Another tragic capsizing involving 300 migrants seeking to cross from Turkey to Greece forces citizens from around the world to wonder when this will end.
On the previous night, the full moon was glorious above Lesbos, hanging brightly in the sky, illuminating the picturesque coastal village of Molyvos (about 60 km north of Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos Island, N. Aegean).
On Wednesday 28 October, in the early evening, the moon fulfilled quite a different function. It became invaluably helpful to those doing everything in their power to save migrants from the rough seas. Yet another unseaworthy craft carrying illegal migrants from the Turkish coasts to Greece had capsized. It went down in seconds with three hundred souls on board, minutes before reaching the northern shores of the island.
The wind was strong and the rescue operation massive. Local fishing boats, Molyvos residents, Greek and foreign volunteers, the Greek Red Cross, the Hellenic coast guard vessels, and the Norwegian rescue boat “Peter Henry von Koss” (which assists the broader Frontex operation called “Poseidon” led by Greece), were all astir.
Journalists, both Greek and foreign, who were there with me, also rushed to help the rescued people who were brought to the port and the medics who needed assistance.
At least 240 migrants were rescued from the cold sea. However, more than seven people died, among them four children. Once at the port, many of the migrants, mostly women, were taken to the nearby chapel at the entrance of the village, so that they could lie down, change clothes, and receive blankets and assistance from locals and volunteers.
But the horrific impact of this incident could still be felt on Wednesday. The bodies of the unfortunate migrants continued to wash up on nearby beaches during the next few days, and sadly this will most likely go on.
What caused the accident
According to what is known so far, the Greek coast guard went on a rescue operation after being alerted that afternoon. Due to the bad weather, the dinghy carrying the migrants and the coast guard vessel collided, and the migrants’ ship went down within a few minutes.
Although the Greek officials acted swiftly and called in large fishing boats to help, many migrants did not make it. There were many children and babies among them. Apart from the obvious shock, the survivors also suffered from severe hypothermia. The rescue operation was jeopardized by the reduced visibility at night.
That day, the seas were rough and the sky darkened with clouds. Everyone on the island was praying not to spot a boat. Boat spotting has become a new, necessary trend in the north of the island. Thanks to people watching through their binoculars, most of the migrants are assisted upon arriving to nearby beaches. Volunteers spot them from elevated spots in the area, and drive down to the nearest beach in order to guide them towards the shore and get them out of their rubber boats safely.
Boat spotters are doing an amazing job, day and night. By waving their hands and fluorescent life vests they are holding, they are giving migrants the right signals to safely make their way to the shore.
A lucrative business for smugglers
Turkish smugglers have come up with an ingenious scheme. Through a well-organised network, mainly found on the long coastline of the Aegean Sea on the Turkish side, migrant traffickers come into contact with their prey and talk them into crossing over to the other side. The smugglers purchase rubber dinghies, which, together with their engines, cost no more than 1,000 euros each. They will earn 20 to 40 times that amount by selling overpriced tickets to migrants. Indeed, if the weather allows, they ask each migrant to pay between 2,000 and 2,500 euros (infants do not need a ticket) to let them board the boat. If the seas are rough, the price goes down to 1,000 to 1, 500 euros per person, so many migrants choose to cross to the land of freedom cheaply. Each rubber boat seats about twenty people, more if there are many kids, less if there are elderly persons, pregnant women or obese persons amongst the passengers.
Apart from the rubber dinghies, smugglers also some sell seats on old wooden boats. These are used because instead of twenty or thirty persons they can take up to a hundred! Needless to say they are jam-packed and much more likely to capsize because of the excess weight. This was the case with the latest incident last Wednesday, off the coast of northern Lesbos.
In most cases, smugglers do not steer the boats themselves. Instead, they tell younger people how to use the engine handle and show them the directions they should follow. On other occasions, when the boats are bigger for instance, the trafficker takes the migrants to the maritime borders with Greece and then abandons them in the middle of nowhere. In most cases, a Turkish “colleague” in a high-speed motor boat follows, and makes sure to pick his partner up as soon as possible before disappearing from the spot in seconds.
In Lesbos, migrants often told me that before getting on the boats, each single person or family has been told that only a few more people would be traveling with them. Smugglers tell migrants there is no reason to worry about anything, and that the road from Greece to other European countries will be very easy. They are also told that the borders to the rest of Europe are open…
The final destination of a perilous crossing
The main arrival spots are the Greek islands close to Turkey such as Lesbos, Chios and Samos in the north, Kos, Rodos (internationally known as Rhodes), and Kalymnos in the south.
Unfortunately, this does not mean that migrants do not arrive on other, often extremely small islands, too, but these six large ones are the most frequent destinations.
Last summer, one of the smaller islands in Greece, Agathonissi, in the northern Aegean Sea close to Samos, went through a period when the number of illegal Turkish migrants was three times as high as the number of locals! With only one policeman and two coast guards, very little food and water reserves, the migrants’ situation was very complicated. Also, this particular island is a special terrestrial and marine conservation site, part of the Natura 2000 network, which protects similar areas in the EU.
So, understandably, authorities have been fearing an increase in pollution (due to the oil used in the rubber boat engines, the noise generated by the engines, the material the life vests are made from, and so on) of that small island gem and the surrounding seas. Authorities also dread the diseases that could break out and easily spread during the summer months because of the heat, lack of medical supervision and assistance, and the lack of a basic hygiene programme. Locals say they want to help newcomers, but they do not even have enough for themselves.
A lack of policies against the migrant crisis
Sadly enough, the EU holds continuous talks about the matter without moving into action. At the time this piece was written, the only sides that were actually taking action were the islanders, Greek and foreign volunteers, the local authorities, the Greek coast guard, and Frontex personnel (during rescue ops).
On Sunday 25 October, the EU and Balkan leaders decided that if a migrant is not granted asylum after registration, they must be deported to their country of origin. They also jointly agreed on swift action, but results remain to be seen.
Further, a secret EU plan was leaked by diplomatic sources in October, claiming that EU countries which face an increased influx of migrants should start issuing return decisions.
Nearly half a million new asylum seekers who have made it to Europe are expected to see their claims for refugee status turned down. Sources say that although in theory this could apply to any migrant, it will mainly concern those from Africa.
Meanwhile, the UN estimates that over 700,000 migrants made it to Europe this year, and nothing seems to be stopping this influx, not even the winter, which is slowly setting in.
The people who are seeking refuge on the continent are usually from wartorn Syria, but many are also coming in from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Beyond those directly fleeing conflict zones, many migrants are simply looking for a place where they can build a stable future. They hope to study and find employment in order to send money to their families back home. Some also look forward to being reunited with loved ones already living in Europe. The countries most of them say they would like to go to are Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland.
500, 000 of them have crossed into Greece from Turkey, with Lesbos being the number 1 arrival spot: nearly 330,000 migrants made it there, leading the authorities to confess they are at a loss about what to do.
The lack of funds and the Greek state’s unpreparedness have turned even locals’ lives into hell. The difficulties experienced by the credit crunch were already immense, and this situation only adds to it. The influx has brought locals to their knees, yet they still have hope. Day after day, they can be seen helping newcomers or giving migrants in makeshift shelters clothes, toys for the children, and blankets. Nonetheless, they are asking for financial help from the central authorities in Athens, and pinpoint the fact that whenever a high official from Athens or another European capital is visiting the island, the migrants seem to magically disappear, and the mess on the roads or the port is suddenly invisible.
No matter how severe the situation is, Germany and Austria are experiencing a split lately over how to handle the issue, as Vienna announced plans to build a fence on its border with Slovenia. Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière declared that Vienna’s behaviour and decision were inappropriate, causing significant problems to German border guards. He also said that Austria had unexpectedly decided to abandon a plan for mutual agreement on how to tackle the problem. As a result, unrestricted numbers of immigrants are now able to cross into Germany from Austria, usually at night, with Germany unable to control the situation.
Who is who
While many illegal immigrants come from Syria, several Greek fishermen on Lesbos told me that the passports they find on the northern beaches reveal different nationalities. Libyans, Palestinians, Iraqis, and even Lebanese are labelling themselves as Syrians because they have heard that Europe is more welcoming of Syrian refugees.
This raises the question of how to determine who should be granted refugee asylum and which refugees most need Europe’s help at the moment. Plenty of voices, most of them off the record, agree on on the plan to deport migrants back to their countries of origin. But they make sure to mention that this should also mean that Europe should help ensuring that the situation in the migrants’ countries is sufficiently stable for them to return. This all the more since some European countries are partly responsible for fostering instability in many of the countries these people are fleeing.
But this certainly cannot be achieved within days or even months. Yet there is an urgent need for EU leaders to agree on at least a satisfying temporary solution for both the migrants and the locals.
Thousands of dreams turned into a nightmare
In ancient Greek, the word “onar” (“όναρ”) means dream. All immigrants, legal or illegal, are leaving their countries full of hopes and dreams.
Not to mention those who lost loved ones on their journey to safety… Words are futile but feelings and sympathy can also seem powerless, especially when a child who has lost her whole family in a shipwreck looks at you with empty eyes.
I wish officials who speak words of understanding and sorrow could see reality and step into those people’s shoes even for a second. It is tiring to keep hearing that something must be done. We know that. What we need to see is the implementation of tangible solutions, as soon as possible.
I hope that the word “dream” (Onar, in Greek) which is, ironically, a life vest brand, will become a reality for most, if not all migrants.
 FRONTEX (from French: Frontières extérieures for “external borders”: European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union)