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More refugees risk Lesvos voyage, despite winter weather

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Refugees and migrants arrive on the Greek island of Lesvos. © UNHCR/B.Langer

LESVOS, Greece, Feb 22, 2016 – The seas were calm and the dinghies carrying their cargo of refugees and migrants from Turkey to the Greek islands became a flotilla.

By the end of the day more than 2,500 people had come ashore. Hundreds were picked up the Greek coast guard and greeted at the port by staff with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Hundreds more had slipped across in the dead of night, abandoning their dinghies on the beach and phoning back to Syria or Iraq as soon as their feet touched Greek soil. They were safe and their families were desperate to know.

Even in rough, cold seas just a couple of days ago the boats were crossing. For refugees like Moussa, a Syrian carpenter from a village near Aleppo who fled the war to Turkey with his wife and two small children, the five-hour crossing was terror-filled as the waves rose.

"I thought to myself, how could it be difficult? It's just water, nothing bad would happen," he said. "But each one of us in the boat died a hundred deaths every second. Not for ourselves, but for our children."

Moussa and his family made it but it was expensive – $2,300 to a smuggler, $800 each for the adults. The children were given a discount price.

There have been more than 400 deaths in the eastern Mediterranean since the beginning of the year as refugees and migrants attempt the dangerous crossing. But still they come, in ever larger numbers.

"In the first six months of last year, a record year in terms of arrivals, there were fewer than 40,000 people coming to Lesvos," said Boris Cheshirkov, a spokesman for UNHCR on the island. "So far this year in just the first seven weeks, we've seen over 50,000 people come to Lesvos island. So already the situation is quite dramatic."

What has changed in the last few months is how the newcomers are received. The difficulties of the autumn, when tens of thousands were piling into over-stretched facilities, have all but disappeared. Now the Greek Coast Guard picks up most of the incoming people on their fragile dinghies.

At the port UNHCR and Greek officials greet the cold and wet arrivals and quickly get them on to buses and to a reception centre. There they are registered. Often within a day they are on the way again, this time by ferry to Athens.

Those whose dinghies wash ashore are picked up by UNHCR, along with people from NGOs and simple volunteers who check the beaches.

Moussa fled the fighting and his village near Aleppo months ago with his wife and two children. He and his younger brother worked in Turkey as carpenters to raise the money to come to Greece. His brother didn't come but donated all his money instead.

When Moussa stepped ashore on Lesvos, he said he felt like a human being again.

"I wanted to scream and I couldn't scream," he said. "I wanted to cry inside but I thought, I'm a man, it's shameful for me to cry out of happiness."

Within hours Moussa and his family were waiting to travel again, this time by ferry to Athens. The goal, as for so many, is provide a safe future for his children.

But as the ferry took his family further away, his thoughts were of a lost land, of a time when he would return to talk and laugh at a neighbour's shop. From start to finish, he said, Syria would be his home.

Don Murray, Lesvos, Greece