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Just when dawn breaks over the Aegean Sea, 29-year-old Syrian refugee Alaa Alseikh Ibrahim leans on the railing of the Eleftherios Venizelos ferry boat, gazing at the surf as it cuts through the water. “This sea nearly killed me,” he says of his crossing in a rubber dinghy from the coast of Turkey to the Greek island of Lesvos. He remembers how he and his fellow passengers battled the waves for half a day after losing their bearings. His neck is still an angry sunburnt red. But, now he appears relieved.
On the night the ferry set sail, Ibrahim was among 2,500 anxious refugees and migrants waiting to board the ANEK Lines ship at the port of Mytilene. Five coast guard and police patrol cars parked nose to tail formed a no-go zone of a few dozen meters between the refugees and the ferry's ramp. The officers tried to hold them back – often shouting, pushing or using their batons – so they wouldn't storm the ship and risk being trampled. Ibrahim, a mechanical engineer, acted as translator.
“We told them to be patient, that they would all be allowed on the ship,” he says.
The first to board were parents carrying babies in their arms and people on crutches. One woman fainted from exhaustion as soon as she boarded. The crew carried her back to the port in a wheelchair and called an ambulance. As she came to, her husband, terrified, insisted that she was able to travel, that they had to continue their journey at any cost. “No more Mytilene! Athens! Athens!” he shouted.
More than 10,000 refugees and migrants are trapped on Lesvos (their numbers change constantly), waiting to be registered at the port and scuffles with police, as people try to scramble onto the ferries destined for the Greek capital's port of Piraeus, are frequent.
Everyone wants to get off the island as fast as possible. The longer it takes, the more money they spend and the greater the risk that the borders of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Hungary will be sealed, keeping them away from their ultimate destination: Germany.
In mid-August, the Greek government chartered the Eleftherios Venizelos to ferry refugees to Athens and take some of the pressure off the islands of the eastern Aegean that are receiving the lion's share of the ever-growing influx. So far, the ship has made more than 10 trips, bringing more than 25,000 refugees to the mainland. Kathimerini made one of these journeys, a journey of despair.
With 12 decks and 1,606 beds, the Eleftherios Venizelos is one of the biggest passenger ferries in the Mediterranean, capable of conducting cruises, being used as a floating hotel or even a conference center. It was built in 1992 to serve routes in the Adriatic. In February 2011 it participated in a special mission with other Greek ships to evacuate mostly Chinese nationals from war-torn Libya to Crete and Egypt.
Andreas Gasparatos, now captain of the Eleftherios Venizelos, was staff captain at the time.
Chartering a large passenger ferry to manage migrant inflows was an initiative first launched by the coalition government under Antonis Samaras. In September 2014, the plan called for a 600-seat ship to pick up refugees from the islands and another ship of 2,500 seats to house them temporarily at a port near Athens, where the ferry would act as a first reception center where new arrivals could be registered. The government at the time estimated that it would take a staff of 130 to run the reception center and had been considering transferring municipal police officers to the Asylum Service to help in the process.
Sources told Kathimerini that this plan was never put into effect because of objections from the higher echelons of the Citizens' Protection Ministry. It was re-examined in December but was again shelved following the general elections in January.
The Eleftherios Venizelos was eventually chartered by the SYRIZA government on August 12, seven months after it came to power. It initially operated for a few days as a processing center at the island of Kos, until the government decided it would be better used to ferry refugees to the mainland.
The plan was to send the ship to the northern port of Thessaloniki in order to facilitate the refugees' journey to the FYROM border. Diplomatic pressure was applied by Skopje and the ship was rerouted to Piraeus. Every passenger pays 50 euros for the journey from Mytilene to Piraeus. On regular passenger ferries, prices range from 36 euros to above 50 euros. According to ANEK representatives, this is the minimum the company can charge to cover the cost of traveling empty from Piraeus to Mytilene to pick up more passengers.
How quickly refugees manage to board the ferry depends on the situation on the island. Every passenger needs to have proof of registration. “Our insurance requires us to have a name for every passenger on board,” an ANEK representative tells Kathimerini. On one trip from Kos, the Eleftherios Venizelos departed 12 hours late. That is how long it took to register the 200 refugees it was picking up there, while at nearby Leros, 1,000 refugees had already been processed and were waiting for the ferry to arrive.
“When I saw so many people at the port of Mytilene I felt that there was no hope, that I'd have to spend two months there,” says Ibrahim. “I tried to get in the line many times. I would go at night and sleep in the line, but it was often pointless. You'd get pushed and lose your place. When I got this piece of paper, I felt like I was getting a life,” he says.
He shows a document from the police ordering him to appear at the Aliens' Bureau run by the Greek Police on December 17 and forbidding him from staying in regions on Greece's northern and western borders. Last week, police in Lesvos arrested two Syrians for selling forgeries of the same document to their compatriots.
The crew of the Eleftherios Venizelos is not insensitive to the anxiety of passengers who have spent days camped out at a port waiting to get the much-coveted ticket. “They are upset because they have been waiting for such a long time,” says Gasparatos. “Once they're on board, though, they feel closer to their goal and calm down.”
The ferry's 105 crew members also need to adapt to the needs of their passengers. One steward keeps a notebook to jot down Arabic phrases taught to him by passengers so he can relay messages over the intercom system. They will occassionaly find a passenger who speaks good English and ask him or her to act as an interpreter. On the first trip on August 19, from Kos to Piraeus, the crew was helped by Rami, a Syrian refugee with an excellent knowledge of Greek who had previously lived in Greece and Cyprus.
“We are not carrying passengers traveling for leisure or work but frightened, beleaguered people. This requires special attention from the crew,” says Gasparatos.
Once the refugees board, the crew hands out water and sandwiches. Families with children are given cabins at no extra cost.
On this particular journey, there are 575 minors, including infants just a few days old. “I see them and imagine my children in their place,” says chief steward Dionysis Bounias as he coordinates his staff.
“You imagine yourself in the future having to sell all your belongings, grabbing a few bags of things and dragging yourself and your family into the unknown.”
Just a few minutes after the ferry sets sail, a man hits another in the face because he thought he was trying to take his seat. Crew members step in immediately to separate the pair. Not long after, silence descends over the ship, as men, women and children collapse, exhausted, onto sofas, chairs and floors.
We see one Syrian man trying to stay awake in one of the lounges. He says he wants to see the sun rise over the sea. “It will be my first time and I think it will be beautiful,” he says.
When dawn comes, a few men start praying in whispers. Lines start to form outside the bathroom and shower facilities. Using sachets of shampoo handed out by the crew, some of the refugees will be taking their first shower in days after staying at camps under horrendous sanitation conditions. Some take the opportunity to wash their clothes, hanging them out on the railings of the upper decks to dry. Others look around for a plug to recharge their phones.
“The multi-plug brought us closer,” says 28-year-old Hani as he sits at a table with five strangers recharging their phones. “I finally found a plug after three days and was able to talk to my parents. I told them that my journey to Germany is starting now.” The sun climbs higher in the sky. We are now sailing past Andros and young couples are out on deck taking selfies with the island in the background.
Another queue starts to form outside the restaurant. Six cooks and three cleaners have been working nonstop since the ship sailed from Mytilene. They need to make sure there are enough meals for the passengers, which are distributed free of charge.
“They haven't damaged a single seat or taken a single glass or knife,” Bounias says of the refugees. “On a journey to Italy with just 140 truck drivers on board, I can lose about 50 bathrobes between Patra and Ancona. On these trips with 2,500 passengers, nothing has gone missing.”
As he tries to get into the line for lunch, 27-year-old Afghan Jawed Sofi expresses his admiration for the Syrian refugees beside him. “These people left behind everything they had and they're still smiling. I love that,” he says. Back home he worked as an interpreter for Swedish forces. His collaboration with them made him a Taliban target and he was forced to leave.
Just as Sofi's turn comes to be served, the Eleftherios Venizelos reaches Piraeus. The megaphones call on the passengers to disembark but many are still in line for their free meal.
Three buses guarded by coast guard officers wait for the refugees at the port and will take them to the ISAP electric railway station nearby.
Some of the passengers seem reluctant to move on immediately. They huddle together in groups, discussing their next move, trying to get in touch with relatives or traffickers who will arrange the next stage of their journey.
Inside the ship, the sleepless crew starts cleaning up. “You need to get accustomed to staying awake for hours,” says one of the crew. The ship will soon set sail for the return trip to Lesvos, where thousands of refugees continue to wait at the port.