Skip to main content

The mountainous road is steep and winding, twisting for 70 kilometers across the Greek Island of Lesbos. Throngs of asylum seekers and migrants, many of them from Syria, have to hike this road from Molyvos on the Island’s north side where many boats land from Turkey, to its capital Mytilene where they need to register before the journey to Athens. Some pass out from thirst, pain; many prefer to walk at night along the dark mountain roads because the temperature during the day can reach 35 degrees Celsius.

Life jackets and deflated dinghies left behind by refugees and migrants are seen on the roadside near a beach on Lesbos, Greece. September, 2015.   © 2015 Dimitris Michalakis/Reuters

Greek authorities have banned buses and taxis from transporting them, citing Greek law that forbids the transport of undocumented migrants. Some taxi drivers flout the ban and exploit the situation by charging as much as €200 per person for a ride to Mytilene, normally a €50- 60 fare. Sometimes people are able to take buses operated by the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or nongovernmental organizations, but these services are sporadic and limited in number.

“I asked a volunteer there, at the beach, whether there is a bus, and she said that there hasn’t been a bus in a week,” said Mahmoud, 22, from Syria. I spoke to him yesterday just after he had walked six hours in the heat to reach the village of Kalloni where he will rest before taking the road again to Mytilene. “I am disappointed and very upset, nervous, and exhausted.”

Syrian asylum seekers on the Greek island of Lesbos study the route they will walk to reach Mytilene, the island’s capital. Greek authorities have forbidden taxis and buses from picking up unregistered migrants. September, 2015 © 2015 Eva Cossé/Human Rights Watch

A few thousand refugees and migrants reach Lesbos from Turkey each day. As of last Tuesday there were some 30,000 refugees and migrants amassed on the Greek islands, with 20,000 of them on the island of Lesbos alone, according to the UNHCR and local authorities.

The situation doesn’t improve upon reaching Mytilene, where these people join the thousands living in the open, as official camps are overcrowded with conditions falling significantly below international and national standards. Those who stay in the city of Mytilene have to buy their own tents, food, and water. There are no showers, and the only toilets are in bars or cafes – businesses that sometimes refuse to serve them.

“In order to go to the toilet, we go in the restaurant, we wait for one-and-a-half hours, and we pay 50 cents,” said Salman, 60, from Iraq, who is traveling with his wife and two sons. “We haven’t taken a shower for eight days. We feel sorry we sleep here but we have no choice.”

People living on the Greek island of Lesbos leave a pile of shoes for refugees and migrants who are walking across the island. September, 2015.  © 2015 Eva Cossé/Human Rights Watch

Tensions have been rising between city residents and the migrants and asylum seekers. Once clean parks reek of urine and garbage floats on the sea. A few days ago, when the island reached a crisis point, tents were everywhere. Volunteers are exhausted, and while some residents give migrants food and water, others yell at them.

Over the last few days, Greek authorities have boosted the number of ferries traveling between Lesbos and Athens, and they’ve also sped up the registration process – an expedited service scheduled to end today. This has helped, but thousands have yet to be processed and more are coming.

Greece needs more help from the European Union and fellow EU governments in handling the unprecedented number of people coming to its shores. But there is no reason people fleeing war and repression, often with small children, should be forced to walk across Lesbos. Authorities could ideally provide transportation, but at the least allow buses and others offering transportation to pick them up. And if they want people to register before getting on transportation, they could set up a registration center on the island’s north side.



Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.