Europe! Refugees kiss the sand as they land in Greece

Skala Sikamineas, Greece | September 10, 2015 | Katy Lee for Agence France-Presse (AFP)

A migrant boat arrives at the beach at Skala Sikamineas, Lesbos, Greece.    ©  Katy Lee

A migrant boat arrives at the beach at Skala Sikamineas, Lesbos, Greece. © Katy Lee

After two hours of terror, there is a roar of relief as the boat nears the shore. The oars are thrown overboard in triumph: Europe, at last.

There are cries of "Allahu Akbar!" (God is greatest). Men stagger onto the beach. They kiss the sand, and each other's cheeks.

"Is this the European Union?" one passenger asks anxiously. He knows it is, but he wants to be sure.

Few of the refugees and migrants landing at the lovely beach at Skala Sikamineas on Lesbos seem aware that their arrival in Greece will start with a marathon walk.

It is 50 kilometres (31 miles) to the island's main town, and many will have to go on foot. But right now, some of them don't even care.

"As soon as I put my feet down (on dry land), I stopped feeling tired," says Feras Tahan, a 34-year-old Syrian graphic designer, his shoes and trousers soaked.

"The difficult part was the sea. Now we have finished Part One, it will be better," he declares.

In the space of an hour on Wednesday, AFP correspondents watched six boats land along this stretch of the island's northern coastline. Four more could be seen in the distance, each boat carrying between 40 and 60 people.

'We are lost' 

The scene repeats itself over and over as elated migrants, many of them Syrians who have paid $1,000 or more for the crossing from Turkey, rejoice on the shore.

But it is a different story on the long road to the main town, Mytilene, where the new arrivals must go to be registered.

Migrants start the 50-kilometre walk to Lesbos' main town after landing on the island's north coast.  ©  Katy Lee

Migrants start the 50-kilometre walk to Lesbos' main town after landing on the island's north coast. © Katy Lee

A dozen kilometres from the beach, exhaustion is etched on every face. Along with their possessions, many are carrying small children. The sun is scorching.

"We have been walking for four hours. There is no bus, no taxi, no water, no anything," says Mohammed Yassin al-Jahabra, a 23-year-old English literature student, surrounded by a crowd of anxious and exhausted friends and family.

A few hours ago, they were celebrating. They had fled daily destruction in the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Daraa; suddenly they were in Europe, at the start of their new lives.

But now they are ready to drop. At their current pace, it would take them more than a day to finish this gruelling walk -- the first of many on the journey to Germany, Sweden and elsewhere.

Darkness is falling and with the children, they don't want to sleep on the road.

A couple of buses pass. The Syrians wave frantically, but the drivers don't stop.

"We are lost," says Jahabra.

Non-stop arrivals

Earlier this week, officials on Lesbos registered a staggering 15,000 refugees in just over 24 hours after a huge backlog had built up, leaving people stranded on the island for days in filthy conditions.

But the boats are still arriving at an astonishing pace, and authorities on this island of 86,000 residents are evidently still struggling to cope.

Officials were nowhere to be seen at the busy arrival point near Skala Sikamineas on Wednesday afternoon.

Buses run by the UN refugee agency and private companies were later seen heading to the coast, but too late for the hundreds who set off on the long road earlier in the day.

The only people to welcome the arrivals on the beach are a handful of Danish volunteers who came at their own initiative.

"We set up a Facebook page and people gave donations. We have come here with a few thousand euros, says 20-year-old Marie Bach, giving out bread, water and bananas to soaking wet Syrians and Afghans.

Her mother gave her some cash as a graduation present and she decided to spend it coming here.

Lifejackets, Lesbos.  ©  Katy Lee  

Lifejackets, Lesbos. © Katy Lee 

On the long walk to Mytilene, a mountain of hundreds of discarded orange life jackets gives a sense of the scale of recent arrivals.

And closer to town, aid workers at one of island's two main refugee camps are under no illusions.

"This is a sort of a lull where we have a chance to regroup and improve conditions in the camp," says Lani Fortier, Deputy Field Director at the International Rescue Committee, collecting huge piles of litter left after the recent mass exodus.

"The problem is, people are still landing every single day," she adds.

"It's just going to fill right back up again."