MYTILENE, GREECE - As migrants streamed into the Karatepes registration camp Saturday on the Greek island of Lesbos, many smiled as they clutched bags, suitcases and the hands of small children.
The camp was the first stop after what was for many a harrowing boat ride from Turkey over high waves.
“Very bad, very bad,” said a Syrian woman from Damascus.
According to the United Nations agency for refugees, UNHCR, rough winter seas have deterred some from attempting the dangerous journey.
Patric Mansour, UNCHR's chief of mission on Lesbos, reported 2,500 arrivals on one recent day, but "at most we had 6,600 crossing on Lesbos from the Turkish side.”
But some still try to make the trip, in poorly constructed inflatable boats ill-suited to the task. Mansour said the vessels aren't fit for open seas and might not survive the three-kilometer trip from Turkey to the northern coast of Lesbos.
“They are made for lakes and rivers — still water, not for the sea,” he told VOA.
The boats are designed to hold eight to 10 people, but smugglers pack them with up to 60 migrants, each paying as much as $1,500 to make the trip.
It's a one-way trip for the migrants, the boats, and the small 15- to 20-horsepower engines that barely produce enough power to move so many people.
The smugglers do not make the journey. They choose a migrant to steer the boat, point out a direction — sometimes a light in the distance, if at night — and send them on their way.
“And if an engine fails, they can drift,” said Mansour.
Overloading at gunpoint
Migrant Ammar Gazmati of Damascus, Syria, said some smugglers were overloading the boats at gunpoint. Many think they are paying for an enclosed yacht to take their family safely to Greece and are terrified upon seeing the small rubber boats.
“When the people don't want to get into the boat, they force them by the gun,” said Gazmati. “That happened last night with a group of people. The boat stopped in the water, and the coast guard helped them.”
Lesbos is a quick stop for the migrants. A group that VOA spoke with at the registration camp said they had been there for only a day. They rest, then pack into cabs for a ride into town.
Osama, an electrical engineer from Baghdad, was standing in a long line outside the travel agency office in Mytilene, near the camp. A stout man with an enormous smile, he said he was excited to be continuing his journey.
“We have our documents and we are going to move now,” he said, holding a ferry ticket in his hand. When asked what his final destination was, he said, “Germany! Then we will check our plans.”
UNHCR officials stressed that the decline in numbers of migrants was temporary. They said if there was any improvement in sea conditions, the numbers would rise again.