In the dark of night aboard makeshift boats illegal migrants depart Turkish shores for Greece, the closest country from Turkey to Europe. They are an assorted bunch; women, children, elderly people and the disabled. A glimmer of hope for a better life in Europe is all it takes for them to risk their lives, like the family of Alan Kurdi who died four years ago during such a journey. The image of his tiny body washed ashore did little to shake Europe's conscience about the desperate migrants – and migrants have not been deterred by the likelihood of certain death since the incident either.
We traveled alongside Coast Guard officers who patrol the Aegean Sea around the clock to save migrants, particularly children, from certain death. The Coast Guard is at the forefront of efforts to stop the migrant flow. With 22 large boats, a plane, a helicopter and mobile radars, they regularly comb the sea and shores and intercept about 144 migrants every day. By "intercept," we mean they save them from a watery grave in the depths of the Aegean Sea. Some 44,000 migrants have been saved so far this year.
Aegean Sea: 5:30 a.m.
Huddled in a small rubber boat, about 50 people quietly wait for help north of Aslanburnu's shore in the Çandarlı Gulf of İzmir, a western Turkish city located across the numerous islands of Greece dotting the Aegean Sea. Darkness reigns in the area as it is almost one hour before sunrise. Babies, children, and elderly men and women can do little but sit and wait for someone to rescue them. The boat's engine broke down, and the cold waters of the Aegean are slowly creeping in from a hole in the boat. Someone called the Coast Guard already, and we accompany officers aboard the TCSG 18, a veteran of migrant rescue operations. The Coast Guard boat is their only connection to life at the moment. An officer hurls a rope toward the boat and ties it to the Coast Guard boat. Officers swarm the deck and start pulling in the survivors, one by one. Boarding children and the elderly first, they transfer everyone in the sinking boat onto the Coast Guard boat. In minutes, all are wrapped in thermal blankets swiftly handed out by officers. Some say prayers thanking God for survival and in the wrinkled faces of the elderly survivors, desperation is mixed with relief.
These scenes are dramatic but for Coast Guard, it is only another day in their difficult job. Migrants forced to leave their country due to conflicts, poverty and other reasons risk their lives in those illegal journeys facilitated by human smugglers.
On our first night with the Coast Guard, we hopped on one of their boats to get a firsthand experience of a migrant rescue. Coast Guard commanders were also personally there to command lifesaving operations. We boarded one Coast Guard boat at midnight last Friday and covered 350 kilometers from Ayvalık in the north to the southern shores of the Aegean. Our Coast Guard boat saved 50 migrants, but others managed to rescue 485 others in 17 separate operations across the sea that night. Eight hours with the Coast Guard showed us the difficult task of the soldiers and the desperation of migrants firsthand. Soldiers fight against time and have to act quickly to rescue migrants and provide them comfort. Medics give first aid to migrants if there are injured, dehydrated or freezing among them. Blankets are on hand, along with food and soldiers ready to give them a convenient place to rest and overcome the trauma of the imminent death they faced just moments before. Once ashore, they are handed to gendarme forces and from there, they are sent to the local migration directorate.
Picking up migrants from the sea might seem like an easy job, but migrant smugglers never rest, just like the undaunted officers of the Coast Guard. International gangs organize the smuggling, but it is hard to say that there is concrete cooperation between Turkey and other countries to fight migrant smuggling. Every country in Europe pursues almost a different policy when it comes to migrants, though most are unanimous in stopping the flow, and some openly discriminate against those seeking safety. In Turkey, efforts to stop migrants and preventing deaths, in particular, is of paramount importance. In the past six years, the migrant crisis has accelerated as conflicts and poverty around the world worsen, and Turkey saw an influx of refugees from neighboring Syria.
Coast Guard officers are unflinching in their quest to bring back migrants en route to Greek islands. "I forgot the last time I had a good sleep," the commander of the boat we boarded said, but they remain serious and determined as it takes while combing the dark waters for migrant boats. "It is the life of humans at stake here," the Coast Guard's commander for İzmir said.
An airplane and a helicopter scour the vast sea first as boats await, alert and once they send images back to the ground, boats swiftly travel near migrants in danger. Every minute counts in their efforts as the high waves of the Aegean delay their efforts to reach migrants. It usually takes 20 minutes to reach migrants for the Coast Guard. They use floodlights when it is migrants who make distress calls for rescue, but they usually travel in dark to intercept migrant boats. Their boats certainly go faster than those of the migrants, but they do not want to cause panic among them and lose control of the boats.
For most Turks aware of the migrant influx from the media, it is only Syrian migrants who travel to Greece. But aboard the boats, we saw that there are people from about 30 countries from around the world. A Coast Guard commander said they intercept Afghans, Iraqis and Palestinians as well, but the majority is still Syrian nationals.
A similar struggle to stop migrant deaths is underway on the other side of the Aegean. The Greek coast guard also patrols the sea and is in touch with their Turkish counterparts. They exchange locations of migrant boats to save as many migrants as possible. A Coast Guard colonel is in charge of communications with Greeks.
Officials say there has been a 113% increase in the number of rescued migrants compared to last year. Only 20,687 migrants were rescued last year, while there have been 44,408 this year so far. But there is also an increase in the number of those trying to cross into Greece, as well. The number was 24,000 in 2018 and rose to 40,000 this year. Turkish officials say the number of migrants who make it into Greece daily is 137.
Another fight against illegal migration is fought on the shore. The army and police cooperate to stop migrants before they board the boats for the deadly journeys. The Coast Guard plays another role here. They comb the shores from the sea for migrants who choose secluded spots to depart for Greece. Equipped with thermal cameras, officers report any activity to gendarme and police on the shore. This year, about 33,000 migrants were stopped before they boarded boats. We witnessed such an operation on the shore of Ayvalık, at around 3:40 a.m. Officers notified the gendarme, while a helicopter hovered above the groups of migrants convened on the shore. Gendarme officers arrive soon and stop 136 migrants gathered there.
In a port of the Coast Guard Command headquarters in Ayvalık, north of the Aegean, we see 25 Syrian migrants waiting to be transferred to a migration center. Officials tell us their fiberglass boat broke down en route to Greece's Lesbos island. Officers pointed to their boat and one of them said, "This is one of the most dangerous ones." He goes on to explain that those boats are very unstable, and one wrong move could cause it to capsize. Maintaining balance in overcrowded boats is the main challenge for migrants. Last Monday, such a boat capsized. One infant and an adult died, and it was only thanks to the Coast Guard's intervention that four children on the brink of death were rescued.
Their ultimate destination is Europe, but not everyone is happy there, Turkish officials say. Some return the same way they fled Turkey, and they say most are those who are not happy with the conditions in migrant camps in Greece.