Double Wreck of Migrant Ships Off Greece Emerging as a Tragedy of Homeric Proportions

Relations between Greece and Turkey are suddenly taut as a tightrope.

AP/Thanassis Stavrakis
Migrants from Afghanistan gather at an old school used at a temporary shelter on the Greek island of Kythira, October 7, 2022. AP/Thanassis Stavrakis

ATHENS — The wrecks of a pair of ships carrying migrants — in which at least 22 are dead and dozens missing in the waters between Greece and Turkey — are by no means the first migrant disasters at sea in the storied waters and will likely not be the last. Yet the leaders of both countries seem incapable of solving the problem on a bilateral  level. 

As if to throw that reality into sharp relief, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Tayyip Erdogan were both at Prague this week for a two-day  pan-European parley. Late Thursday, at a press conference, Mr. Erdogan criticized Greece for “provoking tensions” and then, following an impromptu but  impassioned rebuttal from Mr. Mitsotakis, walked out of a formal dinner. Mr. Erdogan has previously publicly stated that he will refuse to speak with Mr. Mitsotakis directly.

Meantime the catastrophe threatens to bring already fraught relations between Greece and Turkey, allies in the North Atlantic Treaty, to a new low.  At the island of Kythera Thursday,  a sailboat ran into steep rocks and sank, leaving the migrants on board to scramble up rock faces 65 feet high as waves lashed them from below, with some washed out to sea amid ongoing search and rescue efforts.  On the same day hundreds of miles away at Lesbos, another shipwreck left 17 African women and one boy dead.

In Greece, the mayor of Kythera,  Stratos Charchalakis, told a Greek television channel that  “the sea beat [the migrants] back like octopuses. I saw five people being swept overboard and drowning within five seconds.”  Mr. Charchalakis said that had the wind shifted, the migrants might have landed at a sandy beach instead of at a dangerous rocky outcropping.

 It was not immediately clear where the Kythera vessel originated. As for the wreck at the Greek island of Lesbos however,  Greek media initially reported that a dinghy packed with an estimated 40 people departed late Wednesday from the Turkish coast under adverse conditions, with winds gusting upwards of 45 miles per hour. 

Yet subsequent reports indicated that smugglers may have used a fishing boat to ferry migrants to the edge of Greek territorial waters fishing boat to carry the migrants to the edge of Greece’s territorial waters before launching a smaller vessel that then sank just off the large island’s  eastern coast.

The Greek coast guard and army, along with a Hellenic Air Force Super Puma helicopter, were carrying out search and rescue operations in that area looking for at least 13 more missing persons. The women were reportedly as young as 20 and from African countries.

Yet it was the dramatic video footage of rescue workers pulling migrants off a craggy cliff face opposite Kythera’s port of Diakofti that ignited television screens in  Greece and underscored how the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean remains as intractable as ever. Kathimerini reported that 80 people had been rescued, 18 children among them, and many by ropes that local volunteers lowered over the cliffs to pull them to safety. A spokesman for the Greek coast guard, Nikos Kokkalas, said that a search continued for as many as 15 people still believed to be missing.

Athens wasted no time in assigning blame, accusing Ankara of fomenting the latest disasters at sea. In a statement to the press, the powerful Greek minister of shipping and island policy, Yiannis Plakiotakis, said that  “Once again, Turkey’s tolerance of the rings of unscrupulous traffickers costs human lives.” 

 “As long as the Turkish Coast Guard does not prevent their actions,” Mr. Plakiotakis added, “the traffickers pile desperate people, without safety measures, on boats that cannot withstand the weather conditions, putting their lives in mortal danger.”

Autumn winds can blow strongly in the Aegean Sea, and even passenger ferry service to and between islands this time of year can be suspended at a moment’s notice due to adverse weather conditions.  Some regular such ferry services were canceled on Thursday and Friday. The smugglers who profit from the illegal trade in refugee traffic to Greek and Italian territorial waters are, of course, neither deterred or concerned by stormy weather.

There are indications, however, that Greece has had enough. The Greek minister for migration, Notis Mitarakis wrote in a tweet Thursday,  “Urgent call to Turkey to take immediate action to prevent all irregular departures due to harsh weather conditions. Already today many lives lost in the Aegean, people are drowning in unseaworthy vessels. EU must act.” Turkey has denied such allegations in the past.

 Greek government spokesman Yiannis Oikonomou said “It was a criminal act what was done yesterday, to put people on boats in such weather conditions. There are enormous responsibilities, at best, [and] negligence on the part of the Turkish authorities for this tragedy.”

Turkish media on Thursday carried predictably few reports of the maritime calamities, focusing largely on President Erdogan’s trip to Prague to participate in the 44-country gathering to inaugurate the  so-called European Political Community. 

The war in Ukraine and Europe’s energy crisis are expected to dominate  the two-day event, where any spontaneous private discussion between the Greek and Turkish leaders  is considered unlikely. Messrs Erdogan and Mitsotakis are seasoned sparring partners,  but Turkish intransigence on a host of issues has lately been on the rise.  

That, combined with the harrowing images of more human tragedy  in Greek waters, will add fuel to the argument that NATO treaty ally or not, Turkey is an increasingly unreliable partner when it comes to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean Sea.

In his press statement Mr. Oikonomou warned that  “it is mathematically certain that we will mourn victims as long as Turkey does not do what is required by the agreements it has signed and by International Law.”

The New York Sun

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