Refugee tragedy continues despite deals
“I saw people who had been washed up on the rocks. Then I saw a drowned pregnant woman floating and next to her a child. They were all wearing lifejackets! I carried ten people with my boat to the coast guard vessel, which had arrived at the spot. 16 were drowned, maybe two missing.”
This description by a Greek fisherman of the horrific incident was even more dramatic for its simplicity. He had rushed to the spot to help the rescue operation carried out by the Greek navy and coastguards. The circumstances are familiar: A wooden boat carrying at least twenty migrants sank between the Greek island of Agathonisi and the Turkish coast from where it had set off. Greek and Turkish coastguards conducted separate search and rescue operations without apparently cooperating among themselves. Sixteen people including seven children drowned. Few survived.
During the last few years, the Aegean Sea has been the scene of many similar horrific incidents. But this one had a special significance. It happened on the anniversary of the EU-Turkey agreement to curb the flow of illegal migrants.
Signed two years ago under the then premiership of Ahmet Davutoğlu with an EU in panic, it was an emergency solution to put a stop to an increasing wave of desperate migrants/asylum seekers running away from war and destitution to find work and shelter in Europe. The deal stipulated that any “irregular migrant” who arrived in Greece after March 20, 2016, would be returned to Turkey while Turkey would send one Syrian refugee to Europe.
It sounded simple. EU member states promised to speed up the resettlement process of the refugees sent from Turkey via Greece, to accelerate visa liberalization for Turks and give generous financial support for the care of some three million refugees already in Turkey.
The EU claims that “the deal is working,” and only days ago, approved the remaining three billion euros promised to Turkey. But this did not prevent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from reminding the Europeans in his speech in Erzurum last Friday how they were begging him “not to open the doors,” and that if he had “let the doors open,” and let refugees rush towards Europe, the Europeans would have “run to hide in their holes.”
Two years after the deal, a lot has changed. The EU countries rushed to impose strict entry regulations on their borders and Eastern Europeans sealed their borders shut, effectively blocking the route through the Balkans.
The deal may have partially solved the problem but did not stop people from trying to reach Western Europe in every way possible, now more exposed to unsafe routes. It not only stopped smugglers to exploit desperate migrants but also made them increase their fees.
But it created a huge problem for Greece as being the first destination point in Europe for any migrant coming from Turkey. Since the signing of the deal and since the sealing of the Balkan route, it became a bottleneck of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, who are now stranded in Greece’s Aegean islands and mainland spots, living in over-crowded and inefficiently organized camps, waiting for their cases to be approved through an impossibly slow application process.
The tragic incident was an alarming reminder that the problem is far from gone. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, so far this year, some 4,000 people, mainly women and children from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have arrived by sea to Greece. Some 500 people have drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea.
“The latest tragedy at Agathonisi underlines in the worst and saddest way that human life cannot depend on the interests of smugglers, nor on the ‘policies’ of states,” Greek Migration Minister Dimitris Vitsas said. He has just taken over one of the most difficult government posts. His predecessor, a physician by profession, had to withdraw due to severe exhaustion.