'Don't move!' Greek coastguards rescue migrants in Aegean

Samos (Greece) (AFP) –


"Sit down! Don't move! Be quiet!" The crew of the Greek coastguard patrol boat jumps to life as they pull nearly 50 migrants from a rubber dinghy close to the island of Samos.

They spotted the migrant dinghy about 90 minutes into their run from the island of Samos, their 18-metre patrol boat aided by the radar of a larger Greek coastguard vessel nearby.

For about an hour, the Greeks repeatedly hailed the Turkish coastguard to intercept the dinghy: "Please react!"

There is no response, so the Greeks move in.

From a distance, just a handful of people can be seen sitting on the sides of the dinghy, but it soon becomes clear that it is packed with dozens of people huddled back-to-back.

By the time the patrol reaches the migrants -- just inside Greek territorial waters -- armed coastguards from the larger vessel are already there, barking instructions: "Stay calm!"

There are men, women and nearly a dozen children, some of them toddlers, among the 48 on board.

Though the sea is calm and a full moon affords good visibility, the crew know to be wary.

"The wind somehow always picks up when we are about to make a rescue," says the boat's veteran engineer Evangelos, who goes through about 10 cigarettes during the mission.

The patrol boat's crew of four quickly gets the migrants on board, urging them sit on deck to avoid falling over.

None of them speak English well enough to explain where they are from, but most appear Syrian or Iraqi.

The dinghy is already swaying in the waves. If too many try to get off at once, it will capsize. But some of the younger men are practically jumping with joy, not realising they are still in danger.

- Weak and seasick -

Most of the migrants look giddy with relief that they have survived the crossing, an undertaking that claims the lives of hundreds every year.

They do not yet know that they will probably spend months waiting for their asylum applications to be processed in overcrowded camps on the Greek islands, all the while facing possible deportation back to Turkey.

Others are weak or seasick. Some women can barely stand. One young boy vomits and promptly falls asleep from exhaustion.

"We've had situations where the migrants start taking selfies as they're being rescued, or eating and drinking. We cannot have that here," says patrol boat captain Despina, one of the coastguard's few women skippers.

An additional complication is that many of the women do not feel comfortable being pulled on to the boat by unfamiliar Greek men.

"Some of the women may actually be in danger of falling into the sea and they still don't want us touching them," says crew member Savvas as he brings out a batch of foil blankets.

The boat slowly returns to harbour. After landing, the migrants will face identity checks, collect their belongings and spend the night at a temporary facility.

They will soon join the masses at the hugely overcrowded camp on Samos. Over 6,000 people currently live there, 10 times the camp's nominal capacity.

The situation is just as bad on the other islands facing Turkey -- Lesbos, Chios, Kos and Leros.

And no matter how many people the Greek authorities transfer to camps on the mainland to ease pressure on the islands, dozens more arrive every day.

During Tuesday and Wednesday, almost 200 people were rescued in the Aegean in separate incidents according to the coastguard.

"Whenever the Turks want, they can send over another 1,000 people in one day," says Evangelos, who vividly remembers the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who landed on Greek shores in 2015.

"It was like an invasion," he says.

As soon as the patrol boat completes its mission, it will set out again. For the crew, it means a shift of around 16 hours, most of it at sea.