By Ron Redmond
UNHCR staff on Sunday were caring for survivors of two separate weekend incidents involving boats carrying refugees and migrants between Turkey and Greece that left some 40 people dead or missing.
Early Sunday, a dinghy reportedly carrying up to 48 people sank off the coast of Lesvos in the pre-dawn hours. By mid-afternoon, some 20 survivors had been reported, with one person confirmed dead and up to 27 others still missing.
The exact circumstances of Sunday’s incident remain unclear, but some survivors told UNHCR that their boat had collided with a ferry in the pre-dawn darkness at 4:30 a.m. as they were approaching the Lesvos coast in the vicinity of the Mitiliny airport.
Early Sunday afternoon, searchers rescued a young Syrian man who came ashore wrapped in a silver foil insulating blanket and shivering from hypothermia. He told UNHCR he had been adrift for several hours and feared most others on the inflatable raft had perished.
In the earlier incident overnight Friday, an 8-year-old girl drowned and between 10 and 12 other people were reported missing when their small wooden boat capsized off Lesvos after running out of fuel. That vessel was carrying some two-dozen people.
Both incidents were reported by the Greek Coast Guard, which mounted search and rescue operations around the eastern Aegean island some 6 kms off the coast of Turkey.
UNHCR and its partners in Greece are providing ongoing support for the survivors and families of the casualties, including medical and psychological care, accommodation, legal assistance, food and water. Many of them, particularly those who have lost family members, including children, are severely traumatized.
The narrow waterway between Turkey and the Greek islands has become a main entry-point for refugees to Europe over the past few months. More than 318,000 refugees have undertaken the perilous voyage to Greece this year, with the largest surge – 192,000 — arriving since August.
“Compared to figures earlier in the summer, it’s almost doubled,” said Djamal Zamoum, UNHCR’s senior emergency officer on Lesvos. “Yesterday we saw 6,000 in just one day.”
In all, Europe has seen more than 442,400 arrivals by sea so far this year – 82 percent of them from the world’s top 10 refugee-producing countries, led by Syrians. Nearly 3,000 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.