Refugee crisis: With the UN nowhere to be found, the residents of Lesbos have had to help hundreds of refugees a day on their own

The north coast of Lesbos is ground zero for the refugee traffic because it is much the closest point to Turkey

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The Independent Online

It was 28 April and Dimitrios Vatis and his family were preparing to welcome the first guests of the season to their hotel with its private beach just outside Molyvos, on the north coast of Lesbos. “We were just opening,” says his daughter Aphrodite (also the name of the hotel), “expecting people to arrive, when a boat full of Syrian refugees turned up.

“It’s one thing to see it on TV, it’s a different thing to see them coming towards you, some of them singing, some hollering, some crying with joy, with relief…

“This was a small boat, with just 15 people on board. There were kids on the boat, they handed them over to us. They were all wet and cold so we opened rooms in the hotel for them and made them comfortable. I went home and got some of my children’s clothes and we dried them and dressed them and soon they were running around… It’s hard to see these children in your own children’s clothes – it’s a strange feeling.

Aphrodite said one man was initially left on the boat. “We discovered he was paralysed from the waist down. Eventually we managed to drag him out of the boat, and we found he had brought his wheelchair with him…

“At the start there was one boat a week. Then one a day. Then it quickly increased until we were getting four to six boats a day. We can get up to 12 boats in a day. There can be up to 70 people in a boat. It took time for people to realise that it wasn’t going to stop.”

It’s one thing to see it on TV, it’s a different thing to see them coming towards you, some of them singing, some hollering, some crying with joy, with relief

Aphrodite Vatis

This summer, Aphrodite and her colleagues have succeeded in juggling the business of running a holiday hotel with the challenges of bringing refugees ashore, and fortunately for this island of 90,000 inhabitants, the paying guests have kept coming as regularly as the refugees.

For Eric and Philippa Kempson, who live couple of miles east along the coast, the crisis has become all-consuming.

Eric is a wood sculptor and he and his family, originally from Windsor, have made their home here for the past 16 years. But today the sculpture takes a back seat. The approach to their home-cum-workshop, 100 yards from the shoreline, is dominated by stacks of boxes and battered suitcases full of clothes, blankets, toys, disposable nappies and sun cream, all sent by well-wishers.

The north coast of Lesbos is ground zero for the refugee traffic because it is much the closest point to Turkey – one hour with a good engine and calm seas. But most of the coast consists of forbidding cliffs. And the amateur helmsmen, who, like their passengers, may never have been in a boat before in their lives, and who pay the people smugglers €1,000 (£730) or more for the passage, can end up making landfall at any point along it. The Kempsons keep watch over their stretch of coastline as best they can.

“People have always come across,” says Eric. “In the past there would be one or two boats a week: Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans. Some of them would row across. But now we get 3,000 people per day, all day and all night. You get all sorts. We had five full-grown Afghans arrive in a kids’ plastic boat, driven by the sort of food mixer you use to make candy floss, powered by a 12-volt battery. But they got here. The Greek coast guard rescue people day and night.

“It’s going to get worse: we’ve heard there are 440,000 people in Izmir [about 50 miles away on Turkey’s west coast] waiting to come over, and because of the stories about Europe closing its borders, people are panicking. And if they’ve made it as far as Izmir, they will certainly manage the last stretch. So it’s hard for us. We’re going at it from dawn to dusk.”

The situation greeting the refugees has improved in the weeks since photographs of the drowned body of three-year-old Aylan al-Kurdi jolted the world’s conscience. Today the stony beach in front of the Kempsons’ home is manned by shifting teams of doctors from France and other volunteers from Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, who towel the shivering children dry, give them soft toys, dress them in donated clothes, and feed them and their parents with sandwiches.

The effort is not centrally co-ordinated and is dependent entirely on the goodwill of the volunteers. Both here and in Mytilini, the island’s capital where the refugees must go to be registered, the United Nations refugee agency and the International Committee of the Red Cross – the seasoned professionals who are normally at the heart of any great relief effort – are conspicuous by their absence.

A new reception and screening centre capable of coping with almost 500 people is now being planned for the island by the Greek government. But on Thursday alone about 1,200 people arrived by boat in less than an hour, following the 2,500 who had made the passage the previous day.

In the past few days the UNHCR has started laying on buses to bring new arrivals the 40 miles across the island from Molyvos to the capital. Before that, the able-bodied had to walk the whole way. Thousands made that journey, and the plastic water bottles they discarded now line the entire route.

Driving along one exposed stretch, I came across four young men and stopped to offer them a lift. They came from Herat in Afghanistan; like most of the new arrivals, they had barely a word of English between them. We succeeded in establishing that I was British, and that they had a low opinion of the Taliban.

Syrian refugees take a photo after completing the next stage, a ferry from Lesbos to Piraeus (EPA)

I left them at their destination, the car park of the ferry port in Mytilini, which was awash with disorientated families, some in tents, others sprawled in the open on sheets of cardboard. Knots of aimless young men wandered around the harbour. All were waiting to be shipped to Athens for the next leg of their odyssey to Vienna or Berlin. There was no indication that anybody was organising anything.

The people of Lesbos wrestle with conflicting feelings towards the refugee tsunami: their pity and compassion is clear, but they also have the sense of being under siege and unable to do anything about it.

“We have more refugees than there are inhabitants of the island,” says Eleni (not her real name), the manager of another hotel on the Molyvos coast. “The tourist business is all we have on the island. And the way things are going, all the companies will close. Fifty per cent of our summer reservations were cancelled because of the refugees. When you see the refugee children on the streets, it destroys your feelings. You go home to sleep and you think of these people out there on the streets…”

A Syrian refugee man struggles to carry his daughter off a dinghy at a beach after arriving on Lesbos (Reuters)

On the island, there is no escaping these emotions. There is something very intense about seeing frail boats crammed with frightened people creeping across the face of the ocean towards you. It’s very different from facing an angry crowd across a high fence, or watching people trying to wangle their way on to a lorry or a train. I challenge Viktor Orban of Hungary or Nigel Farage to undergo the experience and not be shaken by it, and perhaps be changed. And it doesn’t matter how often it happens: every time another rubber boat bounces through the foam and crunches on to the pebbles and the people on board hand over their crying, shivering children to the hands on shore and clamber out and struggle through the shallows, the sense of naked, shared humanity is the same.

It is to the honour of Europe – and shames our so-called leaders – that dozens of volunteers from the far corners of this continent (and from Israel) are there on the beaches of Lesbos to do what needs to be done. And to keep on doing it, over and over again.