A Greek Tragedy - embedded with Migrant Offshore Aid Station rescue ship
A Greek Tragedy
In early 2016, the eastern Mediterranean route saw a large increase in the flow of migrants as hope faded in the refugee camps of Turkey and other regions. In addition to following overland routes, people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia continued to risk the short sea crossing from Turkey to Greece’s easternmost islands to reach Europe. Even though the crossing was relatively short, only 10 to 14 km – it remained perilous as people continued to set out to sea in flimsy dinghies and small pleasure crafts despite worsening weather and decreasing water temperatures. The route was also made more dangerous due to small scattered Greek islands, which are unlit - prime to cause shipwrecks.
On the moonless night of January 15th, 2016, a small speedboat was caught on the radar of the NGO, MOAS's rescue ship ‘Responder’, just off the coast of the tiny Greek island of Agathonisi. The small boat was moving at high speed from Turkey to Greece across the screen when it stopped abruptly. The S(earch) A(nd) R(escue) team deployed the FRDC - a small high powered rescued vessel - and we headed to the position where the speeding boat had stopped. In the pitch darkness, at first, but we could see no sign of the craft, only hear the wails, and cries for help in Arabic coming from multiple directions. As the searchlight strafed the water, the horror of what had taken place quickly became apparent.
SAR team pulled 22 Syrians and one Turk aboard, their clothes so heavy with water it took two or three of us to haul each one of them onto the deck. Two very young boys with thick curly black hair were lifted to safety. A six-month-old baby was cut loose from his mother. She had tied him to her life jacket. Both were lifted alive from the freezing water. But three other infants laid lifeless on the deck on the pile of discarded wet clothes. Their parents kept calling out their names as the medics tried to resuscitate the infants. But, most likely they had died soon after being thrown from the speeding boat -when the Turkish smuggler driving it lost control, and it overturned just before hitting the rocks of Agathonisi.
Following the implementation of the European Union-Turkey Agreement in March 2016, arrivals in Greece from across the Aegean Sea fell by 98%. As the weather improved and the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy started to pick up once again, MOAS relocated its operations back to the North African coast, where another human exodus to Europe was beginning again.