Migrant crisis: Lesbos is microcosm of Europe's difficulties

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image captionHundreds of boats have landed on Lesbos this year

2015 was a record year for migrants crossing to Europe by sea - and the winter weather is unlikely to slow arrivals for long, writes the BBC's Paul Adams, on the Greek island of Lesbos.

At the northern tip of the island, a vicious north wind blew over the Aegean, whipping up an angry sea and howling over the rocky beaches of Lesbos. It felt arctic.

Robin Jenkins, a lifeboat man more used to pulling drunken tourists out of the Thames, took his rigid inflatable - a gift from Atlantic College in South Wales - out over the surf to show his eager Greek volunteers how to operate in challenging waters. The tiny boat soon disappeared among the churning waves, occasionally lurching into view, almost vertical, silhouetted against the black water and the nearby Turkish coast.

Eventually, they gave up and came ashore - the sea was simply too rough. The only thing visible between here and Turkey were serried rows of whitecaps. Along this stretch of coast, it seemed, the exodus was on hold.

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Just 24 hours earlier, at the other end of Lesbos, it was a very different scene. The sun beat down brightly on a dead calm, glittering sea, with barely a breath of wind. And from the crisp horizon, a succession of distinctive flat specks, approaching, one after another, and resolving into the unmistakable outlines of overloaded life rafts, crammed with refugees.

Some were exhausted after their brief, and for many, first, encounter with the sea. Others were clearly delighted that this, the most anxiously anticipated stage of their long journey, was over and that their feet were still dry.

On the shore were legions of volunteers, handing out sweets to the children. Local gypsy families mingled with the new arrivals, looking for a share of the handouts.

And off to one side, the boats - ferries to freedom now quickly forgotten as islanders descend, knives in hand, to take them to pieces in the blink of an eye. All over Lesbos, chicken coops are being cobbled together from these salvaged boats. There's a healthy trade, too, in discarded outboard motors.

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As the new year gets under way, Lesbos is catching its breath and taking stock.

Almost half of all the migrants who have entered Europe this year have come this way. Almost all, of course, have moved, but even in December, there were about 2,000 new arrivals every day.

Conditions on the island are a little less chaotic now than before. The refugees and other migrants are processed a little more efficiently, and Greece has finally allowed the European border agency Frontex to lend a hand with fingerprinting and the scanning of documents.

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But in Moria, the camp just north of Mitilini, anxious migrants still huddle among the olive trees, wrap themselves in blankets, and discuss what their next moves should be.

On the quayside, an Iranian family asked us about the Greek-Macdeonian border. Was it open? Should they hurry north? If they did, could they make it through to Germany and waiting relatives? Apply for asylum here, a UN official advised them, then ask for family reunification. It's your best bet.

The Iranians looked dubious. They fear being sent home if they register. The family wandered off among the migrants resting on the pavement, still debating what to do.

Getting a grip

One small sign that the island is getting a grip is that the beaches are being cleaned up. Teams of Boy Scouts are on hand when the migrant boats come ashore, life jackets are gathered into bundles, and a rubbish truck passes by to collect them. Up in the hills, landfills are now full of discarded jackets: orange, red, purple and blue.

In the north, on the scrubby hillside high above the village of Molyvos, a day-glo mountain is taking shape, the jackets piled 20ft (6m) for 100 yards and more. Flimsy thermal blankets rustle and flutter in the winter wind and up on a ridge, an incongruous row of smuggler boats, perched like so many Noah's Arks, stranded on the top of Mount Ararat.

As a monument to the half-a-million people who have come this way, it is a powerful statement.

image copyrightReuters
image captionFew of the migrants stay on Lesbos - most begin the long journey north to mainland Europe as soon as they can

On the way here from Mytilene, we passed the salt pans near Kalloni, shimmering in the morning sun. On this island of migrants, a host of graceful flamingos was grazing in the shallow water. But alone among the travellers on Lesbos, the flamingos appeared to be in no hurry at all to move on.

2015 witnessed one of the great human migrations of recent times. But a new year doesn't mean it's over. Winter may bring some respite, but all over Lesbos, volunteers are waiting for the next boats to arrive. More Syrians will cross for sure, but in recent weeks, slightly higher numbers of Iraqis and Afghans, with a handful from Iran, Pakistan and Morocco.

All will pose a challenge to the island, and, in time, to the continent beyond.

European leaders spent much of 2015 struggling to identify a coherent response to this extraordinary event. When the cold wind abates and the boats start crossing again, that challenge will only increase.

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