At least 18 migrants died last week in a deadly sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. It was one of the deadliest in recent years and experts fear others will follow as tension between Greece and Tukey soars in the Aegean Sea that divides them. Anthee Carassava traveled to the island of Lesbos and followed some of the Somali women who survived the shipwreck.
When monster waves overturned the boat, knocking it onto the rocky shores of this rugged island, Ismahan, like dozens of other Somali women crammed into the dinghy, struggled to stay alive.
“I was thrown overboard. But within seconds the people around me were dead and drowning. I grabbed a rubber tire that was keeping the dead woman afloat and clung to it, staying in rough seas for about an hour until the Greek police and authorities came to pull us out.”
“I never thought I would make it. These visions haunt my head now… corpses strewn in the sea… I close my eyes but I can’t sleep anymore,” she said.
She removes her long purple headscarf and reveals bumps and bruises on her head… scars left by her traumatic sea crossing from Turkey.
The trip was the final leg of an escape, as she calls it, from Somalia that began in early August…a risky odyssey she paid $900 for, fleeing the country’s drought and humanitarian crisis, but also the abuse, she admits, of her. husband and his family.
Now, however, a week after the Death Crossing, Ismahan says she would do it again.
“I had no other choice. I want to get asylum here and bring my eight children – two boys and six girls,” she said.
Curled up, now, in an Isobox of a refugee camp in Lesbos, Ismahan and five other Somali women survivors of the shipwreck will file their requests with the local authorities on Monday.
And while tough migration rules here are unlikely to grant them asylum, experts here are bracing for more migrant crossings.
Already this year, Greece has seen an increase of more than 150% in migrant sea crossings from Turkey compared to 2021. Much of this is linked to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the political crisis in Somalia and the resurgence of unrest in Lebanon and other pockets of the Middle East.
But it also comes amid renewed tension between longtime rivals but NATO allies Greece and Turkey as their two leaders face key election years.
Greece has linked the rising rate of refugee flows to Turkish designs to destabilize Greece, accusing it of turning a blind eye to smugglers who turn migrants’ misery into currency. He also criticized NGOs like Aegean Boat Watch for facilitating illegal migrant transfers.
VOA spoke to Tommy Olsen, the leader of the group, by telephone from Norway, days after the deadly shipwreck staged by Turkish smugglers.
“To get these boats out in such weather…it’s amazing that they even thought of that. And it shows how little human traffickers care about human lives. They only care about people. money,” he said.
Olsen said migrants were being used as pawns, as he said, in a bigger power game, especially ahead of elections in Greece and Turkey.
Both sides are trying to win and get votes, so they have to escalate nationalism to appear as defenders against the villain on the other side. But in doing so, they use innocent people as tools to achieve their goals.
Olsen says the situation in Turkey is becoming so difficult for refugees there, that many are already on the move because they fear new deportation orders to the countries they fled, or because a new leader who might succeed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is likely to be less tolerant of the 5 million refugees Turkey has hosted for nearly a decade now.
“If more people try to leave Turkey, more people will be on the move. But what options do they really have? They have to cross the Aegean Sea. There is no other option,” he said. declared.
This prospect leads Greece to strengthen its maritime and land patrols to block illegal crossings. It also calls on Turkey to do the same. But the UN refugee agency fears more shipwrecks could result from tougher border controls and illegal pushbacks that Greece and Turkey have carried out in recent months.
Reyhaneh Shakibaie, head of the UNHCR office in Lesvos, explains.
“We are very concerned about the loss of life in the Aegean Sea. We advise governments to facilitate safe passages to asylum that do not require migrants to travel illegally,” he said.
It is not certain that governments, and the refugees themselves, heed this advice. Ismahan and others, however, vow to continue their journey to safety at all costs.