Wednesday 7 December 2016

Migrants risk cold crossings in race against the winter

The surge and the death toll are set to rise as Russian airstrikes force thousands to flee to EU before borders shut and sea gets rougher

Helena Smith

Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30

STRUGGLE : Afghan migrants arrive at a beach during a rainstorm on the island of Lesbos
STRUGGLE : Afghan migrants arrive at a beach during a rainstorm on the island of Lesbos

Rashid al-Shabai knew that time was against him. Like his family and friends, he has tried to outrun the seasons, embarking on the treacherous trek west before the winter sets in. The Syrian student was far from alone.

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According to the International Migration Organisation, around 7,000 people were attempting the same voyage when he got into a dinghy on the Aegean shores of Turkey and headed for the Greek island of Lesbos last week.

"I didn't want to come now, but it was sort of now or never," he said, smiling wanly as he waited for the ferry that would take him to Athens on the next stage of his odyssey. "The future doesn't exist in Syria. That is a fact. The weather, the cold, the rain, they are also facts. If we risked staying on, we might have risked everything."

Sea arrivals passed the half-million mark last week as the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, announced that more than 502,000 refugees and migrants had entered Greece this year.

Fears over the impending change in weather saw some 41pc of the migrants arrive in September alone. "The spike in arrivals in Greece is sharply increasing reception pressures on the islands," the UNHCR said. "Many of the refugees and migrants are desperate to quickly move onwards, fearing that borders ahead of them will close."

With Turkish officials warning that as many as 350,000 people are poised to flee the Syrian city of Aleppo - if Russian airstrikes continue - the surge could grow yet.

The six-mile channel that separates Lesbos from the east is the last danger zone before freedom beckons. From the vantage point of the tiny village of Skala Skamnias, Antonis Kamvissis has had a front-row view of Europe's unfolding crisis. The hamlet, on Lesbos' northern coast, is the nearest landmass to Turkey and the target of smugglers operating across the sea.

Every day the fisherman counts the boats coming in. No one knows when they will come, or how they will come; only that, "as sure as the sun sets", they will come - appearing first as distant specks before assuming the outline of figures clinging to dinghies.

Stocky, curly-haired and with a ready smile, the fisherman doesn't want to talk about the people he has saved. They are all bit players in a drama that became an emergency long before the rest of the world started to care, he says. "This summer I came across a young Syrian who had fallen out of his dinghy and so decided to swim with the flippers he was still holding in his hands. He was so exhausted, so close to death when I rescued him, that I took him home, fed him and gave him a bed."

In the space of 48 hours, between Sunday and Monday last week, more than 10,000 people arrived on Lesbos. Mass arrivals were evident as much in the north of the island as in the south, with officials estimating that 100 boatloads of human cargo are washing up daily on the island's shores.

No landing is without emotion: despite being soaked and cold after the crossing, newcomers often kiss the ground upon reaching Lesbos.

Some, like Mohammed Kher Edress, a professor of psychology from Homs, are so overwhelmed that they do not move at all. Within seconds of splashing through the waters of Kaghia beach, not far from Skala Skamnia, and embracing his sons Ahmed and Amro, he bowed his head and wept. "We are safe, my babies are safe," he said.

At a reception centre in the village of Moria there have been riots. Human rights groups say conditions in the barbed-wire enclosure are "inhumane".

Newcomers crammed into its floodlit confines are often forced to wait days before they are registered, fingerprinted and split into groups of those considered genuine refugees and those who are economic migrants.

On Lesbos, officials worry that the situation is bound to get worse before it gets better. Although local people have been generally welcoming, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party received unusually high support in September's general election. Masked men have been attacking refugee boats.

In his office overlooking the port capital of Mytilini, the island's mayor, Spyros Galinos, fears that human tragedy will soon be stalking the shores of Lesbos. Already, he says, the waters have grown rougher, causing shipwrecks off the isle that have left 19 people dead in the past nine days.

"Right now, they are coming in on the northerly winds, but in the winter there will be winds that will turn boats over. Our beaches will be beaches of death," he said. Every month the municipality spends more than €200,000 with most allocated to cleaning up the island. "Every day the population of a small town arrives on this island," he says.

"We've gathered 600 tonnes of what I call 'environmental bombs' in dinghies and life jackets, and now we are looking for land that could be used as a final resting place for those who don't make it... even in death these people struggle."

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