Crossing to Lesbos: A photojournalist on the frontlines of the refugee crisis

CLICK IMAGE FOR SLIDESHOW: (Photography by Paula Bronstein / Getty Images Reportage)


Paula Bronstein is an award-winning photojournalist who has covered the human impact of war in places like Afghanistan and South Sudan, and the aftermath of such natural disasters as the earthquake that struck Nepal in April and the devastating tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

This fall, without an assignment, Bronstein packed her gear and headed for Lesbos, the Greek island that, in some places, is as close as five miles from the Turkish coast. In 2015 so far, 751,873 migrants — mostly from Syria but also Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other war-torn countries — have made their way through Turkey to Greece by sea, often crammed intounstable inflatable dinghies. By the time Bronstein arrived in late October, winter weather was already setting in, making the short boat ride more dangerous and, in some cases, deadly.

Bronstein was on the island for just over three weeks, during which the terror attacks that killed 130 people in Paris took place. She talked to Yahoo News about the hopelessness and despair that drove so many refugees to risk their lives to leave home, the shockingly poor treatment of refugees from countries besides Syria trying to reach Athens, and the network of volunteers who worked tirelessly to care for the refugees, including families with small children, even pregnant women in their third trimester.


Volunteers with the Greek (Hellenic) Red Cross tend to an Afghan refugee who was suffering from hypothermia after a boat that just landed. (Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images Reportage)

‘The Gateway to Europe’

Boats full of migrants arrive (see video) around the clock in Lesbos. And though the trip from Turkey to the Greek island is not a long one, the change of season from late October through mid-November brought strong waves, making for a choppy and potentially deadly ride. Boats often capsized as they reached the shore, and many migrants did not survive the journey.

“When I came to Lesbos, I wanted to concentrate on that part of the story because it’s the gateway to Europe, it’s the most traumatizing part of the journey for many of the people,” Bronstein told me over the phone from her home in Bangkok.

An American expat who began her career in Providence, R.I., Bronstein has been based in the Thai capital since 1998, and has been covering the Asian region for the news division of Getty Images since 2002.

“The first thing they do when they land is they take off their life jacket. They don’t need it anymore,” Bronstein said, describing the chaotic moment when the refugees land in Lesbos. “They’re carrying whatever they can carry on their backs.”

Almost immediately after theboats reach shore, she said, Greek salvagers descend on them to take the engine and anything else they can sell.

“The part with the smugglers on the Turkey side is something that’s a real grayarea for a lot of people trying to understand the flow of the refugees,” she said. As Bronstein noted, the cost of the trip from Turkey to Greece varies based on the smuggler as well as the weather, but various reports suggest smugglers in Turkey charge migrants between $1,000 and $2,000 each to get across.

“Our theory was, watching the Greek salvagers taking the engines straight away off the rafts, somebody was getting them back to Turkey. … There’s some really backhanded way that this is all being done.”

Even the wooden boats, which can transport far more refugees than the inflatable dinghies seen in the pictures, are equally dangerous with inexperienced refugees at the helm.

“Part of the problem is they have refugees steering the boats,” Bronstein said. “The smugglers don’t want to go, even if it’s a wooden boat. It’s too dangerous for them.”

Smugglers rarely make the journey from to Lesbos. Bronstein took a photo of one smuggler who did, and was caught with a pocket full of stolen jewelry.

A Turkish smuggler is caught with jewelry stolen from refugees after he came too close to Greek shores and was detained by locals. (Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images Reportage)

Bronstein said she saw quite a few refugees with wounded or even missing legs.

“When you see their leg or what’s left of it, a doctor would take one look … and say, ‘Yeah, that happened about six months ago or a year ago,’” Bronstein said.

“I feel like the refugees thought they would get better treatment than they could in their own country.”


“What they don’t realize is how much more of a struggle it’s going to be where they’re going.”

As of Dec. 4 of this year, 751,873 people have traveled to Greece by sea, 60 percent of them from Syria, 24 percent from Afghanistan.

Bronstein, whose book “Afghanistan: Between Hope and Fear” comes out next year, has covered Afghanistan on and off since 2001. She was surprised by how many of the people getting off the boats in Lesbos were from Afghanistan.

“Because I know the country so well, I was asking them where they were from,” Bronstein said. “Most Afghans would never say their city, because they assume you wouldn't know that city, they just say ‘Afghanistan.’ But then I would say it in Dari and they would realize I understood, and they would tell me and I would say, “Oh, Herat, OK. Or Mazar, that’s not a very dangerous place, so tell me why would you decide to leave your home?’”

Bronstein noted that security certainly plays a role in the circumstances of any refugee, and pointed to recent incidents of violence, like the Taliban’s 15-day takeover of the city of Kunduz in October, as evidence of Afghanistan’s continuinginstability. But, she said, most of the Afghans she spoke to in Lesbos seemed to be emigratingfor economic reasons.

“You have a country that’s been at war for a long time, a lot longer than Syria, but for a lot of the Afghans that are leaving, it’s a combination of things. ... The fact of the matter is, war does play into the economic woes for any refugee, whether you’re a Syrian or an Afghan,” said Bronstein. “I think a lot of these people were unemployed or … barely making enough money to feed their families.”

For the Afghans, she continued, “there seems to be an overall lack of hope in their country. It just seems like life’s always a struggle for them there. And what they don’t realize is how much more of a struggle it’s going to be where they’re going.”

Slideshow: 'Lesbos, Greece: Hopes and Shattered Dreams': Refugees fleeing war, and finding misery — and compassion — in a foreign land >>>


A Syrian refugee rejoices after arriving on an overcrowded raft to the island of Lesbos, Greece on November 12, 2015. (Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images Reportage)

‘They’re human beings, they’re not animals.’

Bronstein said there were a number of transitional camps on the island where refugees were given tea, blankets and fresh clothes if theirs were wet from the journey.

“These aren’t camps where refugees are staying for weeks on end, they’re not allowed to,” Bronstein explained. “The idea is to get them out and to get them to Athens.”

After receiving that initial care, the refugees were bused to another location to be registered before getting on the ferry to Athens. At this point, the Syrians were separated from everyone else, who had been sent to Moria Camp.

“That camp was where they had to register and there was no system in place,” Bronstein said.

She observed what appeared to be a disconnect between what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) thought was best for the refugees and what the Greek authorities were willing to allow. The result, she said, “was a pathetic system.”

“The photos I got from that camp shouldn’t have happened,” she said, referring to the many haunting images she captured of Afghan children crying, their families huddled anddrenched in the pouring rain. “They forced people to wait in line for hours and hours and hours in the rain without proper shelter or food or water, just to register.”

It rained for four days straight while Bronstein was at Moria Camp.

Rain and cold weather create more suffering for refugees as Afghans stand for hours trapped at the gates waiting for their turn to register at Moria camp. (Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images Reportage)

“The last day I shot, it was just raining nonstop,” she said. “I think my cameras almost stopped working at the end of the day, the umbrella I had been using to protect my camera had broken. I remember just sitting in my car for half an hour trying to warm up, I was as cold as they were.”

Bronstein wondered why the refugees couldn’t just be given numbers to wait for processing, instead of standing on line for hours.

“For some reason, in Greece, it just wasn’t happening,” she said. “It was just unthinkable, really, that you would make people go through this.”

Toward the end of the summer and into this fall, media coverage of the refugee crisis began to reveal the occasional use of brutal crowd-control tactics by the Hungarian and Macedonian police, including tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons.

As a result, Bronstein said, “The Greek police were very sensitive, they didn’t want to look bad.” This didn’t stop the police from shouting at the refugees, she said, but they didn’t want her shooting video of it.

“The Greek police were losing their minds, everybody was losing their minds,” Bronstein said. “All day, all night, hundreds of people are at the gates trying to get inside to register. I don’t care if it was you or me, if I was standing out there all day, with kids, freezing cold without proper food or whatever, we’d all be going crazy. They’re human beings, they’re not animals.”

An Afghan child cries for help while hundreds wait for hours trapped at the gates waiting for their turn to register at Moria camp. (Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images Reportage)

One crying child in particular, a beautiful young Afghan girl, captured Bronstein’s eye and became the subject of several of her photographs. Bronstein said one Greek officer commented to her, “I know what they’re doing, they put their children in the front so that we feel sorry for them, so that we let them in.”

“I’ve seen the Afghans go through a lot, but I’ve never seen them like this,” Bronstein said.


“The Syrians were a very different kind of refugee”

The Syrians, on the other hand, were fast-tracked by the UNHCR, meaning they were not sent to Moria Camp. The camp where they were taken had proper shelter, food, water.

“They had what they needed,” said Bronstein. “They had the basics.”

Bronstein said all of the refugees, especially the Syrians, had mobile phones and were tapping into Wi-Fi whenever it was available at the transitional camps to send email or use social media to familiarize themselves with their next destination, while contacting friends and family at home.

“The Syrians were a very different kind of refugee,” said Bronstein.

“The Syrian women looked beautiful,” she said. “They dressed well, they wore makeup. I photographed them in line for the ferry to Athens and I was amazed at the makeup they had on.”

Some of the Syrians even brought their dogs.

“It sounds crazy, but the fact that I saw this woman with a leash and her dog standing there on the phone at a transitional camp. ... I think for them it’s just some sort of normalcy.”

For the Syrians, there was no question about why they were leaving home. Well educated and often from better economic backgrounds, many of the Syrian refugees had managed to live off their savings until they were forced out by the war.

A Syrian refugee makes a phone call home as she holds onto her dog who is making the long journey with her. (Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images Reportage)

“They all said the same thing really, how life has been turned into an intolerable war zone,” said Bronstein. “Obviously you don’t need to ask someone from Aleppo why they left. What’s left of their city? How many family members have they seen killed?”

Bronstein said all of the Syrians she talked to — many of whom spoke English —described “complete despair and inability to live in their own country anymore. It was just intolerable.”

“The fact is, the war’s gone on for over five years and they just feel like the rest of the world has failed them for the most part,” said Bronstein. “It’s only because of ISIS and the Paris attacks and everything that we’re getting much more aggressive behavior to combat ISIS.”

Having never been to Syria before, Bronstein said she found the Syrians she met in Lesbos to be “incredibly nice and amazing … just lovely people.”

“They’re going to be able to work well in whatever country they end up in, because many of them had very good jobs at one point,” Bronstein said. “I think the idea and the hope is that countries like Germany, that do have a need for more migrant workers, will be able to find a place for them where they can get jobs.”


‘Complete and utter ignorance’

Bronstein was in Lesbos on November 13, when 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated terror attacks around Paris.

ISIS claimed responsibility, prompting concern that at least one of the terrorists involved in the deadly Paris attacks had entered Europe in a flood of Syrian refugees. Within days, it was learned that almost all the attackers had beenEuropean citizens, mostly natives of France or Belgium. But by then, the seed had been planted, sparking efforts to cease refugee resettlement and putting Syrians at the center of heated U.S. political debate.

Refugees traumatized by their journey at night arrive scared but safe in Greece. (Photo: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images Reportage)

In the face of a promise by President Obama to veto, the House of Representatives voted in favor a bill that would erect more barriers for Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. More than half of the country’s governors made a (largely symbolic) vow to reject Syrian refugees attempting to resettle in their state. Syrian refugees suddenly became a presidential campaign talking point and the object of some hostile rhetoric. The majority of Republican candidates declared their explicit opposition to accepting any Syrian refugees into the country. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush said they were in favor of taking Christian Syrians. And Donald Trump calledfora database to track Syrian refugees in the U.S.

It didn’t take long for the controversy in the U.S. to make its way to the media in Lesbos.

“I don't think they [the Syrians] were aware of all the rhetoric coming out in the American press and how quickly this negative attitude came forward,” Bronstein said. “I myself was pretty shocked by how quickly it happened in the U.S.”

“I think it’s just complete and utter ignorance,” she continued. “It’s taking the whole Syrian population and saying they’re all the same. As a journalist and having been on Lesbos as long as I’d been, I was disgusted and dismayed.”


‘I was being handed babies’

During the time Bronstein was on Lesbos, she said more and more volunteers were showing up.

She marveled at the power of crowdfunding — a tactic that’s recently been embraced by the White House to raise money for the refugee crisis and the power of social media to networkvolunteers from around the world with a variety of international organizations, including the Boat Refugee Foundation, the Starfish Foundation , IsraAID, and other grassroots groups.

There were retired paramedics from California, doctors from Israel, a particularly impressive group of professional lifeguards from Spain called Pro-Activa Open Arms, who made it possible for the refugee boats to safely reach shore at night.

“They had incredible rescue skills and all the equipment, including infrared binoculars,” Bronstein said.

But she was in awe of everyone who made their way to Lesbos to help, particularly those who traveled from the United States.

“It got a little bit crazy because I think what was happening was there was … a sense that there was always more help needed,” Bronstein said. Still, there were a number of times when a boat would arrive and there weren’t enough volunteers, and Bronstein herself was being thrown into the mix.

“I was being handed babies,” she recalled. “Even if the boat was coming in calm waters and the people could just sort of walk off, there were always people there to receive the boat. And that was fantastic.”

‘This is really an incredible story’

Last month, the European Union made a $3.2 billion deal with Turkey to help stem the flow of refugees into Europe.

In the wake of this deal, which coincides with the start of winter, Bronstein said, “I feel like it’s really important to continue coverage,” particularly “as it gets cold.”

“I think we just have to see how the story plays out,” she said, referring to how the EU deal will have an impact on the refugees. “This is really an incredible story.”

Photographer Paula Bronstein, center, with Syrian refugees after they arrived on a warm day with calm waters, thrilled to be on Greek shores. This is when smiles and selfies were common.