Since the start of the summer, the Greek island of Lesbos has assumed notoriety as the main gateway into Europe for thousands of desperate refugees. But as the lives lost in the risky Aegean Sea crossing relentlessly rise, the island has a new challenge: Finding space to bury the dead.
Nearly 500 people have died trying to cross the Aegean Sea from neighboring Turkey this year, many of them in the narrow but treacherous stretch separating Lesbos from Turkey. At least 80 drowned last month, many of them children. The bodies of another five people, including a woman and two children, were recovered early on Wednesday, the Greek coast guard said.
Local municipal and church authorities this week declared that the island's cemetery was full, leaving them no option but to store dozens of bodies in a refrigerated container. "We hope that the authorities will be able to find a solution quickly," said Effi Latsoudi, member of a local migrant support group. The local bishop, Lakovos, this week said efforts to create a new burial ground could take years. "It could take two-to-three years" to release a property near the island hospital suitable for this purpose, Lakovos told Mega Channel.
Lesbos Mayor Spyros Galinos said he would take up the issue with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras when he visited the island yesterday. "We have a problem with the morgue and the cemetery but it is in the process of being resolved," the mayor said. Tsipras on Wednesday said he was "ashamed" to be part of a European leadership that had failed to stop the sinkings, which now occur nearly every day. "We have to discourage these people from embarking on these journeys of death," he said during a joint press conference with visiting European Parliament President Martin Schulz.
Lesbos lies on the frontline of a massive migration wave that has swept over Europe, with more than 700,000 people crossing the Mediterranean in search of sanctuary this year. Of the 218,000 migrants and refugees who took to the sea in October, 210,000 landed in Greece, mostly in Lesbos.
At the local morgue – which is also full to capacity – coroner Thodoris Noussios is at his wit's end. "This morning we received five more bodies. This tragedy must stop," he said. More than 50 bodies are currently being kept in the morgue and a 12-meter refrigerated container outside the hospital that was supplied by private donors, Noussios told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "The bodies will stay here until identification is complete," he said.
The Agios Panteleimonas Cemetery is the final resting place for 80 refugees and migrants who could not be identified in order for their families to be contacted. "In the case of people who are identified, we ask their families to tell us where they wish the body to be buried, in Greece or in their country of origin," the coroner said. "It is a procedure that can require a lot of time," he said.