A man seeking asylum and his 3-year-old son were lost in the Aegean Sea after a boat carrying nearly 100 migrants capsized near the Greek island of Rhodes on the night of August 24, the Bold Medya news website reported.
The boat took off from Marmaris in Turkey’s western province of Muğla and was en route to Italy. According to survivor testimony, there were more people on board than the boat could safely hold. Bold Medya reported that the migrants were from Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Somalia.
According to the Greek media, Turkey tried to hamper search and rescue efforts by harassing Greek helicopters that were trying to help the rescue mission. The reports also claimed that Turkish coast guard boats attempted to cause a collision with a Greek navy boat.
The Greek coast guard said 92 people were rescued. They explained that five ships, two military helicopters, one navy ship and five coast guard boats were on the team searching for the missing migrants. The coast guard said they received a call for help from passengers on the boat and immediately responded. There is no official statement as to exactly how many people were on the boat or the state of their health.
The rescued migrants were taken to Rhodes. Şadiye Aslan, a former city council member from the Kızıltepe Municipality in southeastern Mardin province, was also on board and described the moment the boat sank as a “scramble for life.” Aslan was arrested after the government appointed a trustee to her position. She was sentenced to six years, eight months in prison for membership in the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), a left-wing Kurdish organization that demands democratic confederalism in Turkey. The KCK is considered a terrorist group by the Turkish government.
The Turkish government has stepped up political pressure its Kurdish minority in recent years, seizing Kurdish-run municipalities and arresting their mayors. Dozens of trustees have been appointed by the Interior Ministry to mostly pro-Kurdish municipalities in Turkey’s Southeast, replacing the elected mayors and city council members. Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chairman and former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş has been behind bars since November 2016.
Speaking to Bold Medya, Aslan said their journey started on Monday night “around 11 p.m. They [the migrant smugglers] left us in a forest somewhere on the outskirts of Marmaris. We waited for two hours and then walked for more than two hours to the coast. There was a boat waiting for us there. They told us only 60 people would board it, but there seemed to be more people. We refused, saying that the boat could not carry that many people. But they told us it could carry up to 300 and that nothing bad would happen. We would never have boarded it if we had known something like this would happen.”
She claimed they did not immediately know they were in trouble. “After a while, we noticed a hole in the boat, and it started taking on water. We tried to continue the journey by bailing the water out ourselves. They even brought an engine to discharge the water, but it kept taking on more. We gradually started to sink. There were Chinese cargo ships around us, but no one came to our aid. Although we sent distress signals, they just kept watching us as if they were watching a movie.”
Aslan claimed they did not have any means of communication for a while. “The traffickers had collected our mobile phones before taking off. When we started sinking, they gave us back our phones. An Afghan woman wanted to make a call at that point, but they took her phone and threw it in the water. Relatives of the traffickers were also on the boat, and they were the first to receive life jackets. They boarded another boat and got away. Then we put on the life jackets because we had nearly completely submerged. I called my relatives in Germany. I told them what was happening, and short time later the Greek coast guard arrived. The cargo ships that had done nothing earlier also began helping. People disappeared in the water before my eyes.”
According to Aslan, the mother of Hasan, the lost 3-year-old, is in extreme distress and had a nervous collapse. Aslan conveyed information on several other people who were rescued: “Five more people were taken back to Turkey. As far as we know, some of them are named Hinda, Şükriye and Dilgeş. We know they are in Turkey, but we still haven’t heard from several people.”
Regarding the claims that Turkey was trying to hamper the rescue mission, Aslan said she saw helicopters but was not sure to which country they belonged. “I was on the verge of dying. I was only thinking about who had been saved because I had several friends on the boat. I don’t know who intervened to rescue us. I can only think about the people who disappeared in front of our very eyes.”
İlyas Yalçın, Aslan’s relative in Germany, said they did all they could to alert officials and the public to what was happening. “It was really close for these people. They nearly died. They tried for three or four hours to avoid sinking. Some were just lucky to survive; however, there are still many who are lost.” Yalçın explained that the survivors were kept on the island of Rhodes. “They are still waiting for the officials to decide what will happen. Their biggest fear is being sent back to Turkey as most of them are running away from oppression there. They are under the threat of death or imprisonment. We want their applications for asylum to be accepted as soon as possible,” he said.
Yalçın also said the family of Mihemmed Selmo al Habib, who died while fighting ISIS in northern Syria, was also on the boat.
The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) used to assist in rescuing refugees from the hostile waters between Turkey and Greece in 2015-2016 and engaged in over 30 interventions, saving 1,869 lives. Between 2014 and 2017, MOAS saved more than 40,000 lives in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, and today is calling for the implementation of #SafeAndLegalRoutes, an advocacy campaign aimed at implementing alternative and legal means of migration to prevent further tragedies.
“The ongoing massacre in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea is no longer acceptable. Expanding safe and legal pathways for refugees to reach Europe is therefore central to stopping these tragedies, undermining smugglers’ power, and increasing transparency and cohesion by providing equally accessible solutions for all. We must create a mechanism to remove the most vulnerable from the ruthless hands of human traffickers, and allow them to avoid dangerous migration journeys, in respect of international obligations on the right to asylum” said MOAS Director Regina Catrambone.