Greece: witnessing the migration crisis

Greece: witnessing the migration crisis


I have been covering refugees and migrants for over 25 years. The difference this time was that migrants were arriving in my homeland.

A couple of boats arrived every night. Everybody aboard was scared as they didn’t know how the police and locals would react. Small dinghies kept on arriving, even when the weather was rough. The Turkish coast was just 4-5 km away.


To start with the migrants were scared, unsure. They arrived overnight because they were hiding. Each time they saw a photographer or a local they thought it was the police about to arrest them. Sometimes they got frightened and even “surrendered” occasionally, lifting their arms. I shouted welcome to reassure them. Once on land they started laughing and giving “high fives”. The atmosphere was charged with emotion.

. Kos, Greece. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
Syrian refugees carry their children as they jump off a dinghy.

Nobody expected there would be so many of them. The local community wasn’t prepared but most Greeks have some refugee blood and locals realised that these people only wanted to use Greece as a stepping-stone to move north.

There were families including children and old women. So people thought, “We need to help them”. At the beginning of a situation like this there is always some mistrust among both migrants and locals.

Soon migrants came to realise that people were friendly on the island of Kos and the police wouldn’t arrest them. Gradually they were more open and less fearful.

. Kos, Greece. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

It was sunrise in Kos. The light was beautiful, crisp. An older Palestinian lady was sitting on the beach. She looked so calm. She didn't say anything and I didn’t want to be intrusive, so I took some pictures from a distance. Then I realised she was blind. That was a very emotional moment because as a photographer light means everything. I have always had this sensitivity for blind people.

. Idomeni, Greece. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
A Syrian refugee baby sleeps in a box at Greece's border with Macedonia.

It was very quiet on the island before the tourist season started. I waited for two or three boats a night. I could hear the engines from the beaches. Moonlit nights can help a little to figure out where the boats are.

In the mornings I went to the abandoned Captain Elias Hotel, where most of the migrants and refugees were put up, to take more pictures.

. Piraeus, Greece. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
An Afghan migrant is seen inside a bus after his arrival from Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, in a ferry containing over 2,500 migrants and refugees.

The weather was good, so the migrants would camp on the beach, around the port or the town centre. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors without Borders, also arrived on the island to help. The migrants queued outside the police station to get temporary documents. Once they had those papers they could then buy a ticket to Athens and continue north.

. Lesbos, Greece. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
Syrian refugee students dry out their documents.

On the island of Lesbos, I usually started working at 6:30am and finished at 11pm or midnight. Boats kept coming throughout the night. Around noon they stopped coming for few hours, I think because the sun was very strong. I would stop around 2pm, file some pictures to Singapore and then start again at about 4pm. I stayed in a four-room hotel on the coast with a taverna underneath, so I would often file pictures from outside to keep track of what was happening.

. Lesbos, Greece. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

One day I was photographing a raft in Lesbos. I noticed a movement and thought somebody had jumped overboard. I focused using a long lens and saw the fin of a dolphin. The dolphin jumped almost in front of the raft. It was a truly magic moment. It was as if the dolphin was showing the way and welcoming the people on the raft.

. Idomeni, Macedonia. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
Kurdish Syrian migrant Sahin Serko cries next to his 7-year-old daughter Ariana minutes after crossing the border into Macedonia.

The vast majority of those arriving are Syrians. There were also a lot of Afghanis from the Hazara ethnic minority and some Iranians, a few Pakistanis, Bangladeshis. Moroccans, Algerians and other migrants from Africa were also in the boats.

I was in Suruc on the Turkish-Syrian border about a year ago to document the thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing the nearby Syrian town of Kobani. And there on Lesbos, a man I had spoken to in a refugee camp in Suruc recognised me. “I made it, man! I made it,” he told me.

. Lesbos, Greece. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
Afghan migrant family members embrace each other after arriving on a beach.

The least challenging part of the assignment was taking pictures. The difficulty was the emotional involvement in the story. It was disappointing to see the same thing happening again and again.

. Idomeni, Greece. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
Iranian migrant Hamid, 34, an electrical engineer from the Iranian town of Sanandij, sits on rail tracks in front of Macedonian riot police guarding the border with Greece.