The summer made for surreal scenes and jarring contradictions. Though the crisis had clearly arrived, it had not yet caught the world’s attention. The island continued to operate as the tranquil Mediterranean getaway it had always been. While British retirees sipped coffee beneath the awnings of portside cafes, hundreds or even thousands of migrants trudged past, seeking food, shelter or the next ferry to the mainland.
By October, several thousand asylum seekers were arriving each day. Though most continued to use the island only as a transit point, enough remained temporarily — willingly or not — that it seemed to Galinos as if there were, at times, more people living on the streets of Mytilene than there were Greek residents of the city. Migrants were camped out in every available space, including the steps of the mayor’s office. Local residents saw their gardens turned into impromptu toilets by migrants with nowhere else to go. “You can only imagine what was happening here,” Galinos told me. “Imagine the sea full of dinghies, full of people, 6,000, 7,000 arriving every day.”
Lesbos had yet to receive any financial support from the E.U. — funds for the crisis response were coming entirely from the municipality’s own budget. The national government in Athens, for its part, faced calls from other E.U. governments to set up refugee camps for roughly 300,000 people or risk having its borders sealed off from the rest of Europe. Lesbos, meanwhile, continued to be overwhelmed. All he could do, Galinos told me, was “scream for help.”
Humanitarians were the first to respond. Global media coverage of the disaster — especially the photo of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body was found on a Turkish beach — brought thousands of volunteers from all over the world. They filled the ranks of dozens of small-scale NGOs, many of which were created specifically to address the crisis on Lesbos. While a few large organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) and the International Rescue Committee took the lead, it was the smaller NGOs that made up the bulk of the humanitarian community. By one count, there were about 120 NGOs on Lesbos at the height of the crisis, taking the lead in everything from search-and-rescue to legal services.
Among them was E.R.C.I., which was founded in late 2015 by Moraitis, a maritime executive. At the time, his wife was pregnant with their first child, and the endless images of drowned migrants turned his stomach. “I just wanted to help,” he said. “I didn’t want to see people drowning in my country’s waters.” From two full-time volunteers, the organization grew to a handful of staff members and several dozen more volunteers, waxing and waning in size as people came and went.
The presence of so many foreigners, however indispensable their work, generated tension on the island. “Using volunteers created this gap, which always happens on the front lines if nationals aren’t involved — this gap of us and you,” Farshad Shamgholi, an aid worker who spent several years on Lesbos, says. The volunteers were often well educated, with a strong sense of themselves as global citizens and a concern for the rights of the dispossessed. These were the traits that drove the volunteers to serve, but they could also cause friction with local residents.
Money became a source of especially fierce contention: who had it, and why. Lesbos, like the rest of Greece, remained mired in the effects of the global financial crisis and resulting austerity measures, and unemployment was high. It was difficult for the citizens of the island, who gave the migrants everything they could spare for years on end, to watch the NGO industry boom. “When the NGOs came, people thought, We’re doing the same thing as them, but they’re getting money for it,” Wassilis Aswestopoulos, a Greek-German photojournalist who has covered migration since 2008, said. Aid workers and volunteers generally brought their standard of living with them to the island, renting cars and enjoying small luxuries that set them apart. “They had everything the Greeks didn’t,” Aswestopoulos said. Rumors swirled about where all the money was coming from and the true motives of the humanitarians. Greek television fanned the flames by publicizing the salaries of aid workers.