IOM Responds as Greece Rivals Italy as Point of Entry to EU for Sea-borne Migrants
Greece - The Greek islands near Turkey's coast now rival Italy as the top destination for irregular migrants seeking entry into the EU by sea this year, signaling the shift from the central Mediterranean route to the Eastern route.
Some 61,000 migrants have arrived by sea to Greece this year, nearly doubling 2014’s full-year total of 34,442. During the current month of June, between 650 and 1,000 migrants are reaching the islands daily.
So far, around 65,000 migrants have arrived via the sea route to Italy, according to IOM estimates, which has proven to be a much deadlier passage with at least 1,820 fatalities this year, including the death this week of a Gambian youth, reportedly shot by assailants from a nearby boat while in Libyan waters.
Through all of June last year a total of 763 migrants died in waters between North Africa and Italy, fewer than a quarter of the year’s ultimate death toll, estimated at some 3,200 fatalities.
At least 37 migrants have died or gone missing near Greece this year. On Tuesday, six migrants from Syria died off the coast of Turkey as they were reportedly trying to reach the island of Kos, while 64 migrants were rescued. An estimated 80,524 migrants have arrived to Greece by both land and sea routes this year.
Syrians continue to be one of the largest migrant groups entering Europe via either Italy or Greece. Syrian entries to Italy through the end of May 2015 are 3,185 – slightly more than the 2,941 arriving from The Gambia. The top three nationalities recorded entering Italy in 2015 are Eritrean (10,985), Somali (4,958) and Nigerian (4,630), all out-pacing Syrian arrivals this year.
By comparison, 28,581 Syrians have already reached Greece by both land and sea this year (as of 31 May), compared to 32,520 in all of 2014.
IOM Deputy Director General Laura Thompson, in Athens yesterday, thanked the Government of Greece and the Hellenic Coastguard for its success in saving thousands of lives and its efforts to improve the management of a serious migration situation in the midst of the economic crisis gripping the country.
“In the first five months of 2015, over 60,000 migrants risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean and enter Greece. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Hellenic Coastguard, comparatively few lives have been lost," she said.
The key points of entry are the Greek islands of Lesvos, Samos, Kos and Chios, with Lesvos alone receiving over half of all arrivals. The smaller islands of Pserimos, Farmakonisi, Agathonisi, Oinousses, Megisti and Gavdos also are receiving migrants, overstretching modest local means to respond.
IOM's Chief of Mission in Greece, Daniel Esdras, warns that the islands are facing shortages in capacity and resources needed to adequately handle the arrivals. “This is only the beginning. The facts and figures cannot describe the reality of the situation on Greek shores," he said.
Anticipating a shift in flows to eastern Greek isles – due partly to the erection of a 12.5km barrier at Evros in 2011, which diverted migrants from land routes to sea routes – IOM Greece has been steadily posting staff at the main ports of entry, where they contribute to relief efforts and border management at ports.
On its own initiative and through the collection of donations, IOM Greece provides newly rescued migrants with immediate humanitarian assistance including the distribution of blankets, clothes, shoes and pharmaceutical supplies.
IOM was ready with 200 thermal blankets for migrants who were rescued at sea and brought to the island of Lesvos on April 23, 2015.
“The pictures of migrants packed in dinghies or lying on the ports of the islands during the tourist season may have attracted the attention of global public opinion and media, but IOM staff have been immersed in these intense moments every day and night from the beginning of the year," said Esdras. "For us, this is more than just numbers. Local authorities have asked our staff in Lesvos to contribute to the rescue of children in the middle of the night and to help with pregnant women in labour who arrived at the port," he added.
IOM Greece has posted specialized information officers on the islands of Lesvos, Crete and Samos over the last two years, and a specialized officer was appointed as Focal Point on Aegean Rescues.
IOM information officers are also dispatched immediately to the islands of Samos, Kos, Gavdos, Chios and Agathonisi upon learning of the arrival of new migrants.
By working directly with rescued migrants, IOM Greece information officers collect data and information on migrants' profiles, the routes they travelled, what they paid, their final destination and other factors which drove them to migrate.
In Athens, Ambassador Thompson also welcomed the continuous support from the governments of Norway, the United Kingdom and Switzerland for IOM's work assisting migrants in Greece, especially the most vulnerable among them.
"IOM Greece’s efforts are possible because of this support, and I want to thank them on behalf of IOM, and more importantly, on behalf of all the migrants who have been assisted," she said.
IOM Greece also works closely with Frontex, the Hellenic Coastguard and the First Reception Service to identify vulnerable migrants including unaccompanied minors, elderly migrants and those with medical needs, and families with children. Vulnerable migrants are then referred to authorities for appropriate care.
"Reality has overrun our predictions, needs are exceeding the available capacity, the desperation of these people leads them to take fatal risks, and the organized crime of smugglers is expanding every day. We need to take the management of migration out of the hands of smugglers. Migrants trust the smugglers more than the authorities. There is no time left,” Esdras urged.
“You are in Greece, not Italy.”
On Tuesday June 10th, just after midnight, the phone rang twice and stopped. Chryssa, the IOM staffer posted in Western Crete, called back but no one replied. At dawn she tried again. This time there was a police officer on the other end who reported the rescue at sea of more than one hundred migrants that had been transferred to Paleochora.
Chryssa arrived at the stadium where more than 250 Somalis, Sudanese, Egyptians and Syrian migrants were sheltered and first aid was being provided to the new arrivals. They were mostly men, a few women, and more than 45 unaccompanied children.
They asked Chryssa where they were. “You are in Greece, not Italy,” she replied.
The rescued migrants had met their smugglers in Alexandria, Egypt. The deal was to take them to Italy for 2,500 euros per person. Before disembarking, they were divided into groups and put into small boats; while at sea, they were transferred to a bigger boat. Four smugglers were among them, but after seven days on board, when the engine broke down and ran out of fuel, they left on another boat promising they would return with gasoline. They never did.
“We were left with no food or water. Someone called a man he knew in Italy, an activist, and he contacted the Italian authorities,” a Syrian migrant told IOM staff.
Communications ensued between the Greek and Italian authorities and it was decided that the closest port was in Greek territory.
Chryssa and other IOM staff stayed all night and day at the stadium in Paleochora, spending most of their time with the minors to reassure them about the next steps. Staff also contacted the First Reception Service and the National Referral Service to locate accommodation centres for the children.
The children, all from Egypt, asked Chryssa to call their mothers from her mobile phone. No one replied.
Crete was among the Greek islands that received more than 1,200 migrants.