from Turkish waters to Greek waters

Today I met a woman who keeps watch at night for refugee boats. She has a small group of people who live near the beach and they take turns to watch – with binoculars – and to be on call to respond. Most of the boats these days are met either by the Greek coastguard or by Frontex, but about ten per cent of them make it to the shore without being intercepted.

When a refugee boat leaves Turkey, while they’re still in Turkish waters they’re at risk of being caught and ‘pushed back’ by the Turkish coastguard. Some of the methods used sound very dangerous, such as the Turkish craft circling the refugee boat, and there have been many reports of shots being fired – presumably into the air.

If this happened to all the boats, none would get through. (Several people have told me that the reason it doesn’t happen all the time is that the smugglers pay off the coastguard, in exchange for the latter turning a blind eye to some of the boats.)

If a refugee boat makes it to Greek waters, in principle it is now safe from being pushed back. The weather tends to be worse in Greek waters because it is further from the mountains which shelter the Turkish shoreline. So now the risk is more from stormy weather or engine failure and less from being intercepted.

Frontex, which is a European border force, and includes boats operating under the British flag – I’ve seen one in the harbour here – patrols the Greek waters, along with the Greek coastguard. Apparently most of the captains and crews of both the Frontex and the Greek coastguard boats do their best to rescue refugees, rather than putting them in more danger. In general they meet the boats out at sea and ask the refugees to transfer from the dinghies into their big boats. They take the refugees into Mytilini harbour, put them on buses and drive them to Moria camp.

If the refugees refuse to transfer to the Frontex/coastguard boats, then volunteers meet them on the shore. The woman I met is an experienced life guard. She has a really well-rehearsed system for getting everyone off the boats safely, keeping people calm, providing dry clothing and handing them over to the Greek police.