NEWS

Abandoned migrants hope to stay

One day after hundreds of illegal migrants jumped off an abandoned smuggling ship off the northern coast of the island of Evia and stormed ashore at Mandoudi, officials yesterday said that they are in good health, but expressed concern over a number of them who are still missing. As of yesterday afternoon, 275 illegal migrants – mainly Iraqi Kurds – were in detention at a closed sports facility near Mandoudi, while according to accounts offered to authorities by migrants, as many as 350 of them had boarded the ship in Turkey. The Merchant Marine Ministry had reported on Wednesday that five migrants had drowned in the process of reaching the shores, only to retract the statement later. With many more still unaccounted for, officials are tight-lipped when asked to comment on the possibility of some of them having drowned, as no body has been found so far. The search continues by air, land and sea with coast-guard patrol boats, police units and helicopters. There is concern because according to (migrant) accounts, some had jumped off the ship while it was still in the open sea, Petros Mastakas, an official from the Athens office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Kathimerini English Edition from Mandoudi. On Wednesday, authorities located the 30-meter-long cargo ship used in the smuggling operation, left abandoned near the site where the migrants were found, bearing no flag or markings, while hours later they also tracked down three Turkish nationals believed to have been the traffickers. According to migrant accounts, the traffickers had abandoned the ship a few miles off the coast of Evia by boarding a speedboat. The three, identified as Mohammed Demertzi, 39, captain; Suleiman Saritak, 34, second mate; and Beli Hisli, 51, ship’s engineer, were taken before the public prosecutor yesterday, and will be held in custody pending trial. Improved reception According to UNHCR officials, the reception organized by local authorities and state agencies for the migrants is unprecedented for the country. I am pleased. It is the best reception that I have seen in the country so far, Mastakas said when commenting on the conditions of detention and quality of care provided to the group of illegal migrants. They are properly sheltered, with enough food, clothing and medical care. According to Mastakas, the area has been swamped by mobile medical units from the Red Cross, Doctors of the World, Doctors Without Borders, ambulances from a nearby hospital, as well as from the National First Aid Center. Certainly, there are a few areas where is room for improvement, such as clothing and the lack of an open space for them to walk about in, but overall it is by far the best operation so far, he said. The area was visited yesterday by Merchant Marine Minister Christos Papoutsis, the first high-level state official to visit a reception area where illegal migrants are held. The reception center and detention conditions of the migrants bear no resemblance to those back in early June, when Greek Coast Guard officers used excessive force on several of the 166 illegal migrants in detention on the island of Crete. The incident then had resulted in an urgent investigation by the Merchant Marine Ministry, and the hospitalization of several migrants for light injuries. According to the UNHCR, the 275 migrants on Evia, including 14 women and 13 children, are believed to be mainly Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi Arabs, Afghans and Pakistanis. The refugee agency has received clear signs that the majority of the migrants will seek to file asylum claims. Now, we will coordinate our efforts with the Public Order Ministry to see how the asylum procedure will be handled, Mastakas said. The group is large, the bureaucracy is enormous, and I hope that all efforts will be made. Country of origin A number of detained migrants who landed on Evia are believed to have undergone a grueling illegal journey from Afghanistan. Fleeing a country penalized earlier this year with UN sanctions for not handing over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden, and faced with continued violence between ruling Taleban forces and fighters of the Northern Alliance, the migrants are certain to claim asylum. The UNHCR in Athens has already expressed its concern over the Afghan migrants, as it is aware of the grim conditions faced by civilians, especially by women, on the ground in Afghanistan. According to the UNHCR, since September 2000, as many as 150,000 Afghans have fled to neighboring Pakistan, 10,000 more are stranded at the border with Tajikistan – which refuses them entry – while some 350,000 are internally displaced throughout the country. Famine, war, arbitrary executions and torture have forced the displacement of thousands of people, with a fraction of those managing to reach the borders of Europe. Afghan women frequently are the victims of ill-treatment simply for not following the strict dress code imposed by the Taleban, while they have little or no access to healthcare as the system is segregated and female doctors are scarce. Although Afghans are rarely seen at Greek borders, that is not the case with Iraqi Kurds. A stateless group fighting a two-front war in northern Iraq against Iraqi and Turkish forces, Iraqi Kurds are turning up in increasing numbers in Greece. In 1999 alone, the UNHCR had recorded as many as 906 asylum requests by Iraqi Kurds in Greece, while their numbers have soared in the last two years. Indicative of the situation on the ground faced by Iraqi Kurds is that they are the leading group of migrants who have received treatment at the Medical Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims (MRCT) in Athens. Specifically, as many as 56 people had visited the center, accounting for over 40 percent of the center’s patients.