the city, like we couldn’t come here anymore as there were so many migrants around. But then I saw them arrive by boat, and heard their ordeal, and I started to help them. I drove there, gave them food and water. My ancestors are from Ayvalik in Turkey — the refugee story is eternal.”
Nobody wants a repeat of October 28, the mere mention of which elicits thousand-yard stares and halting conversations. Everybody on Lesbos remembers the “day of death,” when almighty storms on the Aegean did not stop smugglers sending rickety fishing boats loaded with more 200 passengers, most of which smashed and capsized a few hundred meters from the shore. At least 15 people, including 10 children, died within 24 hours.
‘The boats with children are the scariest’
Volunteers, lifeguards and journalists there at the time still appear traumatized when they remember trying to resuscitate one baby after the next and children dying in their arms. Mytilene’s morgue and cemetery has since overflowed with the dead. Around 600 people are estimated to have died in the Aegean sea this year, out of at least 3,625 who have drowned in total in the Mediterranean, according to United Nations Refugee Agency figures.