By HK Tzanis and Menekse Tokyay
An overloaded boat carrying more than 100 refugees attempting to illegally cross the Aegean from Turkey to Greece capsised off the coast of Izmir on Thursday (September 6th), killing 61 people – half of them children.
The governor’s office said in a statement that among the dead were 12 men, 18 women, 28 children and three infants.
The tragedy marks a low point in the issue of illegal immigration from Turkey into Europe. Greece has long accused Turkey of failing to stop illegal immigrants from crossing into its territory and this summer added 1,800 border guards and more than two dozen floating barriers along a river that divides the countries. A 10km-fence on a portion of the border is also expected to be completed this year.
While the fortified border has been effective, authorities have expressed concern that people determined to illegally cross the border will try more hazardous water routes.
The survivors of Thursday’s tragedy, nationals from Syria and the Palestinian Territories, were taken to Ahmetbeyli for health checks, the governor’s office said. Turkish media also reported that Iraqis were on the boat.
The boat sunk shortly after leaving Ahmetbeyli, which is near the Greek island of Samos. It was only 100 metres from shore. Six people, including the captain and his assistant, were detained by gendarmerie in connection with the incident.
Turkey is traditionally one of the main destinations for African and Asian refugees seeking to enter European countries, while some Greek islands like Chios and Samos remains under huge migratory pressure with some hundreds of people crossing every day.
Selcuk Unal, spokesperson of Turkish Foreign Ministry, said that Turkey has been taking all possible measures to prevent human smuggling, and is signatory of all relevant international conventions. Becoming a member of International Organization for Migration since 2004, Turkey is also cooperating with this organization in the field of human trafficking.
“[However] given the magnitude of the problem, the solutions are beyond the means of a single country, requiring international burden sharing,” Unal told SETimes. “Providing shelter, food, medical treatment as well as bearing the return costs of such high number of illegal immigrants puts heavy financial burden on the already strained resources of Turkey.”
Nearly 700,000 illegal migrants were apprehended in Turkey within the period 1995-2007 while the number of apprehended human smugglers in the same period was 1,242.
Readmission agreements are considered as effective instruments in combating illegal migration and encouraging states to take serious measures against this phenomenon. Turkey and the European Commission in June signed a readmission agreement to allow Turkey to take back illegal immigrants from third countries crossing into EU territory from its borders.
“Within this context, it is Turkey’s priority to sign readmission agreements with source countries. To this end, Turkey signed Readmission Agreements with Syria, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Ukraine and Greece to fight against illegal migration, and continues negotiations with Pakistan,” Unal said.
According to the Frontex 2012 Annual Risk Analysis, published in April, 40 percent of illegal immigration into Europe occurs on the land border between Greece and Turkey.
In figures released on Wednesday, Greek police said that the number of illegal migrants that attempted enter the country by crossing the Evros/Maritsa River, which separates the only Greek-Turkish land border in Thrace, dropped by 84 percent since early August, when the crackdown began in the greater Athens area and in the Evros border region.
Jalil Abdallah of the International Training Centre of International Labour Organization told SETimes that Turkey, as a crossroad between Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe, has a special geopolitical location, making it a major transit hub.
“And all these continents around Turkey have one thing in common: political insecurity, lack of economic opportunities, low standard of living,” he said.
SETimes correspondent J. Paul Barker from Istanbul contributed to this report.