Published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Mytilini, Greece — Syrian student Daoud Daoud raised his gloved hands high and shouted, “I’m not afraid!” as volunteers tugged his crowded, gray rubber dinghy to a stop on a pebbly beach near this city’s airport.
“We wanted to leave before NATO would close the path,” the 20-year-old said once ashore on February 28. “We would rather cross in the summer, but we crossed in winter because NATO has decided to close the way.”
Daoud was one of 4,000 new arrivals to the island of Lesbos during the last weekend in February in a push against what many fear is the looming closure of the migrant trail to Europe. Home to 90,000 people, Lesbos has been the main transit point to Europe for the around 1 million migrants who have crossed from Turkey to Greece via the Mediterranean.
In the last two weeks, Macedonia — to Greece’s north — has sealed its borders to all but a trickle of Syrians and Iraqis. Now, confusion reigns in Lesbos, where migrants and locals alike ponder whether the rugged agricultural island may turn into a holding camp for stranded people.
Besides Syrians fleeing war, migrants include Iraqis and Afghanis, Somalis and Pakistanis, Eritreans and even Tibetans. Marios Antriotis, spokesman for Mytilini Mayor Spyros Galinos, said 3,000 refugees and migrants were on the island on February 29.
“Right now, we are in a good situation. We are prepared,” he said. “But nobody can reassure us that tomorrow we don’t have 5,000 or 6,000 arrivals. The smugglers decide.”
The prospect of a holdup on Lesbos raises memories of last fall, when migrants overwhelmed the island, which like the rest of Greece was reeling from an economic crisis. The migrants trudged on foot from the shores to an inland registration center and slept in city streets and in tents on the Mytilini ferry docks before departing for Athens.
Already, the migrant crisis has decimated tourism, the second-largest economic engine of the island. About three-quarters of chartered flights to Lesbos have been canceled for the summer season.
Lesbos remains calm compared to mainland Greece, where migrants have clashed with Macedonian border police and are camped out in the ferry port of Athens. To avoid inflaming the problem, on February 26 the Greek Ministry of Marine and Island Policy announced a freeze on chartered ferries that have taken migrants to the mainland.
Travel agent Tony Picolo said his company’s 2,500-passenger charter boat has been moored in the Mytilini harbor since the weekend. He said the government has limited tickets on commercial ferries as well.
On February 29, Syrians crowded the counters of his bayside office, decorated with faded travel posters and gleaming Greek icons.
The mayor’s contingency plan for refugee overflow includes turning Picolo’s ferry into a floating hotel, but the travel agent said that “would not be acceptable.”
“People will try to burn the boat down if they don’t leave the island,” Picolo said.
Spokesman Boris Cheshirkov of the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, estimated that more people have arrived in Lesbos in the first two months of 2016 — 60,000 — than in the first half of last year.
European countries have accused Greece of waving migrants through instead of enforcing its naval borders. But Greece has been overwhelmed by the numbers — and by a sense of moral obligation.
On February 29, friends Marilena Kougiou and Emmanuel Pantermos, both 27, watched a Hellenic Coast Guard boat unload some 435 migrants in Mytilini’s main harbor.
“I see people coming out of the sea, looking for freedom, smelling the scent of a place where bombs don’t fall next to them,” Patermos said. “And I feel empathy for them.”
Despite such sympathy, Greece, to stem the tide of migrants, on February 28 reclassified Pakistani arrivals as economic migrants who are not entitled to asylum.
Pakistani artist Qasim Mohammed, 21, stepped off the coast-guard boat and breathed a sigh of relief as he held his waterlogged shoes in his hands.
“There were terrorists everywhere. We’re not safe there,” said Mohammed, who hopes to find work in Europe. “No one will go back to Pakistan. I think God will help us.”
Volunteers on Lesbos said they are advising newly arrived migrants to stay put.
Henriette Johansen, a Danish volunteer in an improvised tent camp erected in an olive grove near Mytilini, said she has been getting ready for a possible influx of new arrivals. About 400 people can comfortably sleep in the white canvas domes and camping tents, but in a pinch the tents can hold up to 1,000 people. On February 28, some 200 Pakistanis lined up with other migrants for a lunch of spiced rice and hard-boiled eggs.
“We don’t know what the conditions in camps are once they come to Athens,” Johansen said. “If they travel through, they might get stuck by the border.”
Afghan Nazifa Mohammedi, 23, did not heed that advice. She arrived in Lesbos on February 26 after a six-week journey from her native Herat Province. She said she fled with her sister, her husband, and their two children, 3 and 1, to escape war and to seek better opportunities for work and education. Had she known how difficult the trip would be, she said, “we would not have left my country. But when we started traveling, the border was open for Afghan people.”
She and her family took a night ferry to Athens on February 27.
Six hundred refugees left for Athens the same day on two ferries. Another 1,640 left the next day, said Cheshirkov of the UNHCR.
But some migrants are already stuck on Lesbos.
Alireza Hosseini, a lanky 25-year-old Iranian soccer player, crossed the seas in mid-February to escape what he said is a repressive regime. He said police in Iran broke his fingers as punishment for getting a tattoo and drinking alcohol.
Now, he and three other Iranians share a cone-shaped tent padded with discarded life jackets in the Moria improvised camp. Hosseini has also started helping out in the camp kitchen. From a hilltop in the camp, Hosseini can see the ocean that stands between him and the rest of Europe.
“We will stay and wait for some day when [the border] will open,” he said. “Maybe one year, maybe two. We will never go back to Iran.”
For those who depart for Athens, the coming days may be grim. Even those Syrians and Iraqis trying to cross into Macedonia have reported waits of a week or more in soggy fields with inadequate shelter.
Daoud, the Syrian who arrived triumphant on February 27, was despondent as he waited for his night ferry to set sail from Mytilini on February 29. It was delayed in the harbor for at least four hours.
“We used to be such a great society — the Syrian people — but everything was destroyed,” Daoud said. “And now, here we are escaping to Europe and to all of these countries. We’re like animals.”