The northeastern Aegean island of Lesvos, a place of quiet beauty, storied history, and sacred shrines, had long drawn the attention of tourists, though never quite the hordes of off-islanders that descended each summer onto some of its much smaller, but far more notorious, Cycladic island neighbors to the southwest. Its reputation as the bird-watching capital of Europe, possessing the greatest array of wildflowers in Greece and one of the world’s largest petrified forests, drew a different sort of tourist.
Lesvos ranked as the third largest of Greece’s islands, behind Crete and Evia, with roughly one-third of its 86,000 inhabitants living in its capital city of Mytilini, an alternative name used by many Greeks for the island. Most Greeks, though, knew very little about modern Lesvos and thought of it, if at all, as little more than the serene agrarian home of Greece’s ouzo and sardine industries.
That abruptly changed in 2015.
Virtually overnight, thousands of men, women, and children fleeing the terrors of their homelands flooded daily out of Turkey across the three-and-a-half to ten-mile-wide Mytilini Strait onto Lesvos. Tourists, who’d come to holiday on the island’s northern shores, found themselves sitting on the verandas of their beachfront hotels, drinking their morning coffee, watching in horror as an armada of dangerously overloaded boats desperately struggled to reach land.
Inevitably, tourists stopped coming.
But not the refugees, for they saw no choice but to come, no matter the predators waiting for them along the way: profiteers poised to make billions of euros off the fears and aspirations of desperate souls willing to pay, do, or risk whatever they must for the promise of a better, safer existence. In 2015, more than a half million asylum-seeking migrants and refugees passed through Lesvos, looking to make their way to other destinations in the European Union (EU).
The chaos of the modern world had spun out a rushing storm of profit for human traffickers of every stripe, and Lesvos sat dead center in its path.
© Jeffrey Siger