Lesbos—Stratis Valiamos, 40, is a fisherman from Sykamnias, a village on this Greek island that is at the epicenter of Europe’s refugee crisis. Valiamos and other fishermen now routinely abandon their daily work to rescue people stranded in the Aegean, hauling rickety wooden ships crammed with hundreds of refugees off the rocks and towing them to port. They dive in the sea fully dressed to save drowning people of all ages. “Every time I go to sea, I know something’s going to happen,” Valiamos says. “This has been going on for 10 years now—it’s become a way of life.”
Valiamos says the Coast Guard often calls the fishermen to assist in sea rescues. “On October 28, I was cooking when they rang around 5 pm and said: ‘We have 300 people drowning on the open sea!’ The conditions were very dangerous that day. I thought to myself: ‘Even if I save one person, it’s worth it.’” So Valiamos dropped everything and left immediately, taking his boat 12 miles out to sea. “When I reached the shipwreck, I saw many dead bodies in the water—babies, children, and adults. I cooperated with the Turkish fishermen to save as many people as possible.”
Over 1 million people arrived in Europe by sea in 2015—the vast majority fleeing war and persecution in Syria and the wider Middle East, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee agency. Greece received a staggering 851,319 of these people, with half a million landing on Lesbos alone. The Mediterranean is now the deadliest migration route in the world. Last year, 3,770 people died or went missing on this short sea crossing, made more perilous by people-smuggling gangs who frequently overload unseaworthy boats at gunpoint.
As signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the European Union and its member states are responsible for providing reception and asylum. But the system is broken, falling far short of international law and the human-rights standards enshrined in the convention. Some of the factors driving this crisis are policy-driven, chief among them the European Union’s failure to agree on and implement a coherent policy that acknowledges the unstoppable flow of displaced people; its attempts to reduce refugee numbers through the militarization of land and sea borders; its unrealistic €3 billion deal with Turkey to stem the flow; and its tendency to blame Greece for the crisis—or, worse, to insist that Greece shoulder an impossible burden.
Carlotta Sami, UNHCR’s senior regional public-information officer for Southern Europe, says, “The EU needs to open safe, legal means of arrival. Even in a politicized environment, people should receive a dignified reception. This has been the dilemma, because meanwhile the humanitarian crisis continues to escalate.” Even though this influx is the largest migration wave since World War II, 1 million people represent only 0.2 percent of Europe’s population. “The European Union is the richest union in the world, with a population of 508 million,” Sami continues. “Europe has the means and resources to cope.”