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Members of the Hellenic Coast Guard rescue migrants and asylum seekers from an overcrowded rubber dinghy found drifting in the sea off Lesbos island in Greece.  October 4, 2015. © 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

“My life was very hard. I lost my husband by the Taliban. I have six children so I took the decision to leave Afghanistan. Now, I also lost my baby.”

This is about all that Nour (a pseudonym) managed to say when I spoke to her earlier this month on the Greek island of Lesbos. Three days earlier, a wave had swept her 11-month-old son out of her arms as she and her children crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. I found her sitting in front of a temporary shelter run by volunteers near the city of Mytilene, dressed all in black and with her eyes swollen from tears.

Not a mother myself, I can’t even imagine what Nour is going through. But I do know the feeling of sadness and frustration when every other day I read news about the endless deaths in the Aegean Sea, despite the best efforts of Greece’s underfunded Hellenic Coast Guard to rescue them.

Last Sunday, at least two children and a woman drowned, and about a dozen others were still missing after their boat, carrying 60 people, sank off Lesbos. Just two days before, the International Organization for Migration said 335 women, men, and children had died in the Aegean Sea since the beginning of the year – a massive jump from the 73 people missing or dead recorded in 2014. More than 100 people have drowned in the past month alone.

Mostly Syrian asylum seekers and migrants are rescued off a drifting rubber dinghy found by a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel on a rescue mission near the island of Lesbos in Greece.  October 4, 2015. © 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

The day after I met Nour, I went out on a Hellenic Coast Guard patrol boat off the north coast of the island. The 11-kilometer stretch of water between Turkey and northern Lesbos has become the busiest European Union border, with as many as 50 boats packed with migrants and asylum seekers arriving each day. A record 48,000 people arrived over just five days earlier this month.

On the patrol boat that morning, the sea was calm and the weather sunny. The captain told me that on days like this most people crossing arrive safely. Yet in the few hours I was with them, they received two distress calls and rescued 74 people, including many women and children. They did so even though the boat was not even fitted for rescue, and not designed to hold more than the four-member crew.

The coast guard work under difficult circumstances. During the second rescue, men were already in the sea and others jumped in from the overcrowded rubber boat as they saw our vessel approach, causing further panic on the boat. Even though the officers were shouting for people to “calm down” and “sit down” in English, most either didn’t pay attention or didn’t understand. Having Arabic and Dari speakers aboard coast guard vessels or, failing that, a system with recorded messages in Arabic and Dari, could make a big difference in assuring people and giving them directions, lowering the risk of boats capsizing when people on board panic.

Members of the Hellenic Coast Guard on a rescue mission throw a life preserver ring to a man in distress in the sea near the Greek island of Lesbos, after he jumped from a sinking rubber dingy.  October 4, 2015.  © 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch

Happily, no lives were lost that day. But what if there had been more than two boats in distress at the same time? What happens when the weather is bad and the sea becomes more treacherous?

The truth is, the Hellenic Coast Guard does not have the resources to respond to crisis in the Aegean. In addition to the patrol boat I went out on, the Hellenic Coast Guard in Lesbos has one larger ship, also not fitted for rescue, and one helicopter. The captain explained to me that neither boat can go out in heavy winds (7 Beaufort or more - 50 to 62 kilometers/hour). Limited resources mean the coast guard focuses only on boats that seem to have engine problems and don't move properly, or that are overloaded. They also try to locate boats in distress with the help of the helicopter.

Despite this, the coast guard coordinated and managed the rescue of 68,663 asylum seekers and migrants in the Aegean in the first nine months of the year.

There is more for them to do. Human Rights Watch documented reports that armed masked men have been disabling crowded boats, pushing them back into Turkish waters. Stopping these dangerous incidents should be a priority for the coast guard and other law enforcement bodies.

The Hellenic Coast Guard is getting help from Frontex, the EU’s external borders agency, but it’s simply not enough. Only one Portuguese rescue boat under Frontex operates in these waters – a vessel that helped with the rescues I witnessed.

Last April, the EU tripled Frontex resources in the central Mediterranean, after 1,000 people died in one week in the waters between Libya and Italy. The budget for rescues in the Aegean Sea was also increased but remains too small as the numbers of people crossing from Turkey skyrocket.

At a summit last Sunday, EU leaders agreed to increase Frontex presence in the Aegean – essential as thousands are attempting the crossing, hoping to reach Europe before winter sets in. Greece and the EU should act urgently to ensure there are enough boats for rescues there.

I was impressed with what I saw the Hellenic Coast Guard doing under adverse circumstances. Let’s hope that no other mothers like Nour lose their babies when they flee, trying to give their children better lives. 

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