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Europe

Lesbos braces for winter as refugees keep coming

On Lesbos, the numbers of refugees coming continue to rise, despite the weather. Omaira Gill reports from the Greek island where even the cemetery is overwhelmed by new arrivals from across the sea.

Agios Panteleimonas is a saint known for his miracles and his steadfast faith.These days, at the sprawling cemetery in Mytilene named after him, there are no miracles to be found.

The cemetery has three levels of gravesites, ranging from the best to the cheapest at the back. Now there is a new category beyond the pauper's grave - the refugee grave.

In a corner at the back of the site are mounds of earth that lie at a different angle compared to the rest of the graves with pieces of broken marble serving as headstones.

"Our dead are buried facing east," explains Christos Mavraheilis, "but the Muslims ask to be buried on their side, facing Mecca."

This is the final resting place for those who were unsuccessful in completing the perilous journey from Turkey to Lesbos. The graves are marked with a serial number, burial date and the words "unknown minor" or "unknown Afghan."

"We're not running out of space, we're already completely out of space." Mavraheilis explained. A local church's philanthropic organization undertakes the process of the burials. DNA samples are taken at the hospital in the hopes of one day finding relatives. Several identified bodies are awaiting repatriation. There is already a backlog of bodies waiting to take their place.

Graves of unknown migrants in Mytilene cemetery

The cemetery has run out of space

"There isn't an inch of space left," said Mavraheilis. He pointed to a fresh grave. "They brought us this body the other day and begged us to bury it even though there was no space. But I don't know what we'll do from now on. Especially when we bury a child, the local mothers from around here cry too. We're all human," he said. "They left for a better tomorrow which they never saw."

Record arrivals

Every day, the boats continue to inch across the sea to Lesbos. As they land the atmosphere is tense until the last few meters when the occupants of the boats, realizing they are finally safe, throw their inflatable rings into the sea and start clapping and cheering to the delight of the press that inevitably amass on the beach.

At Mytilene town hall, the mayor's press officer, Marios Andriotis, said that the previous Friday, despite high winds and torrential rain, the island broke its own record for arrivals with around 9,500 people showing up in over 180 plastic boats.

There are now an additional two reception centers on the island in Sikaminias and Mandamados. "Because of the volume of people coming, Kara Tepe [refugee camp] was reopened five days ago for Syrian families to be registered."

Moria registration camp

The situation is dire at the Moria registration camp

Andriotis said that they were pleased to see Angela Merkel recently repeat something they have been saying for months in their own proposals to the European authorities. "We said that under no circumstances should we leave the handling of this crisis to the people smugglers, because right now that's what we're doing," he said.

"What we consider negative is the Turkish government negotiating over what they will get in return for stopping this crime," he said. "We consider the safety of mothers and children drowning within sight of Europe to be non-negotiable. We need to open channels of safe and legal passage for these people."

'Everyone's beach'

The numbers of refugees passing through Lesbos in 2015 has now broken the half-million mark. At Moria, the central registration point on the island, conditions are dismal. Flimsy tents radiate out in every direction from the fenced-off registration center and the air is thick with the rancid smoke from fires lit from pieces of wood and plastic, their flames jumping in alarming proximity to the tents.

When the gates of the registration center open, there is a crush to get inside and tempers flare. Harried volunteers try to filter people towards dry clothes. "We have nothing else to give them right now," said Susan Penninkhof of a recently formed Dutch NGO, Live for Lives, as she tried to make herself understood.

Helpers rest on the beach against a huge pile of lifejackets

Volunteers rest against piles of life jackets as they watch boats arriving at Sikaminias

On the beaches of Skala Sikaminias in north Lesbos, a strange microcosm of volunteers, media personnel and scavengers gather day and night. Eric and Philippa Kempson, a British couple living locally, described the problems they have had with aggressive photographers, large NGOs which created fundraising campaigns off the back of the crisis without setting aside that money to help and some new, smaller NGOs that have popped up with their own demands.

"Certain groups want exclusive control of the beach," said Eric Kempson. "It doesn't work like that. This is everyone's beach." They tackle each day at a time, running through the same routine of getting up at the crack of dawn to start rescuing people off the boats. "Today was a good day," said Philippa. "We didn't lose anyone."

Watch video 01:48

Refugees perilous journey to Lesbos, Greece

Symbol of kindness

Sitting on a bench outside Sikaminias camp was 83-year-old Marissa Mavrapidou. A photograph of her and her friends comforting a refugee baby recently spread across Greek social media, turning them into a symbol of kindness in the face of misery.

Talking about the circumstances around the photo, she said: "The mother had just arrived and was soaked. She had a tiny baby, about six weeks old. Through signs and gestures we told her to leave the baby with us and get changed.

"The baby was fussy so we explained to the mother to get a bottle of warm milk. When it was ready, he drank it all up."

Marissa Mavrapidou and her cousin Konstantina

Mavrapidou (left) is doing what she can to help

"Our mothers were refugees from Asia Minor," said Mavrapidou "They told us many stories about their lives, and we've never forgotten them."

Their family histories prompted the women to come to the camp daily and offer whatever comfort they can. "There isn't a lot I can do," Mavrapidou said. "But I can offer a smile."

Last Sunday an agreement was reached between Greece and the European Commission for the country to house 30,000 refugees by the end of the year, with the United Nations providing another 20,000 places. It will go some way in dealing with the flow of people, which shows no sign of slowing down.

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