The heaving rubber raft, packed with 49 people, had motored more than halfway across the narrow strait that separates Turkey from Greece when it began to rapidly fill with water.

“Whoever can swim, get out or we will all die!” yelled an Iraqi woman near the front, her belly swollen with an unborn child conceived amid war and now facing mortal peril at sea.

Dutifully, four men jumped overboard into the wind-whipped waves as others blew whistles, flailed their arms and shouted prayers into the cloud-covered sky.

Minutes later, the raft careered into the rocky shoreline. It was followed soon after by the four men, who had been plucked from the water by a passing fishing boat.

“Union!” the refugees cheered as they set wobbly foot in this staggeringly beautiful new land.

Their crash landing on the Greek island of Lesbos, witnessed by a Washington Post reporter, had given the refugees from Iraq and Syria an all-important toehold in the European Union. With its aqua-green shoals, olive-tree-studded mountains and five-star resorts, it looks every bit the paradise they had dreamed Europe would be.

But within hours, paradise for the new arrivals turned into purgatory. For it is here on this enchanting island that two of the continent’s great crises converge — an unparalleled flow of migrants from the war-saturated regions that ring the continent, and the struggle of an E.U. member that can barely support its own citizens, much less tens of thousands of desperate foreigners.

Having escaped failed states, the migrants find themselves in a failing one. Once they make their way off the beach, they are welcomed to Europe with a long, hot trek through the island’s mountainous interior followed by days and nights in fetid, crowded refugee camps that veteran international aid workers say are among the worst they have seen.

“We ran away from war. We ran away from violence. We came to Europe because we want to live like human beings,” Zahra Jafari, an almond-eyed 30-year-old Afghan, said as she prepared for a night’s sleep amid the sand fleas and pervasive whiffs of excrement that mark life in the camps. “But here it smells so bad. There’s no water here. There’s no food here.”

“This is the opposite of what we thought Europe would be,” she said. “It’s a disaster — just like my country.”

Local officials do not dispute that conditions in the camps are poor. They acknowledge being unprepared and overwhelmed by the scale of arrivals after years of managing much smaller flows.

Migrants from Iraq, Syria and other Middle Eastern nations are fleeing to Europe, a continent whose migrant camps are struggling to keep up with the growing numbers. Follow a group's difficult journey from Turkey to Greece with The Post's Griff Witte. (Jhaan Elker and Griff Witte/The Washington Post)

As the migrant numbers have surged this spring and summer, the island’s mayor, Spyros Galinos, has fired off letter after letter to E.U. officials, the Greek government in Athens and international aid organizations seeking urgent assistance. Only the aid groups have come through with meaningful help, according to his spokesman.

“The minister of interior visited, said ‘Keep up the good work,’ and he left,” said the spokesman, Marios Andriotios.

But the Greek government, of course, is broke.

Pressure in the south

Europe’s absence has been more difficult for local officials and aid workers here to fathom. And yet it reflects the often dysfunctional and slow-footed way that the E.U. has responded to the migrant crisis, with many Northern European governments reluctant to share a burden that has been felt disproportionately along the continent’s southern flank among countries that are already deeply in debt.

Until this year, Italy was the top destination for migrants seeking to enter Europe by sea. But now that dubious distinction is held by Greece — the E.U. country that can least afford the strain — with an increasing number of migrants forgoing the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean aboard rickety ships in favor of the quicker yet still perilous route through the Aegean in an overstuffed dinghy.

Nowhere has that shift been felt more acutely than here in Lesbos, where the number of arrivals in July alone was nearly three times the total from all of last year. Separated by just eight nautical miles from the Turkish coast, the island’s shores have become the landing spot for 20 or more rafts a day, each packed with dozens of men, women and children. The majority of the new arrivals are fleeing the war in Syria; Iraqis and Afghans make up most of the rest.

Lesbos has nothing to offer the migrants — a fact they know well. This is just the first stop in a far longer odyssey that they hope will take them to countries such as Germany, Sweden or Denmark, where they believe they will be able to receive asylum and find work. But first they must stay in the camps for up to a week to obtain the registration needed to travel through Greece legally.

For many, it is an unexpectedly grim welcome. The toilets — just five of them in one camp for a population of hundreds — are typically out of order. The men shower in the open for all to see. The women have no place to shower at all. With the tents often full, the only protection from the searing midday heat is thin mesh netting or the sparse shade of an olive tree.

“At least there’s no violence here. No bombs exploding. No kidnappings,” said Haydar Majid, a 32-year-old Iraqi who said he had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army. “But this place isn’t for humans. It’s for animals.”

Until several weeks ago, it was far worse. International aid groups such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Doctors Without Borders, which normally focus their work in the world’s poorest countries, have had to set up emergency operations in Lesbos because the conditions were so appalling and the E.U. was doing little to help.

“The camps here don’t reach the minimum standard,” said Elisabetta Faga, emergency field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. “I’ve worked in camps in Congo, Mauritania, South Sudan. But here we are in Europe. I expect something better.”

Emily David, a senior official with the IRC’s emergency response team, said the deplorable situation in Lesbos and the perilous sea crossings point to the need for a shared European solution, including safer routes to the continent for those fleeing war and persecution.


“Many of these people will qualify as refugees. So why aren’t there legal routes?” she asked as she surveyed an expanse of trash-strewn dirt and asphalt that has become home to as many as several thousand men, women and children at a time.

Yet such is the level of desperation among those uprooted from their homes that neither the abysmal camp conditions nor the death-defying crossings have been a deterrent. The tens of thousands who have already landed on Lesbos this year are probably only the beginning, with an even bigger wave predicted before winter weather makes the crossing more arduous.

“Everyone’s expecting the numbers to increase radically in August, September and October,” said Andriotios. “We’re predicting mass arrivals.”

Short but harrowing journey

From Greek shores, the rafts first appear as black specks set against a monochromatic horizon: blue mountains, sky and sea.

As the boats draw nearer, there are flashes of orange when individuals come into focus, the lucky ones having been given life vests by the smugglers in whom the migrants have entrusted their fate.

Three of those orange flashes one recent morning — aboard the raft that might have capsized had a pregnant Iraqi woman not ordered passengers to jump ship — belonged to Fayrouz Abdo and her two sons.

Abdo considered herself an unlikely refugee.

In the Syrian city of Aleppo, the dark-haired 60-year-old was a schoolteacher who drilled her young students in the basics of Arabic. Her husband — now deceased — had been a prominent lawyer. Funny, frank and admittedly vain, she inhabited a privileged spot on the Aleppo social circuit and enjoyed entertaining European friends with whom she shared shots of whiskey and arak, the anise-flavored Levantine spirit.

That was before the war, of course. But even once it began, the conflict felt distant from the family’s comfortable middle-class life in a Christian enclave of Aleppo.

“I watched refugees on the news,” she said.

She didn’t think she would ever become one.

And yet, as the echoes of bombs and gunfire drew closer in recent months, the family faced an ominous deadline: Abdo’s eldest son, 22-year-old Jamil, would soon graduate from his university. Conscription into President Bashar al-Assad’s army would inevitably follow. The family would no longer be able to stay on the sidelines of a sectarian conflict they wanted no part of.

Before they could be drawn in, they decided to leave. They sold their house and fled to Turkey. Once there, they sought out a smuggler willing to take their money — the equivalent of $1,100 per person — in exchange for the promise of a new life in Europe. With so many people looking for the same thing, and seemingly little being done by Turkish authorities to halt the flow, finding a willing smuggler is not difficult.

“We just went to his office,” Jamil said.

The smuggler promised that Abdo and her sons would be ferried to Greece in a 30-foot boat with no more than 35 passengers. But when they arrived at the water’s edge in Turkey, having trekked through deep forest to get there, they saw a far smaller boat and a much larger group — nearly 50 others.

The smugglers had originally planned for the boat to leave under cover of darkness. But with the coast guard patrolling close to shore, the migrants were forced to retreat back into the woods, where they spent the night bereft of food and water.


The next morning, the coast guard vessels had moved on but strong easterly winds had set the formerly placid seas to a boil. No matter: The smugglers ushered everyone into the boat, fired up the small outboard engine and gave one of the migrants, a young Syrian man, a minute-long tutorial on how to steer.

The journey to the Greek coast is a short one — it can last as little as an hour. But the peril is great. Lt. Cmdr. Antonios Sofiadelis, who leads coast guard operations in Lesbos, said his forces have been averaging four to five rescues a day this summer as overloaded boats capsize or stall out on the high seas.

Those are not the only dangers. In recent weeks, migrants in the Lesbos camps say they have been assaulted mid-crossing by mysterious “commandos” who pull up in speedboats alongside the rafts. Their faces hidden by ski masks, the men threaten the migrants with whips and guns, then steal their cash and clothes and disable their boats.

“They cut our engine out with a knife and left us in the sea,” said Hassan, a 30-year-old Iraqi migrant who declined to give his last name.

On Saturday, the Greek coast guard said it had arrested three men on suspicion of carrying out the raids. The suspects were dressed in coast guard uniforms.

Abdo’s boat faced no such challenge. But as it pitched and rolled amid the waves, it was clearly in trouble. Passengers on the vessel later described how water crashed over the low rubber walls as the raft’s belly filled.

The migrants called out to Allah for help. Abdo, a Christian, joined in.

When the four men clambered overboard and into the churning water, the boat’s walls popped back up and the threat passed. Minutes later, the raft crashed into shore, and the migrants celebrated with hugs, kisses and selfies.

“Alhamdulillah,” they repeated again and again. “Praise God.”

But their journey had only begun. The smugglers had told them that the landing spot was within a short walk of the police station and that they could register there for legal permission to stay in Greece for a month. In fact, the boat had washed up in a remote corner of the island and the registration spot was 40 miles away over rough, mountainous roads.

With no food, no water and little idea of where they were headed, they started to walk. Abdo slung a worn black backpack over her shoulder. Soaked with sea­water, it contained some clothes, a German phrase book and an old film camera — all the possessions she could afford to carry from her old life to the new one.

Their path led them along a seashore straight from a travel magazine, where bikini-clad women splashed down in crystal-clear water. It took them up winding highways, where drivers sped by in Audis and BMWs without so much as a glance.

And ultimately, it would lead them to the camps, where they would spend their first night in the E.U. sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes amid piles of rotting trash.

But as Abdo started her trek from the sea that had nearly been her grave, all she could think of was her good fortune.

“The road is very long, but it’s okay,” she said. “Really, really, really — we are lucky. God loves us. We are safe.”

Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

Read more:

Thousands risk death on the ‘Black Route’ out of Syria. This is one family’s story.

A smugglers’ haven in the Sahara

A global surge in refugees leaves Europe struggling to cope

Why the language we use to talk about refugees matters so much