Over the past three days, the bodies of three refugees have been washed ashore on a Lesvos beach. Two of them were children, a boy and a girl, estimated to be between 12 and 13 years old.
The boy was said to be wearing blue shorts and shoes. His body, and those of the others, were in an advanced stage of sepsis. The coroner put the three bodies at 24 days dead.
Authorities say that neither the UNHCR, nor any other relevant body, had reported that any children were missing. Our teams on the ground report that an empty dinghy has since been found, and a Frontex helicopter is searching for more bodies. It seems, therefore, that nobody noticed the shipwreck before these bodies were found.
The deaths of these children, and one adult, come just one week after a wooden boat sank in the eastern Aegean Sea, resulting in the confirmed deaths of three people. The survivors – 14 adults and one child – said that there were up to 24 people on board.
These deaths are avoidable. The ongoing and tragic loss of life that is seen in the Aegean, and the central Mediterranean, is a direct result of European border policies and political decisions that actively neglect search and rescue operations.
Our partners, Refugee Rescue, are the only dedicated Search and Rescue (SAR) team operating off the coast of Lesvos. Frontex ships and the Hellenic Coastguard continue to patrol Greek waters, but the number of arrivals has exceeded their capacity to keep people safe.
Harassment and violence from the Turkish Coastguard has further imperiled refugees who attempt to cross the Aegean.
In the early hours of Friday morning, it was reported that the Turkish Coastguard harassed a boat carrying 37 refugees – among them families and unaccompanied minors – while it was in Greek waters.
It is alleged that a Turkish official fired multiple gunshots into the air before retreating, and then returned to fire shots into the water close to the dinghy, while ramming the boat with their vessel on numerous occasions.
When the Hellenic Coastguard arrived at the scene, 17 people jumped in to the water and swam towards the ship for safety. Many of them had urgent medical needs, including one man who had a broken leg – he still jumped in to the water.
The Turkish Coastguard attempted to pull people out of the water, and reportedly used some form of large stick to prevent them from swimming away. Several refugees were wounded as a result, and members of Refugee Rescue reported that they had ‘substantial cuts in their faces’.
Tragically, those who were unable to swim – mainly women, children and the elderly – were apprehended by the Turkish Coastguard and returned to Turkey. It has been reported that, as a result, families have been torn apart.
This report adds to a long list of human rights violations and so-called push backs by the Turkish Coastguard, in breach of international maritime law. The number of serious incidents is rising, and there is at least one push back to Turkish waters every night.
Over the past ten days, lives have been lost and families separated as refugees attempt to reach safety in Europe.
Such tragedies are preventable, and yet they will continue to unfold until legal and political reforms are implemented at a European scale. Since the beginning of November, almost 500 people have arrived to Lesvos; teams on the ground report that children make up almost 50% of each boat. Every day, lives are being risked in search of safety.
Alan Kurdi’s death in 2015 made headlines all over the world. Yet more than 8,000 people – including these two children – have since lost their lives while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Their deaths have barely been reported. Faceless and nameless, they simply add to the ever-growing number of people who have perished in their desperate attempts to reach safety. Until safe and legal routes to sanctuary are opened, this number will continue to climb.
The crisis is not over. Those who arrive on the Greek islands are faced with severely overcrowded camps, inadequate sanitation facilities, and months spent in legal limbo without access to adequate asylum procedures. As winter approaches, and arrivals continue, more people will face the coming months with little more than a tent to protect them.
We need your help more than ever. Our partner projects range from Refugee Rescue, to teams that provide warming and nutritious food, or bedding and winter clothing. Please, if you are able to donate and help us continue our vital work, do so here. We depend on the generosity of people like you. Thank you.
Photograph from UNHCR/Ivor Pickett.