The Mediterranean is blue and calm, the sun warm, though not hot, on this winter day on the beautiful Greek island of Lesbos. A bus rumbles past, followed by an ambulance, and it is only because they stop at the same place that the scene becomes a little more complicated than its first appearance as a holiday destination.
Medics get out and join a group already on shore, some sporting luminous vests, all staring anxiously out to sea. And then the object of their attention comes into view, quietly and calmly: a rubber dinghy packed full of people in bright orange life jackets. Some of those on shore detach themselves from the group and wade into the sea to pull the dinghy in, lifting out the children and passing them along a human chain. There is a shout and a larger child is half carried, half pushed to the front of the boat, supine, the medics waiting: It’s a case of hypothermia, not at all unusual, though it can be fatal.
Before the dinghy has been completely unloaded, another one drifts into view on the still-calm and beautiful sea, in exactly the same spot. The volunteers speed up in their work of wrapping the children in space-age foil blankets and dispensing snacks and drinks, knowing that the next load will arrive any minute. The medics are working with the case of hypothermia and a case of severe shock, eventually loading both into cars, with their relatives, to be taken to the local hospital. The others are discarding their life jackets, the at-risk groups such as new mothers and children are wrapped in blankets (for they are running low), and all are unwrapping sandwiches. Some look exhausted and defeated; others happy—delighted to have reached what they have been told is paradise.
I’m not sure which is harder to witness, the despair or the optimism. For I know that this is only the beginning, whether they are genuine asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Somalia, or economic migrants trying their luck on the same route, discarding their Moroccan, Ethiopian, or Pakistani passports and claiming to be Syrian. All are facing an uphill battle to prove their stories and claim refuge, a brutal journey to get to other countries in Europe. Many will be turned back, “repatriated” to their home country or, after the recent deal with the European Union, back to Turkey—minus the thousands of dollars they’ve spent getting to this point. The irony of fleeing this way is that the legal, commercial fare is €15 each way, in seaworthy ships, taking just an hour and a half. But this safe way is blocked to the refugees, since they have no visas allowing entry to EU nations.
The only winners in this scenario are the people smugglers, who make around $1,200 per person and who count on the work of the UN and 81 or so different NGOs and charities to make their business work. “You will be looked after by the UN when you get there,” the smugglers tell the smuggled, and they are right. The blankets, snacks, and buses are there, the medics on hand; the registration process by the Greek authorities is efficient; and food and shelter are now also largely sufficient. The entire process, from the welcome on shore to the paperwork in the camps and tickets for the onward journeys, is working, or at least it was when I observed the process in December (and, by all accounts, until a sharp change in approach in March). It took a few months from when the scale of the problem skyrocketed last summer beyond all expectation, taking the international community unawares, but now UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, runs coordination meetings and networks, mostly via WhatsApp, which allow a division of labor and an early-warning system for all. Ting: a boat has been spotted; ting, an approximate location sent using Google Maps; ting, an offer to be there from a group of volunteers close by; ting, a UN bus has been dispatched; ting, an appeal for a medic, with a description of symptoms.