AEGEAN SEA, Greece ― The rescue boat set off in the pre-dawn hours, slicing its way across the vast, glass-like waters separating Greece from Turkey as it searched for travelers in distress.
For smugglers operating along the Turkish coast, these dark hours before the winds pick up are the perfect time to set off rafts full of refugees and migrants seeking to arrive on European shores and build a better life for themselves.
Last month, The Huffington Post boarded a small Portuguese maritime police boat navigating these waters to get a first-hand look at how these travelers are identified and brought to safety.
The police team works under the umbrella of Frontex, the European Union’s border patrol agency. It intensified its search and rescue efforts in the area last year after scores of refugees washed up dead on Greece’s shores due to poorly maintained boats sinking and lifejackets made with sand sending people to their deaths minutes after they hit the water.
On this particular mission last month, the boat’s three-man crew rescued 26 adults and children and brought them safely to Lesbos, a Greek island located only a few miles west of Turkey.
Here’s what happened:
5:20 a.m.: Leaving the Lesbos Harbor
The Arade maritime police boat speeds off from a harbor in the town of Molyvos, on the northern tip of Lesbos island, and heads toward the ‘hotspot’ area where boats carrying refugees are typically spotted.
It’s a surprisingly small vessel compared to other rescue ships in the Mediterranean, such as massive frigates, which can transport hundreds and house a crew for weeks at a time. It has small front and back decks, and a shell-covered area where the captain uses radar technology to scan for rafts. Below deck, a small compartment holds blankets, military gear and bulletproof vests that the policemen use as a precaution when rescuing people.
Lesbos, once a quiet island attracting western European tourists and birdwatchers, suddenly became known as the epicenter of the refugee crisis last year after thousands of refugees arrived daily.
The number dropped in March after the EU and Turkey signed a deal to stem the growing flow of migrants and refugees streaming into Europe, but people have again begun taking their chances making the perilous voyage.
“In the last few days we already have had three of four groups,” Capt. Carlos Rodrigues said.
The business of saving lives can weigh on the crew, policeman Ricardo Pereira said. Since their stint in Greece began almost three months ago, they have resuscitated three people and captured five smugglers, some of whom hid among others on the rafts.
“But we are strong,” added David Melo, another crew member. Happy thoughts of family and home keep them going.
6:20 a.m.: The Crew Spots A Raft Headed Toward Greece
A tiny black dot suddenly appears on the radar screen, mounted to the left of the boat’s steering wheel. Rodrigues lays on the gas, directing the vessel toward the spot on the horizon.
Pereira grabs a pair of binoculars to get a better glimpse from the rear of the boat and then nods to the others.
“We’ve got one,” Rodrigues confirms. He pages the Hellenic Coast Guard to let them know.
But the Arade can only get so close: The black raft is still in Turkish waters and the rescuers cannot enter because Turkey is not a member of the EU.
Rodrigues calls the Turkish Coast Guard, which has a legal responsibility to rescue a ship if passengers in its waters are in distress.
“I called 10 times or more,” Rodrigues says, but no one picks up.
Pereira and Melo head down into the storage compartment and strap on bulletproof vests.
“Just in case,” Pereira says.
They then stand on the ship’s starboard side, ready to grab onto the oncoming raft and begin the rescue operation.
6:45 a.m.: The Raft Approaches The Arade
The raft floats slowly into Greek waters. A Swedish rescue boat approaches and circles the area to offer assistance.
“Stop the boat!” all three crew members repeatedly yell.
The raft’s motor turns off.
Rodrigues aligns his ship with the raft, and throws down buoys to the passengers.
Docile and shaking, the men and women only speak when they are addressed:
“Where are you from?” the crew asks in English.
Nigeria, Congo and Syria, one man, assuming the unofficial role as the group’s spokesperson, says.
“How much did you pay to come on this boat?”
“One thousand dollars,” the man responds. He’s asked about medical emergencies that require immediate attention, and says there aren’t any.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Coast Guard finally gets in touch, saying they didn’t hear their radio and therefore couldn’t perform a rescue operation in their own waters in time.
But Rodrigues notes that Turkey uses more sophisticated ships that can travel faster than the Arade, and could have reached the raft more quickly than they did.
7:00 a.m.: The Refugees Climb Aboard The Arade
There are 26 people on the raft, including three children. The three crew members each pick up a child and put them in the boat’s indoor area. They then help the women, followed by the men, out of the raft and onto the Arade.
One woman, who identifies herself as only Marie, says in French that her family helped her escape her home country of the Congo. She says she and others spent one week living in a Turkish forest before getting on the dinghy that morning.
She says she has no family or friends in Europe and has no idea where she wants to end up.
Another woman, who is traveling with the three children, is visibly uneasy. She sits indoors with two of her children next to Rodrigues.
“Are you the father?” Rodrigues asks one man, who had offered to hold one of the young girls in his lap. He shakes his head no.
The woman, crying silently, speaks up to say the father of her children had died in an explosion in Syria.
Rodrigues pages the Hellenic Coast Guard again to tell them the Arade will head back to the shore soon. Pereira and Melo fasten the rubber boat — full of purses and backpacks, some of which are wrapped in plastic so as not to get wet — to the back of the Arade.
“Let’s go to Greece!” he says to the group of passengers. Men throw their hands in the air in thanks. The single mother grins. Others nod in thanks, unable to utter a word.
The nationalities that come aboard the Arade are growing increasingly diverse, Rodrigues says. A recent rescue even included people from the Dominican Republic and Nepal.
“This is the door for Europe now,” he adds.
Yet those doors are currently sealed. The EU-Turkey deal enabled member states to slam their borders shut, leaving Greece to deal with those who survive the journey from Turkey but now have nowhere to go. According to UNHCR data published in June, 44,148 refugees and migrants are currently stuck on the mainland. Another 8,430 are spread across Greek islands.
8:20 a.m.: The Arade Returns To Shore
The passengers, many of whom are wearing winter coats, bow their heads to avoid the scorching morning sun as the Lesbos coastline comes into view.
A little boy on board, however, glues his face to the window, taking in his first glimpses of Greece.
Only a few months ago, hundreds of thousands of orange life jackets had littered the Lesbos beaches, as if the refugee crisis had stamped itself into the landscape of the island. Authorities have now cleared the remains of those journeys, moving the lifejackets and capsized boats to a landfill away from view, where it now sits in piles at least 10 feet high.
In the idyllic port of Skala, just east of Molyvos, volunteers from an NGO called Lighthouse Relief waited to greet the newcomers.
As soon as the boat docks, the aid workers mechanically hand out water bottles, crackers and blankets, which the passengers drape over their down jackets despite the 100-degree heat.
Finally, they are given the green light to step onto European soil. They all scramble, jumping to grab a hand as if worried that a second wasted would mean they were no longer welcome.
Lighthouse volunteers take them to a shady area where they rummage through plastic containers of clothing and shoes. Rodrigues, Pereira and Melo step into the black dinghy to inspect all the belongings and return them to their owners.
A bus then pulls up. It would take the travelers to either Moria or Kara Tepe, two refugee camps on Lesbos.
Meanwhile, the three policemen deflate the raft and discard it on the rocky Skala beach.
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