So far in 2015, over 200,000 refugees have landed on the Greek island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean sea—the most common entry point into Greece for those fleeing the war in Syria. The sea crossing from Turkey to Lesbos takes only an hour, but it's dangerous and, too often, deadly.
The flimsy inflatable boats the refugees are packed into by smugglers are always over capacity and often sink in bad weather. Sometimes they're held up in the sea by what people say are Turkish bandits demanding money. Greek's extreme-right political party Golden Dawn are also known to be intercepting the boats and smashing their engines. Adults and children drowning in the sea is a weekly occurrence.
Hundreds of young European volunteers are heading to the island every month to help the refugees off of the boats, providing food, shelter, and transport. However, some of the least well-known humanitarians in this crisis are from the island itself: Greek fishermen have been saving refugees from the sea for at least a decade, and with the number of migrants crossing the sea increasing massively this summer, their role has increased significantly.
Greek coastguards shine a light on a refugee boat arriving on Lesbos
"We've been helping refugees for ten years," fisherman Thanasis Marmarenos tells me. They've been coming to Lesbos from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, and other countries since 2005, he says, and the numbers have gone up and down since then—but it's reached unprecedented levels this year. In 2007, for example, an estimated 10,000 refugees landed on Lesbos, Samos, and Chios put together, compared to an estimated 220,000 on Lesbos alone this year.
"In the past, because it was illegal to enter the island on a boat, people would come halfway across the sea and then destroy their boats," says Thanasis. "We would go to save them when they were in the water." Now, he tells me, dozens of the many boats that arrive each day are so overcrowded that they're too heavy and water-logged to even make it to the island.
The boat engines are cheap and often break down. The Greek coastguards rescue as many boats as they can, Thanasis says, but with only two response vessels, they are overstretched. "We help boats every night. The Greek coastguard don't have a lot of ships and they can't cover all the sea—that's why we help."
Thanasis is 62 and has been fishing for five decades. He lives just a few hundred yards from the harbor and keeps a lookout with binoculars when he's out fishing or at the port. If he sees a boat in trouble, he tells the other fishermen and the coastguard and then sets out to help it. "When I meet the boat, I say, 'Women and children first.' But often people panic and everyone tries to get on," he says. He takes the women and children to the harbor in his own boat and will then go back and tow the rest. "I am scared sometimes to go to help, as often all of the young men on the boats try to get on my boat and there is a risk my boat would get too full. It's a very big problem," he says.
Thanasis works in Skala Sikaminias, the small port town on the island's north coast, nearest where most of the refugee boats land. His boat is one of four out of 30 that is regularly used to save refugees. "Some of the fishermen are racist. They don't want the Syrians to come," Thanasis says. "Once I saw a fisherman with a large boat laugh when he saw a refugee boat in trouble. There are always arguments between fishermen who help and fishermen who do not help."
Kostas Pinteris, 40, is another fisherman who helps refugee boats regularly. He wants to help but it does take its psychological toll. "We find bodies in the water and on the beaches," he says. "One month ago on Tsonia beach, there was a woman washed up. One of the fishermen said to me, 'I need a psychiatrist; I can no longer see these bodies.' If something goes wrong, you feel guilty. Anything can happen."
It's about 8 PM in Skala Sikaminias harbor when Kostas gets a call from the Greek coastguard: a boat has been spotted about a mile out at sea, not moving. They ask Kostas to go and find out what's going on. We run to his small fishing boat. About ten minutes out of the harbor, a refugee boat glides past us—they point behind them into the pitch black; that way, they say. We meet the boat in trouble: it's taken on too much water and isn't moving. They toss Kostas a rope and we tow them back to the harbor. It's choppy. The people in the boat behind us look terrified as the vessel veers from side to side. But as we enter the harbor, the terror turns into celebration. People wave and cheer. Volunteers help people off the boat and hand out emergency blankets. "Life," Kostas says with a shrug.
Kostas says the European Union isn't doing enough to respond to the crisis. Frontex, a joint operation between several countries to coordinate policing of the EU's borders, is one of the only EU organizations working on Lesbos.
"In September, I reported an incident to the coastguard," he says. "A man was in the middle of the sea for half and hour; a Frontex boat was next to him, doing nothing. I said to the Greek coastguard, 'What is Frontex doing? There is a man, he is going to die. Why are they just observing?' After half an hour, I went into the sea and saved the man myself. Why are Frontex here? They're taking money. Why? To watch people die?"
With the coastguard overstretched and the EU doing very little to help, the fishermen are the last line of support for boats that get into trouble, and they get little or no support.
"No one ever helps; no one ever gives anything," Kostas says. "I had to pay €200 [$228] for a new waterproof telephone because the coastguard is calling all the time. But I was not expecting anything. We are helping because we are humans. We see it in front of us; we cannot ignore it."
Things will get a lot harder when the winter comes and the seas get rougher, Thanasis says. "I'm afraid of the day when the weather is bad and I can't go to help. We only have small boats and in bad weather, we can't go. I don't want to see this day. I'm afraid for both the refugees' lives and my own life when this day comes."
Thanks to Elisabeth Dimitras, Toula Koutalelli, and Liza Nanasou for the translation.
Follow Oscar on Twitter.