Stumbling across a Coast Guard boat might spell trouble for migrants during their illegal crossings to the Greek islands. Yet, the sight of Turkish troops is more often than not a relief for many endangering their lives in the potentially lethal voyages to Greece from Turkey.
The Turkish Coast Guard has been credited with the countless rescues of migrants about to drown thanks to their around-the-clock patrol in the troubled waters of the Aegean Sea, a hotbed of illegal immigration. Their main mission is to intercept crossings into Greece, but most of the time, they act as saviors for migrants battling the cold and deep waters in overcrowded and unsafe boats.
Turkey is struggling to cope with an influx of refugees especially from Syria, its southern neighbor gripped in a four-year conflict. The country hosts more than 2 million Syrians and faces a further flow of displaced Syrians as the conflict becomes aggravated by the rise of DAESH in Syria. Though most refugees prefer to stay in Turkey despite economic hardships, a considerable number of them pursue ways to travel to Europe with the hope of a better life. According to unofficial figures, at least 73,000 migrants were intercepted by the Coast Guard this year in the Aegean Sea, where the Greek islands are in close proximity to the Turkish coast and 192 migrants drowned.
The Coast Guard had launched Operation Aegean Hope in May after the sudden surge of migrants in the Aegean Sea following years of a relative lull. Apart from speedboats and ships, the Coast Guard constantly combs the sea by helicopters for potential illegal journeys to the nearby Greek islands.
Col. Ertuğrul Şerbetçi, operations commander at the Coast Guard air force, says troops are deployed throughout the day at sea and are trained for rescue missions even in the worst weather conditions. He notes an unusual increase in illegal immigrants in recent months that keep search-and-rescue crews occupied more than before.
Master Sergeant Ozan Ertan is a "search-and-rescue operator" who is part of a four-person team working in helicopter patrol. Ertan says they have to work in "all conditions" and their work "has no space for mistakes." "Even a minor mistake in search-and-rescue may cost someone's life," he says. He relates to an operation on Oct. 27 off the coast of Çeşme saying, "There were some 12 survivors flailing in the water, pleading for help. I hoisted down to sea to help a mother and her child, a two-year-old boy. The mother instantly handed him to me. He was barely breathing. The mother had held onto me as well. I had to hoist them up to the helicopter but I couldn't handle them properly. I lifted the baby in one hand and helped the woman to get out of the lifebuoy she was in. I finally managed to help her to get in the basket lowered from the helicopter and handed the baby back to her. The boy was not well when we climbed aboard. He was unconscious and his lips were almost frozen. I removed his wet clothes and wrapped my T-shirt around him. I massaged him over and over to keep him warm and finally, we managed to take him to a hospital in time," he said. Ertan, a father himself, says they have "an emotional burden." "I thought about my own son while rescuing him. I almost cried there," he adds.