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Migrants Suffer as Greek Islands Buckle Under Dual Crises

The Greek islands are being simultaneously hit by two emergencies — Greece's economic chaos and tide of migrants arriving on their shores. On Lesbos, some locals have banded together to help.
Photo par Thanassis Stavrakis/AP

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As the huge uncertainty around Greece's economic situation continues, its islands are buckling under the strain of the refugees that continue to arrive on their shores.

Some 78,000 migrants have arrived in Greece this year — six times the flow of last year, according to the United Nations — and this figure is increasing daily.


Arrivals to the Greek archipelago are already 50 percent higher than for the whole of 2014, reported the Guardian, a greater number than that arriving in the whole of Italy. The number of migrants seeking protection in the European Union as a whole was almost 70 percent higher in the first five months of 2015 than the same period last year.

More than half the migrants turning up on Greek shores are coming to Lesbos, according to Laura Padoan from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, who detailed for VICE News the escalating pressure the island is coming under.

Related: 4,400 Migrants Rescued Off Libya In 48 Hours Break Italy's Migrant Record

Transport is limited, and some refugees who arrive on the island's northern shore are being forced to trek 43 miles across mountains before they can be welcomed at a reception center. Many of these are women with young children. "We're very concerned about the situation for anyone vulnerable," Padoan said. Island inhabitants who help move the migrants risk being charged with "people smuggling."

Syrian refugees rescued by the coastguard sit in shock. They so nearly didn't make it. — Laura Padoan (@Laura_Padoan)July 9, 2015

Three year-old Saba and her brother arrived in — Laura Padoan (@Laura_Padoan)July 6, 2015

Once the new arrivals make it across Lesbos, the facilities are overcrowded and the resources overstretched. The government is running several camps on the island — with around 5,000 squeezed into the Kara Tepe camp.


On Lesbos, a lot of the response has been coordinated by islanders who feel sympathetic to the new arrivals — the majority of whom are Syrians fleeing conflict. Local artists, tourists, and a local village president Thanassis Andreotis have been stepping up and taking charge — volunteering time and helping build makeshift shelters. But they themselves are being hit by Greece's current crisis and have limited access to funds, with the daily withdrawal limit at Greece's banks capped at 60 euros ($66) since the end of June.

The road less travelled: refugees face a three day walk through the mountains to register with the police in Lesbos. — Laura Padoan (@Laura_Padoan)July 6, 2015

UNHCR, Médecins du Monde, and Greek NGO METAction are some of the organizations providing basic aid, but their capacity is also limited by their inability to access cash, according to Padoan.

Payments to the caterers working at reception centers are now outstanding. And earlier this week on the smaller, more southernly Samos island the Greek army stepped in to ensure food supplies continued.

Related: Last Resort: Witnessing the Migrant Crisis on Kos Island, Europe's New Frontier

Located just six miles from Turkey in the east of the Aegean Sea, Lesbos is a relatively short trip for those attempting to reach Europe, but it is still dangerous, not least because the condition of the boats on which the migrants are traveling is worsening, according to Padoan.


"Some arrivals described being only 20 minutes at sea before water started coming into their boat," she said. Most of those who make the journey do so at night.

On Tuesday, 19 people are believed to have died in the sea between Turkey and Greece, after their boat capsized in the biggest migrant tragedy since May.

Watch the VICE News documentary, Europe or Die, Death Boats to Greece here:

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd