Migrants safe but their fate unsure

One day after a Turkish-flagged ship carrying over 1,000 illegal immigrants was successfully towed to the port of the Ionian island of Zakynthos, state officials are faced with a dilemma as most of the immigrants are refusing to disembark to receive medical treatment. According to official reports, as many as 800 to 900 illegal immigrants remained on board the vessel while another 350 were taken to the local hospital on Monday; 300 of those were later transferred to a nearby indoor sports facility after receiving treatment – mostly for dehydration and other minor health problems. On Monday, the 50-meter (165-foot) ship had been towed by ferryboat to Zakynthos in stormy weather, after the crew lost control of the boat following a fire in the engine room earlier that morning. Authorities believe that the strong winds in the area on Sunday night – reaching 8 Beaufort at times – and the excessive number of people cramped aboard the ship, caused the engines to overheat and catch fire. The vessel was found by the joint search and rescue command center drifting 30 kilometers (49 miles) southwest of the island of Zakynthos, and two ferryboats with coast guard officers aboard were dispatched to the scene. The ship is believed to have been sailing from Izmir in Turkey to Italy. According to official reports, authorities have detained three men of Turkish origin for questioning, believed to be members of the crew who abandoned the ship after it caught fire. Meanwhile, state and refugee agencies note that the island has no adequate facilities available to serve as a reception center for such a large number of people, while the ministries of Public Order, Merchant Marine and Health convened an urgent meeting yesterday morning. Indicative of the seriousness of the situation is that the government decided yesterday to send Merchant Marine Minister Giorgos Anomeritis to the island. He arrived yesterday afternoon. According to officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Athens, port authorities have started an initial registration of the immigrants, but under the present conditions it is unclear when the State will have a more complete picture of the situation. A UNHCR official stated that only after they register with police will the authorities know all the illegal immigrants’ countries of origin and how many of them will request asylum. So far, the authorities have recorded 131 children, 71 women and 11 men of Kurdish, Afghan and Iraqi origin. The UNHCR in Athens was expected to dispatch a team of agency officials to Zakynthos yesterday. Prior to Monday’s incident, Greek authorities have detained over 5,000 illegal immigrants this year, while some 100 people suspected of human trafficking have been incarcerated and as many as 83 vessels used in ferrying the illegal immigrants impounded. An increasing number of refugees reaching Greek shores are Afghans fleeing a prolonged famine and war. The UNHCR says 833 Afghan asylum seekers have been accepted so far this year in Greece. The refugee agency notes that as many as 2,906 asylum seekers have been received in Greece during the first nine months of this year, with Iraqis making up the largest group with 1,211 people, followed by Afghans. Public Order Ministry records show that as of December 31, 2000, as many as 6,653 people had been granted refugee status in Greece.

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