Refugee flow to EU defies cold weather and crackdown

Harsh winter and stricter controls at the coastline fails to deter refugees from trying to reach Lesbos.

Assos, Turkey – People are now travelling from the farthest reaches of the Asian continent to Turkey and then by sea to the Greek islands and the European Union.

“We’ve had eight people from Tibet this week.” Zoe Livaditou, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) representative on Lesbos island, told Al Jazeera.

The Tibetans were among the 10,000-plus refugees who have landed on Lesbos in the first 10 days of December, according to IOM figures. 

December is when cold weather and rough seas are supposed to slow things down.

But on the latest trip to Assos on Turkey’s Aegean coast, everyone we spoke to – from aid workers to the local police and the smugglers – told us they same thing: they’ve never been busier.

It’s busy because the refugees fear that Europe and Turkey are about to pull down the shutters.

Read more: Follow the journeys of refugees risking everything to reach Europe

The EU has promised €3bn ($3.3bn) in aid to Turkey for refugees and to kick-start the stalled talks on Turkey’s ambitions to join the EU.

In return, Turkey is expected to slow down the flow of people across the Aegean.

A crackdown has already started, at least in the Canakkale province, where parts of the coastline are closer to the Greek islands than anywhere else – just five kilometres across the sea.

It has become the most popular launching-off point for refugees.

But provincial governor Hamza Erkal told Al Jazeera that the crackdown was planned long before a deal was reached with the EU.

Beefing up security

He has drafted in 300 Jandarma special forces from a neighbouring province. Their deployment was delayed because they were needed to provide security during November’s general election.

Imagine how big the tragedy it must be in Syria that despite the risks of drowning, people are still determined to cross, even in this weather

Turkish provincial governor Hamza Erkal

But now they are in Canakkale and making their presence felt. As the Al Jazeera crew filmed at a large, recently abandoned refugee camp site next to the sea, a coastguard patrol boat sped past.

Ten minutes later, half a dozen men in military attire emerged from the bushes and ran towards us brandishing weapons and shouting. The coastguard had mistaken us for refugees and alerted the special forces.

Governor Erkal insisted his motives are humanitarian and designed to stop people dying at sea.

“Imagine how big the tragedy it must be in Syria that despite the risks of drowning, people are still determined to cross, even in this weather,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to stop.”

The governor was frustrated with the Greek coastguards as, according to him, they patrol the whole coastline with just one boat while Turkey has four helicopters, eight boats and two larger ships.

He accuses Europe of ignoring the refugee issue for years and “only when that baby boy Aylan drowned, did the issue touch the hearts of Europeans”.

Before that, he said, they were not interested.

Another official told Al Jazeera that they were sympathetic towards people trying to cross to Europe for a better life and that their crackdown is designed simply to save lives.

The security forces in Canakkale are still busy.

In a morning drive up and down the coast, the police were seen pulling over five coaches and minibuses filled with refugees, while the coastguard boat came back and forth with people intercepted on rubber dinghies.

The refugees, and the smuggling gangs, move further down the coast away from the crackdown in order to avoid this final hurdle. But that results in longer sea journeys to reach Lesbos or any other Greek island.

The IOM says many more people are landing on beaches towards the south-eastern end of Lesbos near the airport.

In the first 10 days of this month, over 30 people have drowned, many of them children, in the freezing waters of the Aegean.

Follow Bernard Smith on Twitter: @JazeeraBernard

Source: Al Jazeera


More from Features
Most Read