It is around 6 a.m. on September 1 and a rubber dinghy is on the move between Chios and Cesme. Forty-nine men, women and children are crammed on board, the youngest just 4 months old. They look frightened. They are yelling. One of the migrants is handling the small engine. It’s obvious he does not know how to operate it as he makes dangerous turns, at one point hitting the coast guard boat as he tries to reach an uninhabited islet. There is just one military guard post on this small island, less than 4 nautical miles from the Turkish coast, manned by soldiers doing their military service.
The coast guard patrol is trying to immobilize the migrant boat without capsizing it and putting the passengers at risk of drowning. Failing to stop it, the coast guard tries to shepherd the dinghy to shore with relative safety. The operator of the small boat has other ideas, however. As the first rays of sunshine appear over the horizon, the boat heads for the rocks in a bid to avoid the patrol. Once ashore, the migrants slash the dinghy, throw the engine in the water and scatter. The coast guard officers call for backup and in a few minutes are joined by a smaller, more agile craft and head toward the island. Soldiers and coast guard try to round up the migrants who have scattered on the islet. They explain, in English and with hand gestures, that there is no food or water on the island as the migrants gather in one spot. The undertaking lasts more than two hours and when the migrants are finally all on board, the sun is high in the sky.
The patrol boats are designed for tracking and patrolling, not for transporting large numbers of people – the migrants are stowed stern to bow as the boat heads to Chios.
One person who stands out among the frightened passengers is a mother bottle-feeding her newborn. A teenage boy sitting between her and his little sister tries to put on a brave face. He clenches his teeth and looks straight ahead, trying to avoid the eyes of the crew.
The face of the woman next to him is very different – tears streak the makeup she put on before the trip. When the boat enters the port of Chios and an officer hoists a Greek flag, she is the first to applaud.
Over the last three months, the northeastern Aegean islands have dealt with a growing wave of migrants coming to Greece illegally via Turkey using inflatable or other craft. The most recent available statistics show that in 2012, 3,345 people crossed into Greece illegally by sea. In 2013 that number rose to 10,508. By the end of August this year, the number reached 17,639, with estimates suggesting it will top 31,000 by the end of the year. In August 2012, 379 illegal migrants were detained, in August, 2013, 926, and during the same month this year, that number reached 6,297. There are frequent coast guard patrols along the sea border but they are unable to contain the massive influx of undocumented migrants, most of whom come from war-torn Syria.
Coast guard officers try to identify migrant ships when they are still outside Greek waters so that they can alert Turkish authorities and direct the migrants back. However, many boats are not tracked properly due to the country’s extensive shoreline and because the number of migrants is too high for the coast guard’s capabilities. Some migrant boats make it into Greek waters because of delayed communication from Turkish officials.
Arriving at the port of Chios, the migrants are detained, registered and fingerprinted. Their information is then submitted to the prosecutor’s office as a case of illegal entry into Greece before they are handed over to the police, who are responsible for handling undocumented migrants. Some will be transported to a detention center in Mersinidi, which has a capacity of just 130 people, until it is determined whether they are refugees in need of asylum or economic migrants, who are then put into the deportation system. The situation in the past few months, however, has become unmanageable. Police are reluctant to round up migrants because they simply have nowhere to put them. This means that many are held under the jurisdiction of the coast guard for several days. Chios’s coast guard chief, Yiannis Argyrakis, told Kathimerini that last year – when funds were not available for feeding detained migrants – coast guard officers would pay for food and medicine out of their own pockets.
The services and local communities in the northern Aegean are finding it increasingly hard to bear the burden of the migrant influx.
Argyrakis says that he has often had to seek financial support from local businesses to pay for repairs to coast guard boats, which require frequent maintenance as they are used well beyond their capacities.
Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told Kathimerini that the Hellenic Coast Guard maximizes “every available euro” made available through the European Commission’s External Border Fund and has managed the coast guard’s “biggest equipment procurement program since the 2004 Olympic Games.”
However, Frontex, the European Union’s border patrol agency, has reduced funding to Greece. “Direct funding has declined by 75 percent compared to four years ago,” says Varvitsiotis. “The foreign forces allotted to the country to help – such as crews and boats – are very small compared to what is needed.”
Varvitsiotis called for Frontex to be granted a bigger operational budget and for a stop to accusations against the Greek coast guard concerning the inhumane treatment of migrants. The coast guard is “underequipped and underfunded,” he said.
“We have made tens of thousands of rescues and have had very few – however tragic they are – losses,” Varvitsiotis said.
From satirical poetry to electric shocks:
The testimony of a Syrian refugee
The majority of the migrants who end up on Chios are refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria and are subject to different regulations than migrants from other countries. After they’ve been processed by the coast guard, they are given a six-month reprieve from deportation and are released from custody, though there are no measures in place to manage them after that point.
The horror stories they tell justify their efforts to flee.
“I wrote satirical poems and novels on the Web and on Facebook. They received a good response, mainly from educated people, students. I was arrested and ordered to stop writing or suffer punishment. I ignored it. I was arrested again,” 32-year-old Mohammed tells Kathimerini. “They broke into my home, armed. I was detained for three years. They pulled out my nails with pliers, they electrocuted me, they dunked my head in water and asked me to tell them which of my friends shared the same ideas as me at the university. I did not provide them with any names. Later the revolution began in Syria and I crossed illegally into Turkey. Now I am here. It is my first day in Greece,” he says. “I want to follow my dream of writing. My weapon is my pen and my words are my bullets,” he adds, cracking a smile.
Other stories heard on Chios are more common but equally heartbreaking.
“I have nothing to feed my children. I just want a job so that I can support my family,” says 44-year-old Omar from Eritrea after his afternoon prayers outside the coast guard station.
The holding area beside the Chios coast guard’s headquarters is unsuitable for habitation. There are three container homes and a few tents donated by the army to protect the migrants from the elements.
The only time that the situation had been somewhat bearable in the few weeks before my visit was during a trip to the island by Public Order Minister Vassilis Kikilias.
“People sleep where dogs sleep,” says 28-year-old Giorgos Atsalis, who runs a business right next to the coast guard station. Every day he sees migrants fighting to stay clean with a hose. “The first thing a tourist sees is garbage, the water that pools outside smells bad. We worry about getting sick. It is not the fault of the migrants of course,” he says, adding that it is the responsibility of the municipality to keep the area clean.
The municipality claims it cannot handle such a severe problem. It recently conceded a space in the town center to the coast guard to operate as a detention center. Originally built as a venue for meetings, however, it lacks much of the necessary infrastructure.
“The people of Chios are sensitive to the problem,” Nikos Pantelaros, a doctors and volunteer at Doctors of the World, tells Kathimerini.
Doctors of the World provides migrants on Chios and other islands with primary healthcare, while other nongovernmental organizations deliver aid. Local businesses are also playing their part by funding coast guard ship repairs.
“The local community is responding. A recent drive to collect food and other items saw a sizable response,” says lawyer Natasha Strachini from volunteer group Lathra, which is active in Chios.
“We were once refugees, now they are. They are fleeing to save their lives and on the way they drown. They aren’t coming over here for fun. They are trying to survive, they’ve left their homes and whatever wealth they had behind. But it is not their fault. War is causing all of this,” says Antonis Chiotis, who helps in the maintenance of the coast guard boats.
“Soon the weather will turn bad, which will make the situation all the more difficult,” says the newly elected mayor of Chios, Manolis Vournous. “Unfortunately the migrants already live in bad conditions but the municipal services try to help every day.”
“This isn’t just Chios’s problem. This isn’t just Greece’s problem. This is a problem of geopolitical upheaval. The European Union, of which we are a member, has to act on this. Neither Greece nor some island in the Aegean can have its own policy, even if it is just preventative, to deal with this issue,” says Vournous.