Migrant crisis crashing ashore, Lesbos fishermen now fish for people

More than 800,000 migrants have arrived in Greece by sea during 2015, with most of them landing on the island of Lesbos. The crisis has had both economic and emotional impacts for the island inhabitants. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant talks to local fishermen and others about the dangerous trafficking and offering hospitality.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, the latest figures from the United Nations Refugee Agency show that more than 800,000 refugees and migrants have landed in Greece by sea during 2015. Most of them have arrived on the island of Lesbos, five miles from the Turkish coast. The impact of the crisis on the Greeks who live on the island has been both economic and profoundly emotional, as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    2015 has been a transformative year to every inhabitant of Lesbos, not least fisherman Costas Pinteris.

    COSTAS PINTERIS, Fisherman from Skala Sykamias (through interpreter): Up until this year, the sea for me meant fishing. This year, it has changed things. Now, it means fishing for people.

    The consequences have been a drop in my income because when I see someone in urgent need when I'm out fishing, I drop everything and go to help, because my work is not as important as saving human lives. The worst thing is the drowned people, drowned mothers, drowned children.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    One of the worst days was in late October when a boat carrying 300 people capsized. More than 30, including several children, lost their lives.

  • UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:

    Five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15 —

  • COSTAS PINTERIS:

    The pictures I saw during those incidents which I was seeing almost on a daily basis would come back to me while I was trying to sleep in bed at night. I kept seeing repeated pictures of the same incidents as nightmares. I couldn't sleep at all.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    The children of Lesbos are growing up on the front line of the new Europe and here, they are getting a practical lesson in the Greek tradition of "philoxenia" — unconditional hospitality and generosity to strangers. They are brightening up a new refugee camp on the northern coast, under the direction of their teacher, Aphrodite Vatis.

  • APHRODITE VATIS, Teacher:

    We want more language. If we can even put other language, 100 percent we want that, and other languages, if you can find Farsi also.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    We met Aphrodite in late October, as local volunteers helped to off load a stricken boat in rough seas.

  • APHRODITE VATIS:

    It's inhumane. It's horrendous that they are putting people in boats, sending them across in weather like this.

    It's changed, first of all, my daily reality. I wake up now and the first thing I have to do is go to my family's hotel and see, are there boats arriving? How can we help them? And this is in the morning.

    I have children, I have a husband. I have my own business. And so, the daily things that we take for granted, I was able to realize that I took a lot of things for granted very quickly, even just a moment of free time, a moment of spending with your own children. These are the things that I miss because there is no more free time.

    Also, moments of feeling carefree, they don't exist any more because we see what is going on around us in other parts of the world. It has come to our doorstep. So, it's something that you can't sleep very easily at night any more either.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    For most new arrivals, Lesbos is a springboard to the rest of the European Union, but it's become a base for Aslam Obeid, formally an aid worker who's remained in Greece to help his fellow travelers.

    While he is full of praise for local people and international volunteers, he's disdainful of Europe's response.

  • ASLAM OBEID:

    What is Europe doing? She is forcing from — to accept these people but what are they doing? Paying trinkets, a few billion euro to stop refugees from coming. Yes, thank you, Europe. Seriously thank you. Did you spend one million for helping. Europe has been paying for transportation for people or for helping.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Latest figures from the U.N. Refugee Agency suggest that over 800,000 people have arrived in Greece by sea this year. The average cost for the place from Turkey to Lesbos is $1,000. That means the traffickers and Turkish side could have made as much as $800 million. The Syrian and fisherman have conflicting views on this issue.

  • ASLAM OBEID:

    For me, even, you call them heroes, like, they are helping others. The smuggler (INAUDIBLE) $800, but the price is like $1,200 and he just let him go. So, he's like even helping others. It's a business. It's not like a (INAUDIBLE) or something.

  • COSTAS PINTERIS:

    As far as I'm concerned, they are murderers because the boats they are using to push these people from Turkey are not seaworthy for this passage. They are not suitable for this part the Aegean.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    The topography of Lesbos has metamorphosed as a result.

    This mountain of life jackets behind me in northern Lesbos covers an area the size of a soccer pitch. There are literally hundreds of thousands of jackets here, every one representing a human life.

    But the economic impact on Lesbos is the main entry point to Europe for these refugees and migrants has been seismic. The vacation business on which so many people depend has collapsed.

    Two years ago, the charm of Lesbos lured 75,000 vacationers on package tours on charter flights. And the island had 60 lucrative cruise liner stopovers in high season. But so far, projected charter bookings and cruise ship dockings for next year stand at zero.

    APHRODITE VATIS All our businesses, we have loans, we have to pay the banks. Our biggest fear is we won't be able to cover our costs. If we can cover our costs and get through the year, we will be more than happy with that, because we want to be able to sustain our existence as long as we can, until things turn and we have an increase again in tourism.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    Spending by volunteers, aid agencies and the migrants to the tune of a hundred million dollars has offset some of the losses. But the overall long-term picture is bleak.

  • COSTAS PINTERIS:

    My wish is that the powers that be may work to find a solution so that people may live in peace, that the whole world may live in peace.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT:

    But if anything, the violence is escalating, which means that Lesbos' crucial position on the migrant trail will continue.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Malcolm Brabant in Lesbos.