As world leaders meet in Vienna to discuss the crisis, some Syrian refugees say conferences have achieved little.
Lesbos, Greece – At the end of the winding, rocky trail is a mountain of life jackets. Swelling by the day, it serves as testimony to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have passed through this Greek island on their way to search for safety in Europe.
Elsewhere, immense mounds of life jackets, deflated rubber dinghies and inflatable pool floaties line the shores of Lesbos, where up to 3,400 refugees and migrants land each day, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
Blanketed in mud, a small road weaves along the rugged coast in Skala Skamnias, a town on the island’s north. The sizzling amblers of a camp fire – just metres from the water – are the sole remnants of a group of refugees who used it to dry off after emerging from the cold, wintry waters the night before.
A few minutes’ walk down the beach, there is a tiny, pastel blue vest made for a toddler. The wind picks up and drags the still-inflated jacket along the surface.
Fleeing from the ongoing bloodshed in the Syrian city of Aleppo, Mais, 25, eventually made it to Sweden, where she is now seeking asylum. Upon arriving in a Turkish coastal town from where she’d later depart for Greece, she went to look for a life jacket.
“I first went to the place where I was told all Syrians buy their life vests from, but the quality was too bad,” she told Al Jazeera. “Nobody seemed to realise that these vests are made to carry a limited weight for a limited period of time – six hours, I think – and most of them were made to carry a maximum weight of 30 kilos.”
Mais recalls a friend advising her to buy her life jacket at another shop, where she paid the equivalent of $80.
“Everybody who was with me on the boat wore one of these vests I first found in Istanbul,” she says. “I remember its price, it was for like 35 Turkish liras [$12], but it doesn’t carry their weight. Thank god our trip went without problems.”
Mais remembers that “this vest was going to be my only life saver if anything happens to the boat. It was the only thing that made me feel safe”.
“I heard stories about vests filled with nylon and plastic bags,” she says, adding “refugees should be aware of this” before embarking on their journey.
In the graveyard of life jackets in Skala Skamnias, such life jackets can be found. Digging through piles of plastic and foam, the occasional vest is stuffed with nylon, paper or other fillings.
But authentic life jackets are not enough to guarantee that refugees and migrants will live to see their destinations. The UNHCR has documented at least 3,735 people who died at sea or still cannot be accounted for since the outset of 2015.
Here in Lesbos, a boat carrying hundreds of mostly Syrian refugees capsised on October 28. Throughout the ensuing weeks, more than 60 lifeless bodies washed ashore.
‘Environmental ticking time bomb’
The mushrooming mounds of life jackets is leaving a lasting impact on the island.
The UNHCR says at least 997,236 refugees and migrants have taken boats to Europe so far this year, but that number is expected to surpass one million before the beginning of 2016. Nearly half of those passed through Lesbos.
In Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, Mayor Spyros Galanos’ office estimates more 450,000 refugees and migrants passed through the island between February and December 1. Lesbos has a population of a mere 85,000.
“We think there are at least 450,000 life jackets [and other floating devices] on the island now … one for each person,” Marios Andriotis, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, told Al Jazeera, adding that number grows by the thousands on a daily basis.
The number of abandoned dinghies and decrepit wooden boats on Lesbos or left behind in the waters near the shore remains unclear, however.
“We don’t have the facilities here to recycle the jackets,” he says, “and it is very expensive to ship them to [mainland Greece] for recycling.”
Referring to the growing bulk of life jackets and deflated dinghies, he continues: “It is an environmental ticking time bomb, a plastic tsunami.”
Earlier this month, about 100 volunteers from Greece and elsewhere in Europe assembled in Lesbos and gathered as much life jackets and boat wreckage as they could. They started recycling some of the materials into items such as bags and tents.
But with more boats and bodies arriving by the day, dunes of life jackets, floaties, dinghies and debris continue to grow.
‘Normal people pay’
Back in Skala Skamnias, Fotis, a 64-year-old Lesbos native, wakes before sunrise each morning to patrol the waterfront. When he comes across piles of life jackets, he loads them onto the back of a pick-up truck and drives them to the local dump.
“At the beginning, we took them to the local recycling facility, but they didn’t accept them,” he told Al Jazeera. “The mayor decided to dump them here until we eventually find out what to do with them.”
Sitting on tractor, Fotis gestures patiently with his hands and explains that the rough terrain renders him unable to reach many parts of the island where vests are accumulating in his vehicle.
When there is a heavy influx of refugees landing in Lesbos, he parks his truck and gets in the water to help them safely disembark from their vessels.
“It was easier in the summer, but now it is winter,” he says. “When it’s cold, people will be coming off the boats shivering. What will happen then?
“I don’t know what happens next.”
And with no end in sight to the refugee crisis, no one seems to know what will happen next.
Spiros, a shepherd in his 70s, has lived his entire life in Skala Skamnias. With a black-and-white striped bandanna across his forehead, he sits on a large stone and watches from afar as the tractor elevates a cluster of life jackets, saunters a few dozen metres and drops it on the edge of the ever-growing mountain of preservers.
“Last spring, I gathered everything here and burned it,” he told Al Jazeera. “Now local authorities don’t do anything. They just sit in their chairs and do nothing.”
Speaking of the refugees fleeing the bloodletting in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, he says simply: “Whatever happens, it’s always the normal people who pay.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_