This story, written and illustrated by John Cottrell from the Greek island of Lesvos, was a runner-up in the university category in News-Decoder’s inaugural reporting contest. Cottrell visited Lesvos in November 2015.
boat people

(All photos by John Cottrell)

By John Cottrell

Travelling across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece is the hardest and most dangerous part of this modern odyssey.

For migrants and their families, it’s a life-threatening risk that they are willing to take in order to escape war and poverty. For locals and volunteers, dinghies on the horizon have become an everyday sight.

cottrell3The duration of the journey varies depending on the weather, the weight in the boat and the motor that powers it. For some it takes four to six hours from the Turkish shore to the Greek islands. For others it is a long nightmare.

The same three factors determine whether the boat will even reach the other side. In many cases, bad weather, excess weight, jammed motors and “misunderstandings” with smugglers lead to tragedies. More than 3,700 people drowned at sea in 2015 alone.

Tarek, a refugee from Syria, fled the war and is trying to get his family to Sweden. He reached Lesvos after a 14-hour journey across the ocean.

“I have been waiting for this good weather for more than a month,” he said.

“Too many people lost their lives in this sea.”

“Twice the Coast Guard stopped us. They said it was too dangerous. We had too many people inside the boat. And they were right. We were more than 65 people in a boat of seven meters. Too many people lost their lives in this sea.”



At Sikaminia, a village on the northern shore of Lesvos, eight boats arrived within half an hour, part of a flow of 2,000 migrants per day at that time of year.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, in 2015 more than 847,000 refugees and migrants chose to gamble with death to reach Europe.

By March 2016, an additional 151,000 had crossed from Turkey, officially taking the number of people crossing through Greece to over a million.

“I would like to thank all the countries that are welcoming the refugees and even the ones that are not,” Tarek said.

He added: “They have their own economic reasons not to accept the refugees, and they are trying to press the EU to get money just to help. The people are not the same as government. The people believe in people. They like to help, to share aid.”

“It’s totally different when you’re standing in the middle of it.”

The crisis has attracted an enormous number of volunteer groups to Lesvos. One is a Norwegian organisation called “A Drop in the Ocean.”

Steinar Koffeld, a volunteer, described the situation: “Drama, fear and desperation are of course perceived totally differently when you are standing in the midst of it than when you watch it on TV. At the same time, [there are] cheers, laughter and joy for having come across the ocean and for having reached Europe.”cottrell5

The group’s activities are focused at the Sikaminia and Molyvos seafronts. As soon as the dinghies approach the beach, volunteers rush to help the migrants jump out and discard their life jackets.

Within minutes, piles of life jackets line the shore. Maria, another volunteer from “A Drop in the Ocean”, said: “We are here to help all of the migrants who arrive in boats, prepare sandwiches, offer them food and give them information about what they need to do next”.

Shortly afterwards, the migrants find their courage and strength and set off towards different hot spots. They are told that they have to register to carry on to Athens.

Syrian refugees are given priority over economic migrants.

Even though all of the newcomers experienced the same sea journey, they are not treated as equals under European regulations.

cottrell6Syrians are taken by buses to camps that accommodate refugees and are registered more quickly. Economic migrants such as Afghans and Iraqis come second in priority and are taken by bus only after the Syrians have been transferred.

In many cases they end up walking 70 kilometers to the island’s main city, Mitilini, to register at makeshift camps there.

Survival best describes the migrants’ journey from their homelands to Greece. Once they reach European land, however, it is bureaucracy that determines what they will face ahead.

Before Greece’s neighbors to the north began to close their borders, the question every migrant asked was “when”, as many waited for registration for over a month but were certain that at some point they would make it through.

But recently the European Union reached an agreement to ship migrants who are not granted asylum back to Turkey.

Thousands in Greece who braved the dangerous sea crossing are now living in uncertainty.

jcottrellJohn Cottrell is in his final year of undergraduate studies in Multimedia Journalism at Britain’s Bournemouth University. As a British national born and raised in Greece with a Serbian background, he has naturally developed an interest in current affairs and politics. He hopes to pursue a masters in International Relations and Diplomacy.


Share This
School PartnersBournemouth UniversityFrantic boat people on a Greek shore