Coast guard rescues 1,417 migrants in three days off Aegean islands

Coast guard rescues 1,417 migrants in three days off Aegean islands

Greece's coast guard rescued more than 1,400 migrants in nearly 60 search and rescue operations near several Greek islands in the eastern Aegean Sea over the past three days as the pace of new arrivals increase, authorities said Monday.

Tens of thousands of people, many of them fleeing war and conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, have been making their way from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands in inflatable dinghies, overwhelming cash-strapped and understaffed authorities on the islands.

The vast majority then head to mainland Greece and from there, try to access more prosperous European Union countries by either walking across the Balkans from northern Greece, or sneaking onto Italy-bound ferries from the west.

The 1,417 migrants rescued between Friday morning and Monday morning were picked up at sea in 59 separate incidents off the coasts of the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Agathonisi and Kos, the coast guard said.

Those figures do not include the hundreds of others who manage to reach the islands' coasts themselves, walking to the main towns to turn themselves in to local authorities and receive registration papers.

On the island of Kos alone, more than 150 migrants in at least six boats landed on the shore in the early hours of Monday morning.

Some 40 Syrians waved and cheered as their boat arrived at the popular tourist destination. Men jumped into the water to help women and children off the dinghy, with one man so overcome with emotion that he began to sob.

Mukhtar, a Somali migrant who arrived further north, on the island of Lesbos, said he had made his way to Greece in an effort to get to Norway where his family lives.

"I haven't seen my family for 20 years," said Mukhtar, who would only give his first name, in Mytilene, the island's capital. "I want to see my family."

He is one of some 124,000 migrants who reached the Greek islands by boat in the first seven months of 2015, a staggering 750 percent increase from the same period last year, according to the UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency. In July alone, there were 50,000 arrivals, about 70 percent from Syria. The vast majority land on five islands: Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros, the UNHCR said in a statement released Friday.

"It was very dangerous by the sea. We travelled four times, they caught us three times but the fourth time … we came here on a safe boat," Mukhtar said.

The migrants pay large sums to get to Europe. Just the short crossing from Turkey to Lesbos costs "approximately $500" said Sajid, a migrant from Afghanistan.

Arrivals have become so frequent they are now seen as routine by locals. On Kos, local residents and hotel employees watched unfazed Sunday as a dozen Pakistani migrants punctured their life raft and gathered their belongings as soon as they landed, and asked for directions to the nearest migrant detention center.

The migrants' trip is fraught with danger and anxiety about getting turned back.

Greece, in the throes of its worst ever financial crisis, is straining to accommodate the inflow. The new leftist government closed a large detention center outside Athens in February, leaving migrants to set up tents in public parks. It is now building a new center in central Athens where it says migrants will be free to come and go as they please. It expects to start moving people from parks by Tuesday.


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