ROME — When only 155 migrants and refugees reached the Greek islands from Turkey last Sunday, after a daily average of more than 4,000, you might think authorities would feel relieved. Instead, they were worried sick.
“As hard as it is to see these people make this treacherous trip every day, it is even more worrying when they don’t come,” said Alexandra Fless of the International Organization for Migration in Greece. “We don’t know if they were stopped, if their ships sank or just why there was such a drastic drop.”
The notable absence of arrivals (which has since increased to around 1,000 a day) followed a video that went viral which seemed to show a member of the Greek coast guard trying to sink a rubber dinghy full of Syrian refugees.
As the overloaded raft drifted close to the ostensible rescue vessel, a uniformed crewman poked and prodded it with a nautical hook until, it appears, he punctured it. The boat then listed over to a Turkish vessel from which the refugees were rescued. An officer on the Turkish rescue vessel caught the incident on camera and first published it in Middle East Eye.
Amnesty International condemned the apparent offense, pointing to four other incidents during which Greek officials reportedly pushed back vessels full of refugees and migrants. The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately denied wrongdoing. “The Hellenic Coastguard categorically denies the articles in the foreign press, as well as the doctored audiovisual material on a foreign website, according to which a Hellenic Coastguard vessel allegedly tried to sink a boat carrying refugees,” they said in statement. “We believe it to be at the very least contradictory to allege that the Hellenic Coastguard supposedly follows such practices, which are incompatible with the values of our culture and which are condemnable at a time when the Hellenic Coastguard, from early 2015 until today, has saved some 90,000 refugees from the sea in Search and Rescue operations.”
Greece has borne the brunt of the migrant influx in recent months as people fleeing war and economic strife traverse the nation on their way north to Germany. But it is becoming increasingly difficult for those in search of relief to find it. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 migrants were stuck on the Greek-Macedonian border as guards there used racial profiling to determine who should and should not be allowed to cross the border to make their way north. Only Syrians who could prove their nationality were allowed through. Nearly a dozen Iranian refugees sewed their mouths shut in a form of protest.
Historically, migrant movement tends to decrease during the winter months, but authorities working with refugees have warned that this is already an exceptional year. As many as a million more migrants are thought to be waiting to make the crossing to Greece from Turkey and tens of thousands are known to be in Libya, waiting for the opportunity to cross to Italy. In the first three weeks of November, around 1,800 migrants and refugees were rescued off the coast of Libya heading to Italy, down from more than 5,000 in October.
As the situation worsens in Libya and authorities continue to crack down on human trafficking rings, migrants have increasingly opted for the shorter trip from Turkey to Greece, taking a land route to the north along what some call “the Black Road,” which takes far longer on foot, but is deemed much safer.
As European nations shore up their borders amid increasing security fears, however, entry may become much more difficult and authorities worry that migrants will start crossing by the deadlier Libya-to-Italy route again. After the Paris attacks, reports that one or two of the assassins had entered Europe via the migrant route did little to help ease those fears.
For the first time in years, authorities also stopped a boat trying to cross the Adriatic to avoid the Balkan land route. Crossing the frigid Adriatic in the winter months could prove far more dangerous than the routes through Greece or Italy because of rough seas.
Earlier this month, the European Union sent a draft proposal to the United States asking for help not only by resettling more Syrian refugees, but by lending military might to help stem the flow out of the conflict areas.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, an Italian, penned the proposal that included tapping into the assets used by America’s Sixth Fleet that patrols the Mediterranean. They also want American forces already present in the region to stop or scare people smugglers. That would likely cause a backlog in the conflict areas, but ultimately could result in pressure to open more centers to help facilitate asylum on the other side of the dangerous seas.
According to La Stampa, the requests to the U.S. also include assisting Turkey in patrolling its seas, and stepping up intelligence sharing when it comes to Libya. The request was made before the Paris attacks and before the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, so only time will tell how those events may have affected the mood in Washington.
On Sunday, leaders will meet yet again to discuss migration at an EU-Turkey migration summit to be held in Brussels under tight security. When the agenda was set in October, the priorities were to finalize distribution numbers for the relocation of refugees; the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 have changed the context considerably.
While the migrant numbers are down for the moment, there has not been a day without migrants landing somewhere in Europe in over nine months. More than 850,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe in 2015 so far, with authorities documenting more than 3,500 deaths at sea that they are aware of.