A refugee boat lands on Lesvos

by Bradley Middleton    

It’s dawn in early January on the Greek island of Lesvos. A brisk breeze sweeps in off the wintry Aegean Sea. Small waves break on the dark carpet of water, flaring and dying like liquid stars all across the surface of those freezing depths, a sea that expands from my view all the way to the beaches and rocks of Anatolia just under twenty kilometres to the east. There lies Turkey. Another country. Another continent. Its hills and mountains backlit by the barely risen sun. Pink and burnt orange unspun clouds hang above it in the magnificent deep blue sky. My friend Pawel has already seen the boat. He leans forwards squinting, almost pressing the binoculars to the windscreen of our hired van. He hands me the binoculars and points out to the edge of the horizon. ‘A small black dot. Look. It’s flat, very flat, down in the water.’ I see nothing. Why can’t I see it? I open the door and step into the freezing wind. Pawel is already in the back of the van checking on our supplies; gloves, socks, children’s clothes, emergency blankets. He’s a relative veteran on the island and has been part of the emergency team many times before, spotting and greeting refugee boats in this inhospitable and rocky part of the coast. A tall blonde blue-eyed Polish guy who’s spent time in Nepal and the West Bank and as such speaks pretty good Arabic, a much sought after skill in the camps and landing points of Lesvos. I still can’t see the boat. The other members of our team, Iker and Andrea, can see it. The Spanish Bomberos, volunteer firefighters from Castile and Leon can see it and are now preparing their equipment for landing. Where is it? I start to doubt myself. What’s wrong with my eyes? I ask someone to point to the boat. I follow their direction and eventually see a tiny, almost invisible shape very low in the water, too low. I see the flat line of the dinghy and tiny little orange dots that are the life vests worn by the people sitting up high on the sides of the vessel.

The port at Mytilene

The minutes pass. The sun brightens the sky. The boat comes slowly, battling the torrents in fits and starts, almost as if the motor is struggling to keep a straight course. I know that there’s anywhere between eighty to a hundred refugees crammed onto the tiny boat. A rickety barely sea-worthy dinghy. I look through the binoculars and see each wave crashing over the bow soaking the people on board with every hit. I also know that the refugees have organised themselves so the men are on the outside and the women are towards the middle huddled and cuddling the children and babies to protect them from the freezing water washing over the dinghy with every strike. I’m struck by an acute feeling of helplessness. I find myself talking out loud. ‘Come on…come on…slowly…easy…easy. Just keep it steady.’ The sea is too rough, and the boat looks so unstable under the weight of people. I know the pilot of the boat has never done this before. He’s a refugee who’s paid a little less than the thousand euros asking price to cross the sea, his reduced ‘ticket’ is reward for taking on the duty of driving. I do the sums quickly. A hundred people at a thousand euros each. That’s 100,000 euros per boat in the coffers of the Turkish people smugglers, no doubt cuts going to the mafia and the local government officials turning a blind eye to the operation. As I stand on the edge of the western world watching these people escaping the warring factions, the brutal regimes and the western bombs now littering their homeland, the helplessness ferments into anger. Anger at the unnecessary risks these people are forced to take. Anger at the inactive European Union. Anger at the dormant Greek and Turkish authorities. There is no reason why these people aren’t granted safe passage. No reason why they must make this perilous journey across these dangerous waters. The EU makes its rules. It grants asylum or not, but that’s not the point I’m making here. Safe passage should be a right granted to all refugees fleeing conflict in their own countries.

They’re much closer now. Still ebbing and flowing with the waves. I can make out individuals. We wave our arms, trying to attract their attention and guide them into the safest landing spot. This is a delicate moment. If they land on the rocks below the fort the dinghy could easily capsize and in the chaos that would ensue there’d almost certainly be casualties. The Spanish Bomberos and Pawel know what they’re doing. They guide the boat towards a small beach to the north of the fort away from the treacherous rocks. We move quickly, but don’t run. I scan the people around me. My team. The medics. The No Borders Kitchen guys. The photojournalists. There are also locals known as The Vultures who are here to steal the panels and the engines from the dinghies as soon as they land. Amazingly selling them back to the smugglers on the Turkish side for further journeys.

The aftermath of the beach landing. The men in the picture are ‘Greek Vultures’.

Everyone is calm. That’s the best way. No running. No shouting. People tell the refugees to stay seated. Even now, movement on the boat can easily capsize it, and there’s no need. The Bomberos are out into the water, they guide the boat over the last few metres to the shore. The Vultures are just as quick, dismantling the engine and panels as soon as the boat lands. Then come the people. People just like us. The children first. I’m handed a girl of about four, the technique is to walk backwards to the beach, always keeping an eye on the parents so they’re not separated. She’s soaking wet and freezing. I work quickly to change her clothes, rub her feet, and dry her before dressing her in warm clothes, wrapping an emergency blanket around her shoulders and finding an energy bar for her to eat. Pawel has a small baby, for a few ghastly moments I think the baby is lifeless and limp, his face has a bluish hue. But it’s just the first signs of hypothermia and as soon as he’s warmed up he starts to cry. A very good sign.

Everyone is here. In the chaos of the landing. The boat contains the young and the old. Children and infants who huddle together on the stony beach, wide-eyed and staring. There’s a grandmother who needs medical attention. Some brave young men spark up cigarettes and pose for their first pictures on European soil. They are them. They are us. They are you. They are me. They are people escaping persecution and the horrors of the Caliphate. They have dreams. They have hopes. They have fears. The photojournalists and the voyeuristic take their pictures. I’m struck by the thought that this is just one boat. Just one of thousands that have made the same journey, and one of thousands that will make the journey every day to come to the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos and Lampedusa, until peace is brought to their lands. That’s one of their more fantastic dreams.

They are all cold. They are all wet. They sit or stand helped by volunteers and medics. They remind me of all the people I’ve already met. They remind me of Rafa the 17 year old Syrian boy who spent his time teaching my friend Iker some useful Arabic phrases. They remind me of Fatima, the university languages lecturer, travelling with her two children and her sister and her kids. She’s bound for Hanover in Germany where her husband has already set up home and awaits her arrival. I think forward to her journey through Macedonia, Serbia and Austria and can only pray for her safe passage and easy crossing through the border zones and refugee camps she’s yet to visit. I remember she only asked me for one thing. She wanted a ball for her children to kick around to relieve their boredom in Kara Tepe refugee camp, and she smiled a wide beautiful smile when I eventually managed to find one for her. They remind me of Ibrahim, who asked me about electrician conversion courses in the UK so he could continue his studies and work, he laughed when he talked to me because he knew getting to the UK was almost an impossible dream, he knew the figures, 20,000 refugees over five years, ‘Impossible’ he said and shook his head. And they remind me of the family from Basra, whose little girl, Amina painted and drew so beautifully, and gave us pictures to brighten up the camp kitchen. She laughed when I acted the fool pretending the drawing was of me and not of her own family. And she reminded me of my own children at home in Surrey, having just had a safe, happy and magical Christmas with as many treats and toys as they could possibly wish for. And that’s what all children should have, it’s an entitlement of childhood to live in peace and hang up stockings and eat chocolate before breakfast.

I won’t forget my time on Lesvos. And I wish I could go back. All humans who help other people are struck by the feeling that they could do more, that they didn’t do nearly enough. I won’t forget the brave parents who risked everything to bring their families to Europe in search of a better life. I want to tell their children when they’re much older how brave and courageous their parents were. I won’t forget the incredible and dedicated volunteers I worked with. People from all over the world, coming to this place in a show of solidarity, where east meet west, they meet these homeless people with care and hope and show them that we’re all the same. They know that how we deal with this crisis will define the coming decades for Europe. Without volunteers the situation would be truly out of control. A day without volunteers on Lesvos means a day where precious lives are lost. They come in their hundreds with blankets and socks, with chocolate and chai, they provide smiles and extend the hand of friendship to people who’ve left everything behind and who only want a chance to be accepted and forge themselves a life. I know them by their muddy clothes and rucksacks. By their weary looks and stoical faces. They are people moved enough by this unending plight of humanity that searches and seeks for a peaceful existence. I won’t forget the friendships I’m formed with many of them in this intense and pressurised atmosphere.

Me and Los Bomberos, the Spanish volunteer firefighters.

Whilst the politicians trade sanctions and positions of power in their geo-political game and the economists make predictions about numbers and quotas and demographics and the optimum amount of refugees that can be assimilated per country. Whilst the bigots and the racists resist all refugees, so warped and tangled in their fear of the ‘other’ and swamped by their terror that these people just want to take everything from them. Whilst most people get on with their daily routines of work, study, family and hobbies. Whilst the world waits. Whilst the world looks on. Whilst it turns its back. This is happening now. One million refugees have already entered Europe. Three million more are expected to follow. And make no mistake they are coming. They are coming. And all we can do is offer them a safe and secure passage and a welcoming embrace.

The day before we welcomed this landing on the rocky beaches north of Mytilene, two other refugee boats capsized in rough waters just off the Turkish coast. 34 refugees were drowned including three children. These deaths were wholly unnecessary. All the articles have been written. All the pictures have been taken and still nothing is done to aid safe passage across the Aegean. At the very least the European Union should provide safe passage for refugees. It’s only a couple of days later that I’m shown the letter from Yunus Can the Chairman of the Board for the Turkish ferry company Turyol written to the European Union and dated 24th November 2015. It offers the EU the use of some of its 68 passenger boats, at a charge of 20 euros per person to provide safe and secure passage over this stretch of water. Incredibly, it still hasn’t received an answer. The silence from the EU is a huge failure of that incredibly rich and able organisation to show any leadership or ability to deal with this refugee crisis. The thousands of deaths that have occurred in the Mediterranean Sea in the last few years have been overwhelmingly avoidable. Each man, woman and child, a Rafa, a Fatima, an Ibrahim and an Amina, each one a life lost unnecessarily. Each one is one of us. It’s a terrible thing to watch an overcrowded refugee boat struggling through rough waters. It’s an even worse thing to know there’s an immediate and readily available solution to this problem that just isn’t being utilised. My fear is that there’ll be many more deaths, many more men, women and children will slip beneath the waves of that sea and be washed-up on the beaches around the region, before the institutions of our governments decide to act and find a way to end this unfolding tragedy. My hope is that someone in authority somewhere is watching and is ready to act and end all this.


The petition below that deals directly with the safe passage of migrants into the EU was rejected. This is the petition that I would’ve liked to sign as it’s exactly related to what I’m discussing in the article.


It was rejected as it was too ‘close’ to the petition below which deals with a compassionate response to migrants living in Calais. They are related, but clearly not the same issue. I’ve signed the below petition anyway, but I feel the debate needs to be had urgently on the specific topic of safe and secure passage into the EU.


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