The Waypoint

A visual journey through Lesbos, the gateway to Europe

← Use your keyboard to navigate →

Sound is used throughout this story. Put your headphones on for the full experience.

Use your device’s buttons to adjust volume.

With land routes largely blocked, more than 1 million people braved a journey by sea to get to Europe last year — the most in modern history. Half crossed from the Turkish coast to the enchantingly beautiful Greek island of Lesbos, the first port of call in Europe.

The sea journey begins on the Turkish shores, where smugglers pack boats that are meant for 20 people with 40 or more.

Do you want to see what the beginning of this journey looks like?


No, just continue

The smugglers often charge more than $1,000 per person. Life jackets are extra. Sirous, an Iranian PhD student in economics, sings while shooting cellphone video of the Turkish coast.

Iranian photographers Moqim Moqim and Ali Akhtar took these photos moments before their own departure.

Often, the asylum seekers have spent the night sleeping in the forest without food or water. They wait for the smugglers to order them to the water’s edge. Once there, the boats are assembled and the asylum seekers take to the sea.

The migrants must make the journey themselves.  The smugglers stay behind.

In the most common landing areas, along the island’s north shore, the Turkish coast is just five miles away. The crossing takes as little as an hour, but the trip can be deadly in bad weather.

Engines fail. Boats sink. Passengers — many of whom can’t swim — are cast overboard into cold, frothy water. Rescuers have only minutes to intervene before people begin to drown.

Lt. Cmdr. Antonios Sofiadelis, Lesbos coast guard.

Listen to Lt. Cmdr. Antonios Sofiadelis, Lesbos coast guard.

Each boat has its own story. Many have been drifting at sea for hours, their passengers wet and shivering.

Zaiuddin Zafar and Noor Ali Amiri, refugees from Afghanistan.

Listen to Noor Ali Amiri (pictured) and Zaiuddin Zafar, refugees from Afghanistan.

The response from European governments to the situation in Lesbos has often been inadequate. Volunteers and non-governmental organizations have filled the void. They are on hand to tend to those who need immediate care, and to offer a first welcome to Europe.

Clara Constantin, volunteer from Romania.

Listen to Clara Constantin, volunteer from Romania.

Wet shoes are often left behind on the shore. After they dry, they offer a warm welcome for the lucky travelers who find the right size.

Do you want to see other items that were left behind?


No, just continue

“This is not a lifesaving device.”

It takes only minutes for asylum seekers to find their feet after landing and continue their journeys.

Once forced to walk 40 miles or more along mountainous roads, new arrivals are now given bus rides from assembly points to the camps that will be their temporary homes.

Boris Cheshirkov, U.N. Refugee Agency.

Listen to Boris Cheshirkov, U.N. Refugee Agency.

At the registration center, refugees are given a ticket and told to wait their turn for an interview. Syrian or Afghan? With a family, or alone? Their answers determine the course of their journey on the island.  

Do you want to learn more about the screening process?


No, just continue

Thousands of people arrive daily, many without passports or other forms of identification. Syrian families are sent to one camp, Kara Tepe. Everyone else is sent to another, Moria. Authorities have to register them all to know who is coming into Europe. New arrivals have their fingerprints and photos taken. They are also screened by national origin, with names checked against a database of criminals and suspects.

Cassandra Stern, American volunteer at the Kara Tepe refugee camp.

Listen to Cassandra Stern, American volunteer at the Kara Tepe refugee camp.

The combined capacity of the two camps is about 2,800. But in the fall, daily arrivals exceeded 6,000. At Moria there are inadequate facilities. Migrants overflow into the surrounding olive fields.

Boris Cheshirkov, U.N. Refugee Agency.

Listen to Boris Cheshirkov, U.N. Refugee Agency.

Some days, the camps can feel like ghost towns.

The population falls, then suddenly spikes, then falls again. It all depends on the pace of arrivals, which is nearly impossible to predict.

Shade Amesh, refugee from Syria.

“My children saw bombs exploding in front of them, that instilled fear in them. I did not care for myself; I was thinking of my children. That is what I felt, and it is the feeling of every parent, everyone who has children knows it, I felt that same feeling.” — Shade Amesh, refugee from Syria.

Do you want to meet Shade’s family?


No, just continue

"There is no future for my children [...] My son lost three years of his education so far. The boy was deprived of everything. Of course, I am leaving just for the future of my children. The most important thing is their education and that we feel secure.” — Shade’s wife.

“It flipped in the sea. It flipped and we started to swim. The motorboat came. The police, the police […] They flipped the boat and they pulled us to the border, to Greece.”

Stays in the camp can last from a few hours to several days. Once asylum seekers have been registered, Greek authorities provide documentation that allows them to move freely in Greece.

The refugee camps fill and empty quickly. Humanitarian aid workers clean up after migrants move on, preparing the grounds for the next wave of arrivals.

Many of Lesbos’s residents are descended from refugees who fled Turkey in the early 20th century. The island even has a replica of the Statue of Liberty standing watch over the harbor. Today, thousands sleep at her feet, waiting to catch the ferry that will take them onward to the Greek mainland.

As boats sail past, the harbor echoes with Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and Kurdish — a melange of languages and cultures.

Salim Amiri, refugee from Afghanistan.

We wanted to find out how refugees see this place, so we loaned our camera to two Iranian photographers, Moqim Moqim and Ali Akhtar. This is what they captured.

The refugees arrive on rubber dinghies. They leave on ships bound for the European mainland. Ferries that once catered to tourists now depart night and day from Lesbos packed to capacity with asylum seekers.

We spent the night on the ferry to Athens. Along the way, we asked people to take a visual quiz to help them communicate their journeys, dreams and fears. Do you want to see the results?


No, just continue

Hello, Yasin! Who are you traveling with?

And who did you leave behind?

Is someone waiting for you at your destination?

They travel by all means.

And at all costs.

When asked how much of the journey was already complete some felt their destination was very near.

For others, the journey had just begun.

From the mainland, the asylum seekers make their way across Europe: through Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. For massive numbers, Germany is the ultimate goal. But others go on, traveling as far north as the Arctic Circle.

For all, a big question looms: Will they qualify as refugees? That won’t be determined until they reach their final destination and apply for asylum. Those who succeed will get to stay. Those who fail will be sent back.

Reporting Samuel Granados, Zoeann Murphy and Griff Witte

Videos and photos Zoeann Murphy and Samuel Granados

With Kevin Schaul, Emily Chow and Kat Downs

Restart story

Additional credits

Refugee photos and videos Ali Akthar, Moqim Moqim, Shade Amesh and Sirous Solaymani

Drone and screening process video footage UNHCR

Rescue video footage Greek Coast Guard

Aerial imagery Google Earth and Getty Images

Music ‘Addeish Kan Fi Nass’ by Fairouz — Voix de l'Orient/A. Chahine & Fils

Restart story

Adjust volume with your device’s buttons