The boats land on the rocky shores of Lesbos, a Greek island in the northern Aegean Sea, nearly every hour. Sometimes 60 to 70 boats arrive every day, carrying mothers, fathers and children from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
On a chilly, overcast afternoon late last month, one boat arrived just after a downpour. A family of four from Aleppo, drenched and wearing orange life vests, jumped on the beach and held each other, shivering. The mother, Noor al-Kadri, wept as she embraced a volunteer who helped her and her family off the shore.
“You go this way, and then up,” said the volunteer, Bri Stundon, a Canadian chef living in Sweden, leading Kadri, her husband and two young daughters to a dirt road. “That’s perfect. Everything you need is up there.”
Warm soup, dry clothes and a bus — all services run by volunteers — awaited them.
The next stop, after a bus ride, was neither friendly nor orderly. It was an old army barracks turned camp, where migrants have been screened by Greek and European Union authorities all year.
More than half a million migrants have crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece so far this year — 210,000 in October alone. Most have arrived on Lesbos, an island with a population of just over 86,000.
The island has been overwhelmed. So the European Union recently designated this camp a “hot spot,” which means migrants are now supposed to be identified, registered and given temporary transit papers more quickly and efficiently than before.
But Greek police captain Dimitris Amoutzias, a supervisor here, said nothing changed after the camp was inaugurated as a hot spot on Oct. 16. For starters, he said, the camp is still understaffed, with 125 officers — 25 to a shift — to screen between 3,000 and 6,000 people every day.
“We need at least double the number of officers we have now,” he said. “It’s terrible because there are crowds outside. They get frustrated waiting, which I understand, and when we open a gate, there’s a rush to get in, so we fear a stampede. And now that the weather is worsening, there are worries about people getting sick.”
When NPR visited the camp in late October, one end was filled with frustrated Syrian asylum seekers waiting in a long line outside a chain-link gate. It was raining, and they had been there all day — desperate for information and help.
“Nobody in charge is telling us or guiding us to what we are supposed to do,” said Amani al-Mosuti, an English teacher from Damascus, as she shivered in her lilac headscarf. “We are helpless, tired and wet.”
It was even more chaotic on the other side of the camp, where thousands of non-Syrians were registering. A skinny translator named Ismatullah Ashakzai, from Afghanistan, tried to keep his fellow Afghans in a line by prodding them with olive tree branches.
“Some people are waiting here for four days, three days,” he said. “They have to sleep in line.” He pointed to a young man crouched in the dirt, sleeping on his backpack.
The line stretched down a long, muddy trail, slick with trash and human waste. A young Afghan couple left the line, holding a listless baby, hoping to find a doctor.
The EU border agency, Frontex, sent reinforcements to help earlier this year. But those 70 officers are also stretched thin. Many are helping the Greek coast guard patrol the sea, where dozens of asylum seekers, many of them children, have drowned in recent days.
Jean-Noel Magnin, a French police officer who is the Frontex coordinator on Lesbos, said the priority is saving lives. His staff also screens migrants. He said at least 30 percent pretend to be Syrians to improve their chances of getting asylum.
But his staff can identify them by asking the right questions — for example, about money, vehicle plates, famous people in Syria they should be able to recognize.
“Our interpreters know many dialects, many languages, and they help the Greek officers identify the people,” Magnin said. “They usually admit their real nationality after some questioning.”
There is concern that this information isn’t shared among EU member states as the migrants make their way north to their final destinations, often Germany and Scandinavian countries.
Frontex spokesperson Paulina Bakula says migrants are counted each time they pass through countries in the Schengen area, the 26 European countries that have abolished passport and border controls at their common borders.
“This means that a large number of migrants who arrived in Greece and were detected by Greek authorities are probably detected (and reported) again as they arrive at the borders of Hungary and/or Croatia,” Bakula wrote in an email to NPR.
Frontex and most EU member states do not keep data on individuals throughout their journeys, she wrote, so “it is impossible at the European level to ascertain whether a person counted in different member-states is in fact the same person who crossed the EU external borders two or even more times.”
As the EU struggles to coordinate its response on all levels, the mayor of Lesbos, Spiros Galinos, is doing what he can to manage. He worries that the screening in Lesbos’ so-called hot spot is taking too long, mainly because of the staff shortage.
“This hot spot cannot screen more than 1,500 migrants daily,” he said. “And yet 6,000 come ashore every day.”
Some in the EU would like hot spots to accommodate migrants until their eligibility for asylum can be determined. Those who qualify would be relocated to other EU member states. Those who don’t would face deportation. But the Greek government says it doesn’t want the Greek islands to turn into detention camps if resettlement plans fail.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and European Parliament President Martin Schulz are expected to visit Lesbos on Thursday. One of their stops will be at the so-called hot spot.
Meanwhile, Galinos has managed to provide several overflow shelters around the island and welcomes the volunteers and international aid organizations flying in to help. Some trash and human waste was cleared out of the hot spot earlier this week.
“They are people who are coming here to help, because their hearts are broken by the tragedy they’re seeing here,” Galinos said. “But we look around and think, where are the governments? Where is the European Union? We could really use their help.”
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