Lesvos: Crossing to safety

As thousands of refugees land daily on the Greek island of Lesvos, world-renowned photographer Giles Duley documents the relief and suffering of reaching dry land.

A boy from Afghanistan tries to keep warm.
© UNHCR/Giles Duley

It is hard to describe the scenes I saw in my first few hours on Lesvos. I have covered conflict and humanitarian disasters around the world, but I have rarely witnessed such scenes.


  • An overcrowded boat carrying Syrian refugees heads to shore. One Syrian man had fallen from the boat into cold water. He was later rescued by volunteer Spanish lifeguards. Despite the approach of winter and worsening weather, refugees are continuing to arrive on the island at a rate of more than 3,200 per day. As of mid-November, at least 64 people have drowned this year in 11 shipwrecks off Lesvos.
    An overcrowded boat carrying Syrian refugees heads to shore. One Syrian man had fallen from the boat into cold water. He was later rescued by volunteer Spanish lifeguards. Despite the approach of winter and worsening weather, refugees are continuing to arrive on the island at a rate of more than 3,200 per day. As of mid-November, at least 64 people have drowned this year in 11 shipwrecks off Lesvos. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • Survivors struggle ashore after their boat has capsized. In the background a Spanish lifeguard, one of the many volunteers working on the beach, swims out to help other survivors.
    Survivors struggle ashore after their boat has capsized. In the background a Spanish lifeguard, one of the many volunteers working on the beach, swims out to help other survivors. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • Boat after boat lands on the coast of Lesvos between Eftalou and Skala Sykaminia. Over 45 per cent of the 836,088 refugees and migrants who have arrived in Europe so far in 2015 have landed on this Greek island, which is separated from Turkey by a 10-kilometre channel.
    Boat after boat lands on the coast of Lesvos between Eftalou and Skala Sykaminia. Over 45 per cent of the 836,088 refugees and migrants who have arrived in Europe so far in 2015 have landed on this Greek island, which is separated from Turkey by a 10-kilometre channel. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • An Afghan mother holds her child moments after landing on the beach near Skala Sykaminia. UNHCR and its partners work to prevent family separations and create safe areas for women and children who are particularly vulnerable.
    An Afghan mother holds her child moments after landing on the beach near Skala Sykaminia. UNHCR and its partners work to prevent family separations and create safe areas for women and children who are particularly vulnerable. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • An Afghan family of several generations disembark from an overcrowded boat. Almost 40 per cent of refugees currently arriving on Lesvos are from Afghanistan.
    An Afghan family of several generations disembark from an overcrowded boat. Almost 40 per cent of refugees currently arriving on Lesvos are from Afghanistan. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • A relieved Afghan family, clearly still suffering from the trauma of a rough sea crossing at the hands of people smugglers, disembarks from a flimsy vessel onto a Lesvos beach.
    A relieved Afghan family, clearly still suffering from the trauma of a rough sea crossing at the hands of people smugglers, disembarks from a flimsy vessel onto a Lesvos beach. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • A young Afghan boy with his aunt. His mother is receiving emergency medical treatment after she collapsed upon landing. Since August UNHCR, in close cooperation with the Greek authorities and other humanitarian actors, has considerably stepped up its activities to respond to the increasing needs. This is even more imperative with the onset of winter.
    A young Afghan boy with his aunt. His mother is receiving emergency medical treatment after she collapsed upon landing. Since August UNHCR, in close cooperation with the Greek authorities and other humanitarian actors, has considerably stepped up its activities to respond to the increasing needs. This is even more imperative with the onset of winter. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • An Afghan mother hugs her child and weeps with relief on arrival on the Greek island of Lesvos.
    An Afghan mother hugs her child and weeps with relief on arrival on the Greek island of Lesvos. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • A Syrian father, his two children now safely wrapped in thermal blankets, looks to the heavens in thanks after landing safely on the beach.
    A Syrian father, his two children now safely wrapped in thermal blankets, looks to the heavens in thanks after landing safely on the beach. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • A boy from Afghanistan tries to keep warm after a cold and wet crossing from Turkey. Cases of hypothermia are on the increase as the weather deteriorates across the eastern Mediterranean.
    A boy from Afghanistan tries to keep warm after a cold and wet crossing from Turkey. Cases of hypothermia are on the increase as the weather deteriorates across the eastern Mediterranean. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • A Syrian man wearing a life jacket carries his two children off a boat after arriving on Lesvos.
    A Syrian man wearing a life jacket carries his two children off a boat after arriving on Lesvos. © UNHCR/Giles Duley
  • Volunteers prepare to wrap a young girl in an emergency blanket to protect her from the cold wind.
    Volunteers prepare to wrap a young girl in an emergency blanket to protect her from the cold wind. © UNHCR/Giles Duley

I am on assignment for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, documenting the refugee crisis across the Middle East and Europe. The events that have unfolded in the past few years are unprecedented in scale and scope. Not since the Second World War have so many people been forced to flee their homes. UNHCR estimates there are some 60 million displaced worldwide, with over 4 million Syrians alone leaving their war-torn country to seek safety in neighbouring countries and Europe.

My project is focused on telling the individual stories of those caught up in this crisis. These are not statistics, these are not numbers – these are individuals fighting for survival and the safety of their families.

In the coming months I want to share the stories of those I meet, but first I want to show you what I have seen on the beaches of Greece. Boat after boat landing on the shores of the island of Lesvos, each one filled with desperate people seeking safety.

After over a decade doing this work, I have never been so emotionally overwhelmed and bewildered as I am today. I will let the photographs speak for themselves.

– Lesvos, Greece
October 2015