Lesbos, Athens, and northern Greece—In the baking midday August heat on the Greek island of Lesbos, Ziad Mouatash bounces out of an overcrowded inflatable raft and touches EU soil for the first time. The 22-year-old from Yarmouk—the Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Damascus that has been besieged and bombed since 2012 by Bashar al-Assad’s forces and recently invaded by ISIS and the Al Qaeda–affiliated Nusra Front—hugs everyone around him, ecstatic to be alive.
From the Greek shore, activists and locals had looked on helplessly as the boat’s motor broke down two miles away, water pouring into the barely floating rubber dinghy. Children and adults alike cried desperately for help, until they were towed to Greece by another boat of refugees coming from Turkey.
Mouatash paid human traffickers in Turkey over 1,000 euros for this near-death experience, but as far as he’s concerned, it was a far less risky choice than continuing to hide out in deteriorating Damascus, which he’d abandoned for Turkey two weeks before. As a Palestinian who grew up in Syria’s refugee camps, he is stateless, but he has a brother in Paris and hopes to start a new life in France.
He paces up and down the shoreline, unsure of which direction to go, while local activists try to bring the new arrivals together to tell them that they need to start a 40-mile walk to a registration center on the other side of the island.
“Thanks to God I have made it here. I am free, I am alive!” Mouatash exclaims, overcome with emotion.
Although he has escaped the horrors of Syria’s grinding civil war, Mouatash is just beginning the difficult journey through Europe. He will have to cross more borders illegally; rest in filthy, makeshift camps; pay traffickers to help him cross those borders; dodge border police; and sleep in parks and fields, before he can reunite with his brother. Still, Mouatash is one of the lucky ones. Four days after his arrival, a raft off the Greek island of Kos capsized and six Syrians—including a baby—drowned.
According to Lt. Eleni Kelmani, a spokesperson for the Lesbos Coast Guard, up to 2,000 refugees are now arriving daily on the island. She notes that this sunny tourist haven has seen the arrival of 75,000 of the estimated 120,000 refugees who have landed in Greece this year. Outside her office, hundreds of them sleep next to parked cars or in tents on the edge of the port.
“It’s obvious that if austerity hadn’t hit Greece, things would be better for dealing with this crisis,” says Kelmani. She’s trying not to mince words, while attempting to keep the Coast Guard out of the domestic Greek political fray.
Greece’s left-wing governing party, Syriza, is one of the few EU members to call for a “solidarity” approach across Europe to resettle the refugees arriving from some of the world’s worst conflict zones. It’s a position completely contrary to that of right-wing, anti-immigration, and nationalist EU politicians calling for a Fortress Europe that would make the journey for asylum seekers as difficult as possible in order to keep them from coming.