RHODES – Locals know to avoid the razor-sharp rocks and strong currents near Zefyros Beach on the Greek island of Rhodes. But 93 migrants fleeing war and political chaos on another continent had no idea of the dangers as they caught their first glimpse of Europe and the current pulled their rickety wooden boat toward shore.
Within minutes of crashing into the rocks next to a strip of hotels, the migrants were in the sea and their 15-meter (45-foot) boat was sinking. Some clung to pieces of wreckage as they waited for rescuers to pull them to shore.
They described scenes of chaos as coast guard officers, army recruits, volunteers, and fishermen scrambled to help.
“Everyone who saw what was happening just jumped in the water, without thinking of their own safety,” said Stathis Samaras, a coast guard officer.
Most of the migrants survived, but a Syrian man and an Eritrean boy and his mother drowned.
As European Union leaders met in Brussels on Thursday to consider solutions to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, dramatic photos and video footage ensured that attention in Greece remained focused on Monday’s shipwreck in Rhodes, a cruise-ship destination.
One such image showed Eritrean Wegasi Nebiat being rescued by a bare-chested army sergeant. She smiled and giggled from her hospital bed Wednesday when shown the picture on front pages of newspapers from around the world.
Too weak to speak and using a respirator, Nebiat, who is from Eritrea, was recovering from a fever caused by near drowning. By Thursday, she was well enough to be released and board a ferry to Piraeus, near Athens.
Though most migrants who come to Europe by sea make their way from Libya to Italy’s shores, arrivals in Greece have nearly doubled this year to exceed 10,000 — including more than 1,000 in the past week alone — showing up on islands close to the Turkish coast.
Among them was 24-year-old Eritrean Yohannes Haile, who lost everything in the Rhodes shipwreck, including money he scraped together working as an Internet technician on a journey that started in 2010 and took him through Ethiopia, southern Sudan and Uganda on the way to Turkey. He paid about $6,000 dollars to smugglers along the way.
“I lost the last of the money I had in the sea — about 600 euros ($650),” Haile said after spending the night in a store room used by the coast guard. “I want to go to somewhere in Europe. It doesn’t matter where.”
Migrants or asylum seekers who register with Greek authorities get papers allowing them to remain in the country for between one and six months. For asylum seekers, the six-month permit can be renewed. Most make their way by ferry to Athens, hoping to continue their journeys to wealthier EU members with better welfare policies, such as Germany, Austria and Sweden.
Those like Mohammed Srou-Mallah, a 24-year-old accounting student from Damascus, can stay in Greece if they want. Syrians get six-month papers that can be automatically renewed as long as the conflict in their country continues.
When the boat crashed, Srou-Mallah managed to hang on to his smartphone, which was around his neck in a waterproof bag. Wrapped in a blanket, he said he planned to catch a plane to Athens once he was processed by authorities.
“Im not going near the sea for some time,” he said, smiling.
Witnesses say most of the migrants were below deck as the sailboat approached the shore Monday morning after a five-hour journey in choppy seas from the Turkish coastal town of Fetiye.
Two Syrian men accused of being at the helm have been arrested as smuggling suspects, though they say they are not smugglers. Authorities believe they did not realize they were in a treacherous patch of water.
“The boat was crushed by the rocks,” Srou-Mallah said. “Everyone tried to swim but the waves were too high.”