“Is this Europe?” That’s the question German photographer Kai Löffelbein heard again and again from refugees landing on the island of Lesbos, Greece, this past fall, where 2–4,000 migrants and refugees were arriving daily. So catastrophic is the situation there that, after dire sea crossings in leaky boats helmed by armed smugglers, many arrivals doubt they’ve come to the right place.
The refugee crisis in Lesbos is one of the most dire in Europe, where more than one million refugees arrived in 2015. Since the beginning of this year, 18,000 migrants, most escaping war in Syria and Afghanistan, have arrived on the small eastern Aegean island. At least 42 people have drowned off trying to get to Lesbos in the past two weeks alone. While abstracted statistics like these sum up the sheer magnitude of the situation, they fail to convey the individual experiences of refugees — it’s hard to empathize with numbers.
Löffelbein’s black-and-white photographs offer a look at the small triumphs and daily struggles of the displaced. They range from hopeful to harrowing. Overcrowded dinghies traveling from the coast of Turkey navigate choppy waters; Spanish lifeguards and volunteers help people ashore. Relief and fear fill the faces of new arrivals, who “cry, scream, collapse, but also laugh and sing, and call their relatives,” as Löffelbein writes. A group of young men take a selfie after a safe landing. A father carries his daughter on the 34-mile uphill hike from the shore to Mytilini, the island’s capital.
In other images, police use tear gas against refugees protesting the conditions of the crowded Moira camp, set up in a former army barracks, which Löffelbein describes as a “grim prison” where food and water is scarce. “I was shocked that this refugee camp was run by almost no one,” he writes. “The refugees are totally left to their own resources there.” Some men climb over fences in attempt to escape riots breaking out in the days-long lines for registration. Finally, thousands of refugees gather at a port to board ferries to greater safety. Most aim to wind up in Germany.
Löffelbein’s goal is to fight ignorance and political apathy through photojournalism. “As a political human being, I have to admit I don’t care if there are smarter approaches [to this kind of photography] already out there,” he says. “If a story is worth being told, then it’s better if more photographers aim to tell the story and double the audience and the coverage.” That way, he says, no one will be able to say of the refugee crisis, “Sorry, I haven’t heard about it.’”