Flood Of Migrants Overwhelms Greek Tourist Island
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East and Africa continue to travel by sea to Europe for a better life. Greece is now a main entry point. And over the past few weeks, the Greek islands have seen a massive increase in people arriving on small rubber rafts. Joanna Kakissis is on one of those islands, Lesvos. She joins us now. Joanna, described where you are and what you're seeing.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Well, I'm on Molyvos beach now. That's in the north of the island. And I can see Turkey from here. It looks close enough to swim actually. People are around me swimming and sunning themselves. But very early this morning, a raft with 35 people arrived on this very beach. Four cousins from Eritrea were on it; one was Eden Kedane. She's 28. She said they tried to travel last week, but there was just too much wind. This morning, the sea was smooth.
EDEN KEDANE: Today is very OK. We say, thank God. We pray we are coming.
KAKISSIS: Her cousin Hiwot Tadesse Kassa told me that they have been traveling for three months. Hiwot used to be a hairdresser. She wants to find a job in Germany and support her young daughter, who she had to leave behind in Sudan to make this journey.
HIWOT TADESSE KASSA: 'Cause I have baby in Sudan. My baby girl. Eight years. I look for my family. I want to see my family.
KAKISSIS: Many Eritreans have made this journey because of the very repressive regime back home. And of course, the war in Syria has also sent Syrians this route.
MARTIN: I mentioned earlier that Greece has become a main entry point for migrants and refugees. Why? Why is it so popular right now?
KAKISSIS: Well, this route - this is called the eastern Mediterranean route - the sea route from Turkey to Greece. It's far safer than the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy, and that's why it's more popular now. And now especially with summer here, the wind is calmer so the water is too. Smugglers send people on these little inflatable rafts across the sea. It take about an hour, an hour and a half to get here. Greece is receiving about 600 migrants every day and about half are arriving here on Lesvos.
MARTIN: And this has been happening all over the Greek islands. How are the authorities handling all of it?
KAKISSIS: The police and Coast Guard are totally overwhelmed on all of the islands. There are just too many people, and there's no place for them to sleep. There's not enough food to go around, clothes to go around. There are volunteers on the islands who are helping clothe and feed the refugees. On Lesvos, those volunteers and even some tourists give refugees rides from this beach on Molyvos to the main town of Mytiline, which is about 42 miles away. A lawyer named Eleni Velvasaki says they walk because there's no bus to transport them to that town. And that's where they need to get papers from the police to get out of the island and on to Athens. Today, she helped organize a caravan of about 30 cars to give refugees rides. She says the police here have already threatened to arrest people for aiding human smuggling by doing so. But that's not deterring people she said.
ELENI VELVASAKI: Yes, it's almost a humanitarian crisis. We all can see that. And it's only with the solidarity of the people that some people can get help.
MARTIN: You mentioned it is tourist season. How has that affected the response?
KAKISSIS: Well, yeah, because on Kos island - on nearby Kos island, another Aegean island, they lost bookings after a British tabloid said the refugee crisis had turned that island into a disgusting hellhole. People were sleeping outside there, and apparently, some British tourists didn't like to be reminded of the humanitarian crisis. The tour operators on Lesvos are worried, but so far there have been no hotel and tour cancellations. Many people here, they want to help - Dutch tourists, British tourists, American tourists. I've seen them all pitching and in giving milk, clothes, biscuits and rides to refugees. They want to help, and they don't want to look away.
MARTIN: Reporter Joanna Kakassis on the Greek island of Lesvos. Thanks so much, Joanna.
KAKISSIS: You're welcome.
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