A young woman in a headscarf stumbled over some rocks and onto the beach. She stood there, rigid, stunned, then burst into tears. A grandmotherly German tourist hugged her. ‘It’s over now, you’re safe,’ she said. ‘You’re in Europe.’
A Burmese man from the same boat looked around anxiously and asked: ‘Will the police here beat us?’ It was after dawn on the Greek island of Lesbos, the sun glinting off the turquoise sea, an idyllic holiday-brochure landscape of hills with whitewashed houses. But the Turkish coast is so close that you can see it, and so this tiny island has become the front line in Europe’s migration crisis. Hundreds of people arrive here every day in rubber dinghies. The UN says more than 185,000 illegal migrants have come to Europe by sea this year, 100,000 of them entering Greece, half of those making landfall on Lesbos.
We watched another dinghy come in. People waded ashore; the last of them punctured the boat to sink it, as instructed by the smugglers: this is a one-way trip, the boat a disposable asset for the Turkish mafias behind this operation. A Greek fisherman rushed into the water to retrieve the valuable outboard motor and the refugees walked up the beach, taking their first shaky steps on European soil. They were met by a British expat, Eric Kempson, who handed out water, croissants, wet-wipes and dry clothes. Originally from Windsor, he has lived on the island for 16 years, making a living carving olive-wood knick-knacks for the tourists. With his ponytail, he made for an unlikely Mother Teresa, but his house looks out to sea and he has been moved by what he witnessed there.
‘The currents are very strong,’ he told me. ‘When we get a swell up, it can be vicious.’ One day, the waves were so high that even the fishing boats did not venture out but still the smugglers sent five boats across. The fifth did not make it. It folded in half about a mile out. ‘The front end of the boat went up in the air and the back end went up in the air… with a few people left in the middle. Then everyone was in the water. You could see the splashing — these people can’t swim. I watched for 20 minutes. There was nothing we could do.’ A helicopter went out looking for survivors but found none. ‘I’ve watched those people drown,’ he said, choking up. ‘That last boat was mainly women and children.’
The refugees represented a cross-section of the world’s conflicts; Syrians and Iraqis, Afghans and Somalis. There were economic migrants, too. My Syrian friend Yilmaz had arrived on Eric’s beach the day before, and he told me there were Algerians and Moroccans in the holding centre with him, all pretending to be Syrians to get refugee status. ‘They have even practised their Syrian accent,’ he said. Yilmaz painted a fascinating picture of the smuggling operation, as seen from the inside. A 24-year-old student with dreadlocks, he arrived on Lesbos with a group of 20 Syrians. Most had fled the war, of course — Yilmaz was even imprisoned by Isis — but they had been in Turkey, some for years. There was a barber, a musician, a labourer — they could not go back to Syria and none could find decently paid jobs in Turkey, so they were making new lives in Europe.
We sat on a quayside crowded with sleeping refugees, tourists stepping gingerly around them. His journey had started with an Arabic Facebook group called ‘Wanderers Bus-stop’. For its 40,000 members, it is a clearing house for people-smugglers and migrants. ‘It has everything about how to go to Europe,’ said Yilmaz, ‘from the first step to the last.’ Yilmaz got a telephone number off the page and went to meet a man on ‘smugglers’ street’ in a small town on Turkey’s Izmir coast, the one just visible from Lesbos. From there, his group of 20 was split up into taxis and taken late at night to the edge of a forest. They headed for a torch signalling from the trees and they found themselves among 150 people. The smugglers tried to force Yilmaz into a tiny launch with 67 people on board. There was room for perhaps a dozen people to fit comfortably. He and his friends thought they would drown so they jumped out, insisting on waiting for another boat. ‘The smugglers don’t care what happens — they just put you on the boat and say: go,’ said Yilmaz. ‘It’s easy money for them.’
He and each of his friends were charged $900 each — sometimes the cost of the ticket is $1,000. Money-changing offices in Turkey provide shady escrow accounts. The migrants pay the cash to the money-changer, who gives them a code word. Once in Greece, they phone the smuggler — Yilmaz was told to say ‘Coca-Cola’ — and he collects his fee. There were 45 people on the boat Yilmaz finally took — $35,000–40,000 in takings after the cost of the boat and outboard motor.
On a busy day, a dozen such boats can arrive in Lesbos from Izmir. The profits are immense. People-smuggling may well be more lucrative than smuggling drugs, and a lot less risky. No wonder the Greek authorities can’t stop the refugees from coming.
On Lesbos, the boats’ arrival is a tourist attraction, people gathering on the road above the beach to watch. ‘Just fack off, you dirty people, roo-nin’ our ’oliday,’ shouted a peroxide blonde woman with an Essex accent as a group of migrants struggled over the lip of the hill onto the road. Moments later, though, they were handed bottles of water by Bob, a holidaying former British Army sergeant with a regimental tattoo on his forearm.
The locals are as divided as the tourists. Eric Kempson told me that one hotel-owner was quietly putting up refugees and feeding them. But Eric has also had his tyres slashed by members of Golden Dawn, the Greek far-right party. The police had even threatened to arrest him for handing out supplies on the beach. ‘People blame us for the problem,’ he said. ‘They say if you didn’t help them, they wouldn’t come. This is ridiculous. They’re not coming because someone’s handing them a cheese sandwich when they get here.’ He thought the European Union should put on ferries to stop migrants from drowning.
Greek officials and policemen I spoke to seemed sympathetic to the refugees — but also keen to get rid of them. The migrants take a ferry to Athens. There, according to Yilmaz, there is a thriving market in forged documents. The going rate for a British passport is €2,500, he said. ‘The documents are from Iraqis who are resident in the UK. They change the photo.’
After 28 days on the road, Yilmaz triumphantly posted a Facebook picture of himself in the German town of Osnabrück. His dream is to make it to London. England is more difficult to reach than any other part of Europe, he told me. But the English Channel is not an insurmountable obstacle.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent.