Searching for a better life, many migrants increasingly find death in the Mediterranean. Italy’s prime minister has threatened to raise a migrant boat that sank in April, containing 750 bodies to show to Europe the extent of the human tragedy taking place just off its shores. The migrant crisis is increasingly becoming a political one with the European Union divided over how to deal with the influx.
One of the major sticking points is over the EU’s proposal to re-distribute 20,000 asylum seekers throughout member states based on the size of their economy, population and unemployment rate. While EU leaders squabble over figures, those figures continue to rise.
Migrant crisis in numbers
An estimated 22,000 migrants have died trying to reach Europe since 2000, making it one of the most perilous sea routes in the world. In 2014 alone 3,500 people lost their lives in the Mediterannean.
A total of 280,000 migrants entered the EU last year, up from 100,000 in 2013, already in the first months of 2015 the figures are up dramatically from the same period of the previous year.
Greece is one of main entry points of migrants to Europe. Hit hard by a five-year debt crisis and several rounds of austerity measures, there is limited support for those who turn up on their shores, and many who make their living from tourism fear the influx will be bad for business.
Migrants sink own boats to reach Greece
Exhausted but calm, these migrants have survived a dangerous journey. Some don’t know exactly where they are, only that it is European soil. Recently, they have been taking boats from the coasts of non-EU Turkey in unprecedented numbers.
They try to reach the nearby islands of Greece, such as Samos, many risking their lives.
Our correspondent Nikoleta Drougka said: “New migrants arrive on the tiny beach of Sideras, almost every day, not only because it is isolated, but also because it is only a few hundred meters away from the Turkish coast — a distance that can be swum.”
There is a steady traffic of boats for those who can pay. The people of Samos describe a pattern of behaviour and technique: the vessels are mainly inflatable and always overloaded. They come by night and arrive on the island’s eastern coast. Their passengers wait till dawn then walk the roughly 12 km to the port of Vathi.
Residents say the migrants follow instructions given to them by their traffickers — instructions which are often deadly.
Manolis, a fisherman, said: “In the vicinity of Sideras, immigrant boats arrive every day. When they arrive, the first thing they do is destroy the boats so that they sink. Because of what they do, most of the time it might be their own fault that they drown. By the time the Coast Guard arrives…”
The Samos Coast Guard confirm that the migrants clearly follow a precise and dangerous plan.
Officer Thomas Tsiaousis said: “Most of the incidents happen at sea. When inflatable boats encounter our patrol vessels, their passengers destroy the boats, therefore putting themselves in serious danger. Our goal is to collect them immediately, so that their lives are not at risk. Next, we bring them ashore, to the Coast Guard headquarters. Then they are transferred to detention centres, where they are put under police supervision.”
An uncertain future awaits those fleeing conflicts
At the temporary holding facility near the port of Vathi, the migrants must wait for documents permitting them to travel on to their desired destinations, deeper in wealthier northern Europe. The place is understaffed and hygiene is poor. But in safety they wait patiently.
Two young Syrians likened what they have left behind to hell.
“The Assad regime needs me to serve in the army. I ran away so I [would not have to] kill my own people,” said the first we talked to.
The second said: “Maybe I will stay here in Yunan (Greece) and maybe I will go to Europe, other countries – Holland, Denmark. Also, I want to go to university. I would like to become a doctor.”
The people of Samos understand the migrants’ suffering but are bewildered that the authorities do not stop the smugglers.
Various public services are being investigated, however, as around 50 individuals are suspected of working with the traffickers to get migrants into Greece.
Samos resident Kostas said: “They arrive and they know exactly where they have to go, they never get lost. They greet us, they use signs to ask us to call the Coast Guard to pick them up. As soon as they disembark they light campfires to get warm and to dry their clothes before they depart. This is very worrying for us because this could spark a forest fire which could spread to the rest of the island.”
Samos resident Kiki said: “We are worried that perhaps they carry diseases, worried because we don’t know what kind of people they are. Also, it is not good for tourism to have beaches full of shredded rubber boats, shoes, clothes and all kinds of rubbish, which pollutes.”
The number of migrants landing in Greece had already reached two thirds of last year’s total by the end of April.
In spite of the drowning risk, the practice of sinking their own boats so the crossing from Turkish territory is a one-way trip appears established.
This leaves the Greeks on the front line even more strained than before trying to handle the flow of people who are desperate to enter other European Union countries.