The Sea section
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 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. Continue reading