World·Special Report

Refugee crisis: Greek officials register 15,000 migrants in a single day

On Tuesday, after weeks of ignoring the situation of thousands of migrants stuck in limbo, authorities on the Greek island of Lesbos managed to register 15,000 people in just 24 hours, Margaret Evans reports.

'We forget what we are suffering before, and now we start again,' says one Syrian woman

Refugees on the move

8 years ago
Duration 2:38
Thousands of people have been allowed to move on to Athens from Greek island Lesbos

After weeks of ignoring the dire circumstances of thousands of migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos needing travel papers, local authorities here commandeered a football stadium earlier this week and managed to register some 15,000 people in just 24 hours.

It's a feat that's taken many by surprise — none more so than the refugees who've spent long hours lined up outside a registration office at the port day in, day out, only to be told to come back later.

As a refugee, if you haven't registered with the police on Lesbos, you can't buy a ferry ticket or even rent a hotel room. One of the hardest things to witness is a parent asking at hotels for a room for just one night so the family can shower and feel safe … only to be rejected. 

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As a result, thousands of families have had little option but to live on the streets, without toilets or shelter from the sun.  

Yesterday, the photocopy shops in the main port town of Mytilene were full of young men trying to forge registration forms. Twenty-four hours later, it was the ticket offices of the ferry companies that were full, with people carrying the proper papers. 

"We are so so so happy to have the tickets," Asam Rahman told me down at the port where the big ferries to Athens dock. Originally from Aleppo, Syria, she, her husband and their two children have been stuck on the island for 12 days, their money running out.  

She says the tickets, however, erase the bad memories. "We forget what we are suffering before, and now we start again." 

'My island cannot cope'

So what changed? The mayor of Mytilene, Spyros Galinos, says he's been warning the central government in Athens of a pending disaster for some time.

"My island cannot cope with this humanitarian crisis," he said during an interview, the little park next to the town hall full of families living in tents.

"All other EU member states should help with the solution and accommodate as many refugees as they can, because right now, Greece is alone." 

​Asam Rahman​, second from right, an English teacher from Aleppo, and her family hold up their ferry tickets in Mytilene, Greece. They spent 12 days on the Greek island of Lesbos waiting to be registered. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Galinos says the local population is on the verge of turning against the migrants now sleeping in large numbers along the sidewalks of the ports, or in little tent cities wedged in everywhere you look.  

"I feel like I have been holding a bomb for months with the fuse burning," Galinos says.   

Yesterday, Lesbos was sent a little back-up from the interim Greek government in the form of 60 extra policemen and 15 coast guard officials to help the beleaguered local bodies get a registration push going.

There have been several clashes between police and angry refugees in recent days. The head of border security for the island police, Major General Zaharoula Tsirigoti, says the only way to defuse the situation was to issue people with permits.

"To register all those people," she explains. "To get the piece of paper that they can use to go to Europe."  

Facing a torrent of refugees, Spyros Galinos, the mayor of Mytilene, Greece, has warned of a humanitarian disaster. (Jean-Francois Bisson/CBC)

Tsirigoti says a speedier registration process will have to become a part of the island's new reality, because the flow of refugees is unlikely to stop. 

"We know for sure that 2.5 millions of Syrian refugees and other migrants are waiting in Turkey to pass to Greece," she says.  

That leads to a skeptical response from islanders who want to see the refugee crisis disappear.  

"There is no way that they stop coming," says Dimitri Mytonis, who runs a financial wire service that actually makes money from so many foreigners on the island.

"I don't think it will change for today, and tomorrow morning it will be the same situation."

But for the refugees now able to buy ferry tickets, everything has changed. And their hopes are still alive.

Thousands of refugee families have no choice but to live on the street as they await their registration papers in the Greek port city of Mytilene. (Margaret Evans/CBC)


Margaret Evans

Senior International Correspondent

Margaret Evans is the Senior International Correspondent for CBC News based in the London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.