No place left to die on Greece's Lesbos for refugees lost at sea

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NTP: No place left to die on Greece's Lesbos for refugees lost at sea
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No place left to die on Greece's Lesbos for refugees lost at sea
MYTILENE, GREECE - MAY 02: (ISRAEL OUT) In the corner of Mytilene cemetery a wreath is placed on the grave of an anonymous Afghan migrant who drowned during an attempt to cross into the European Union on May 2, 2010 in Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece. The cemetery contains the graves of dozens the Afghans who died during their attempts to cross the Aegean sea from Turkey to Lesbos in recent years. The graves are plainly marked 'Afghan Number 1', 'Afghan number 2' and so on. Greece has become the main entry point within Europe for the growing influx of illegal immigrants travelling from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, with the Greek government claiming that they are struggling to cope with a situation that has reached unmanageable proportions. Internal estimates suggest that 150,000 illegal migrants entered the country in 2009 putting increased pressure on a country already in the grip of an economic crisis. Migrants enter by land or water, many attempting journeys in inadequate means of transportation such as rubber dinghy's, risking and their lives in the process. Even if detected migrants are often held for a period in detention centres before being released by the authorities with instructions to leave the country within thirty days. Accusations that such a policy simply pushes the issue across borders to other European counties is countered by the Greek government who state that the problem of immigration needs to be shared and addressed more widely by the all European Union members. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
MYTILENE, GREECE - MAY 02: (ISRAEL OUT) Unnamed graves of Afghan migrants stand in the corner of a cemetery on May 2, 2010 in Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece. The cemetery contains the graves of dozens the Afghans who died during their attempts to cross the Aegean sea from Turkey to Lesbos in recent years. The graves are plainly marked 'Afghan Number 1', 'Afghan number 2' and so on. Greece has become the main entry point within Europe for the growing influx of illegal immigrants travelling from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, with the Greek government claiming that they are struggling to cope with a situation that has reached unmanageable proportions. Internal estimates suggest that 150,000 illegal migrants entered the country in 2009 putting increased pressure on a country already in the grip of an economic crisis. Migrants enter by land or water, many attempting journeys in inadequate means of transportation such as rubber dinghy's, risking and their lives in the process. Even if detected migrants are often held for a period in detention centres before being released by the authorities with instructions to leave the country within thirty days. Accusations that such a policy simply pushes the issue across borders to other European counties is countered by the Greek government who state that the problem of immigration needs to be shared and addressed more widely by the all European Union members. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Migrants pray over the dead body of an unidentified refugee from Syria found off the Greek coast by the Greek Coast Guard, in the cemetery of Agios Panteleimonas in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, on August 28, 2015. Greece's coastguard on August 24 said it had recovered the bodies of two migrants who drowned when their boat sank near the island of Lesbos, and was seeking five more who were missing. Lesbos is one of several Greek islands overwhelmed in recent weeks by the influx of migrants and refugees, mainly from war-torn Syria. Some 160,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Greek shores since January, with the authorities criticised by the UN and humanitarian groups for poor preparation that has left thousands sleeping on the streets. AFP PHOTO / ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS (Photo credit should read ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants bury the body of an unidentified refugee from Syria found off the Greek coast by the Greek Coast Guard, in the cemetery of Agios Panteleimonas in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, on August 28, 2015. Greece's coastguard on August 24 said it had recovered the bodies of two migrants who drowned when their boat sank near the island of Lesbos, and was seeking five more who were missing. Lesbos is one of several Greek islands overwhelmed in recent weeks by the influx of migrants and refugees, mainly from war-torn Syria. Some 160,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Greek shores since January, with the authorities criticised by the UN and humanitarian groups for poor preparation that has left thousands sleeping on the streets. AFP PHOTO / ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS (Photo credit should read ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
MYTILENE, GREECE - MAY 02: (ISRAEL OUT) Anonymous graves of Afghan migrants stand in the corner of a cemetery on May 2, 2010 in Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece. The cemetery contains the graves of dozens the Afghans who died during their attempts to cross the Aegean sea from Turkey to Lesbos in recent years. The graves are plainly marked 'Afghan Number 1', 'Afghan number 2' and so on. Greece has become the main entry point within Europe for the growing influx of illegal immigrants travelling from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, with the Greek government claiming that they are struggling to cope with a situation that has reached unmanageable proportions. Internal estimates suggest that 150,000 illegal migrants entered the country in 2009 putting increased pressure on a country already in the grip of an economic crisis. Migrants enter by land or water, many attempting journeys in inadequate means of transportation such as rubber dinghy's, risking and their lives in the process. Even if detected migrants are often held for a period in detention centres before being released by the authorities with instructions to leave the country within thirty days. Accusations that such a policy simply pushes the issue across borders to other European counties is countered by the Greek government who state that the problem of immigration needs to be shared and addressed more widely by the all European Union members. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
MYTILENE, GREECE - MAY 02: (ISRAEL OUT) Unnamed graves of Afghan migrants stand in the corner of a cemetery on May 2, 2010 in Mytilini, Lesbos, Greece. The cemetery contains the graves of dozens the Afghans who died during their attempts to cross the Aegean sea from Turkey to Lesbos in recent years. The graves are plainly marked 'Afghan Number 1', 'Afghan number 2' and so on. Greece has become the main entry point within Europe for the growing influx of illegal immigrants travelling from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, with the Greek government claiming that they are struggling to cope with a situation that has reached unmanageable proportions. Internal estimates suggest that 150,000 illegal migrants entered the country in 2009 putting increased pressure on a country already in the grip of an economic crisis. Migrants enter by land or water, many attempting journeys in inadequate means of transportation such as rubber dinghy's, risking and their lives in the process. Even if detected migrants are often held for a period in detention centres before being released by the authorities with instructions to leave the country within thirty days. Accusations that such a policy simply pushes the issue across borders to other European counties is countered by the Greek government who state that the problem of immigration needs to be shared and addressed more widely by the all European Union members. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Migrants bury the body of an unidentified refugee from Syria found off the Greek coast by the Greek Coast Guard, in the cemetery of Agios Panteleimonas in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, on August 28, 2015. Greece's coastguard on August 24 said it had recovered the bodies of two migrants who drowned when their boat sank near the island of Lesbos, and was seeking five more who were missing. Lesbos is one of several Greek islands overwhelmed in recent weeks by the influx of migrants and refugees, mainly from war-torn Syria. Some 160,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Greek shores since January, with the authorities criticised by the UN and humanitarian groups for poor preparation that has left thousands sleeping on the streets. AFP PHOTO / ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS (Photo credit should read ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants pray over the dead body of an unidentified refugee from Syria found off the Greek coast by the Greek Coast Guard, in the cemetery of Agios Panteleimonas in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, on August 28, 2015. Greece's coastguard on August 24 said it had recovered the bodies of two migrants who drowned when their boat sank near the island of Lesbos, and was seeking five more who were missing. Lesbos is one of several Greek islands overwhelmed in recent weeks by the influx of migrants and refugees, mainly from war-torn Syria. Some 160,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Greek shores since January, with the authorities criticised by the UN and humanitarian groups for poor preparation that has left thousands sleeping on the streets. AFP PHOTO / ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS (Photo credit should read ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants pray over the dead body of an unidentified refugee from Syria found off the Greek coast by the Greek Coast Guard, in the cemetery of Agios Panteleimonas in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, on August 28, 2015. Greece's coastguard on August 24 said it had recovered the bodies of two migrants who drowned when their boat sank near the island of Lesbos, and was seeking five more who were missing. Lesbos is one of several Greek islands overwhelmed in recent weeks by the influx of migrants and refugees, mainly from war-torn Syria. Some 160,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Greek shores since January, with the authorities criticised by the UN and humanitarian groups for poor preparation that has left thousands sleeping on the streets. AFP PHOTO / ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS (Photo credit should read ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on August 28, 2015 shows a grave of an unidentified migrant drowned after trying to cross the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece, in a dinghy, in the cemetery of Agios Panteleimonas in Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos. Greece's coastguard on August 24 said it had recovered the bodies of two migrants who drowned when their boat sank near the island of Lesbos, and was seeking five more who were missing. Lesbos is one of several Greek islands overwhelmed in recent weeks by the influx of migrants and refugees, mainly from war-torn Syria. Some 160,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Greek shores since January, with the authorities criticised by the UN and humanitarian groups for poor preparation that has left thousands sleeping on the streets. AFP PHOTO / ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS (Photo credit should read ACHILLEAS ZAVALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants whose boat stalled at sea while crossing from Turkey to Greece swim to approach the shore of the island of Lesbos, Greece, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. A boat with 46 people fleeing Syria sank Sunday in Greece and the coast guard said it is searching for more than 20 others missing off the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
SKALA SIKAMINIAS, GREECE - OCTOBER 02: Refugees arrive on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on an inflatable boat on October 2, 2015 near village of Skala Sikaminias, Greece. Despite bad weather due to the upcoming Autumn, migrants and refugees are risking their lives in search of a better one in the European Union. Officals have warned that a rise in migrant deaths is expected as weather conditions gradually worsen. (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)
SKALA SIKAMINIAS, GREECE - OCTOBER 02: A woman holds her child as she arrived with other refugees on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on an inflatable boat on October 2, 2015 near village of Skala Sikaminias, Greece. Despite bad weather due to the upcoming Autumn, migrants and refugees are risking their lives in search of a better one in the European Union. Officals have warned that a rise in migrant deaths is expected as weather conditions gradually worsen. (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)
Two women collapse as they arrive with other migrants on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on an inflatable dinghy, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. More than 260,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Greece so far this year, most reaching the country's eastern islands on flimsy rafts or boats from the nearby Turkish coast. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
An excavator works on a huge pile of life vests and dinghies that have been used by migrants at a local dump of the island of Lesbos, Greece, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. More than 260,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Greece so far this year, most reaching the country's eastern islands on flimsy rafts or boats from the nearby Turkish coast.(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
SKALA SIKAMINIAS, GREECE - OCTOBER 02: Refugees celebrate as they arrived with others on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on an inflatable boat on October 2, 2015 near village of Skala Sikaminias, Greece. Despite bad weather due to the upcoming Autumn, migrants and refugees are risking their lives in search of a better one in the European Union. Officals have warned that a rise in migrant deaths is expected as weather conditions gradually worsen. (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)
A refugee screams for help after she and her daughter fell into the water after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, Friday, Oct. 2 , 2015. The International Organization for Migration says a record number of people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe this year. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
African migrants pray after arriving on an inflatable dinghy from Turkey on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. More than 260,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in Greece so far this year, most reaching the country's eastern islands on flimsy rafts or boats from the nearby Turkish coast. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
LESBOS, GREECE - SEPTEMBER 09: A refugee holds a child near a ferry at the port of Mytilini on September 9, 2015 in Lesbos, Greece. Greece has been overwhelmed this year by record numbers of migrants arriving on its eastern Aegean islands. More than 230,000 people have landed on Greek shores this year, pushing the island of Lesbos to its limits. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
A dinghy used by migrants lies on the shore on the island of Lesbos, early on June 18, 2015. Some 48,000 migrants and refugees have landed on Greek shores so far this year, compared to 34,000 arrivals during all of 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). AFP PHOTO / LOUISA GOULIAMAKI (Photo credit should read LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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He stood on the mud, crows cawing overhead, pointing at unmarked graves. "Here's a mother with her baby. And here's another young woman. Over there, that's a 60-year-old man."

Buried beneath low mounds of earth, facing Mecca, lay Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian refugees who drowned this summer in the Aegean Sea trying to reach Europe in flimsy inflatable boats.

Scanning the area, Christos Mavrakidis, a somber, hardened man who looks after one of the main cemeteries on Greece's Lesbos island, listed the years of other deaths: "2013, 2014, 2015."

Now there is no room left in the narrow plot of land in the pauper's section of St. Panteleimon cemetery, close to where the colonnaded tombs of wealthy Greeks are built in the classical Greek style, and flowers adorn lavish marble graves.

"Something must be done," he said. "They are a lot. They are too many."

No one can say where the next bodies will be buried.

Nearly half a million people, mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis fleeing war and persecution, have made the dangerous journey to Europe this year. Almost 3,000 have died, the U.N. refugee agency estimates.

Just 4.4 km (2.8 miles) off the Turkish coast, Lesbos, Greece's third-biggest island and popular with tourists, is one of the preferred entry points for migrants into the EU.

Arrivals surged in late summer to sometimes thousands a day as people rushed to beat autumn storms that make the Aegean Sea even more treacherous.

The number of burials at St. Panteleimon has also risen. More than three dozen migrants are buried in a tiny, dusty plot on a hill overlooking the island. Four were buried there last week alone.

Some of the makeshift, earthen graves bear a small marble plaque with a name in paint or marker: "Saad 4-9-2015." Others state simply: "Unknown 25-8-2015"; "Unknown 28-8-2015"; "No 14 5-1-2013". The most recent graves lack any marking.

Mavrakidis placed his hand over his mouth and nose, the air filled with what he called "the stench of death" rising from the open grave of a young Iraqi man whose body was exhumed that morning after his family managed to trace him through DNA.

Many more dead have never been found. Locals say fishermen sometimes dump bodies back into the sea, like fish they are not permitted to catch, to avoid having to hand them over to the authorities and face questioning and bureaucracy.

Lesbos Struggles as 4,000 Arrive Daily

THE LIVING AND THE DEAD

The impact of the huge migration flow into Europe is visible across Lesbos, an island with a history of mostly Greek refugees who fled Asia Minor in the 1920s. Restaurants and shops now have menus and signs in Arabic. Cafes are full of refugees charging mobile phones.

The long shoreline near the airport has turned bright orange from hundreds of discarded life jackets. But nowhere is their uncertain fate starker than at St. Panteleimon, patron saint of the sick and destitute.

Every village on the island has its own cemetery but spaces are limited to less than a dozen for the locals. Refugees were buried at St. Panteleimon also because it was well-guarded, even from stray dogs who roam at night, Mavrakidis said.

Local relief organizations accuse the authorities of doing little to address the space problem. Efi Latsoudi, a volunteer who helps organize funerals for refugees, says she is tired of hearing "we have no budget, it's not our responsibility".

Even the island's morgue complains it is running out of space to keep the bodies, pushing for more burials, she said.

"It's someone's responsibility. And if it isn't, someone should claim it," Latsoudi said.

The island's mayor, Stavros Galinos, says he has never made money an issue despite being stretched financially because of the country's prolonged economic crisis.

"This is a humanitarian issue and I would never weigh it on the same scale as the financial issues," he said at his office overlooking the port from which thousands of refugees depart for the mainland every day.

"There's a problem and we're trying to solve it. People are drowning every day so we're looking for space," he said. "Not only do we have to manage living migrants, we have to manage the dead as well."

REACH EUROPE OR DIE

Afghan refugee Mohammad Talib Jabarkhail, who sought help from the same association that organizes funeral and prayers for the dead, was among the lucky ones who reached Europe alive.

Some of his friends were killed in a suspected U.S. air strike on an Afghan hospital run by aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Kunduz, he said.

"I escaped from Afghanistan because I was targeted. ISIS (Islamic State insurgents) and the Taliban threatened me three times," said Jabarkhail, a 30-year-old community worker and women's rights activist who worked for foreign NGOs.

The three-week trip to Europe through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey with his cousin and nephew cost 2,500 dollars in bribes to various people, including a man code-named "Red Apple."

They were shot at by Iranian police and kidnapped and robbed on the Iranian-Turkish border, leaving him with no money to continue his journey to his desired destination:Germany.

His wife and four young children are left behind, waiting.

Like others who set off on this dangerous journey, Jabarkhail said he was well-aware of the risk of death on the way. "When I started my journey I had two options: to reach Europe, or to die. This is the reality," he said.

What Should the World Do About the Migrant Crisis?

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