Lesbos was overwhelmed with migrants when I arrived this time last year

One year ago, at the beginning of September, I arrived in Lesbos to a scene of chaos.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 5th September 2016, 8:35 pm
Updated Monday, 5th September 2016, 11:26 pm
A migrant boat from Turkey arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos. September 8 2015 By Ben Lowry
A migrant boat from Turkey arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos. September 8 2015 By Ben Lowry

I had travelled down to Greece by night train because such trains, which are wonderful, are rapidly disappearing from Europe as they lose out to cheaper budget airlines.

Indeed the night train on part of the route, from Italy to Slovenia, had just closed.

I also wanted to see in person the migrant crisis, because I had read about it for years (originally in the western Mediterranean).

The third thing I wanted to do was visit Serbia.

There was a fourth goal – to lounge on a Greek beach but I never reached that. After seeing the migrant crisis up close the beach seemed decadent.

The first inkling of the scale of the problem was in Belgrade, where hundreds of migrants – mostly Syrian – were camped near the station, as part of a human chain heading north.

The next indication of the problem was when the final night train, from Belgrade to Thessaloniki, stopped south of Macedonia, and well short of its destination.

We were told there was work on the line but someone on board told me it was in fact closed due to the migrant crisis. I concluded the latter explanation more likely when, days later, the numbers of migrants became clear to me.

As the ferry from Thesssaloniki approached Myteline, Lesbos, it passed close to a migrant dinghy crossing from Turkey nearby. The port was overwhelmed with people, mostly Syrian, but Afghans too, camping on concrete. They had no toilet facilities.

I arrived in Lesbos the day Alan Kurdi, 3, was washed up a on a Turkish beach after trying go get to a nearby island.

Myetline town is upmarket and normally tranquil but it too had been overwhelmed with people, wandering around or sleeping rough.

The whole island was almost a transit camp (en route to mainland Greece, then northern Europe), as I would come to see closely in the next weeks. More people passed through it in a few months than its 86,000 population.

It was both tragic and uplifting – there was a blitz spirit. The migrants were dignified, despite their highly stressful situation – they did not even beg, let alone anything more anti social.

The locals were admirably tolerant. I use the word consciously – they were naturally concerned at the influx of people, and they were in the middle of their own economic crisis (and an election) but they remained tolerant.

I could write a book about what I saw, and should have done, but suffice to say in this small space the boats kept arriving.

The picture above was taken on my phone as a boat landed, moments after a fisherman (with me on board) had guided another boat from sea to safety.