At least 18 migrants died last week in a deadly sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. It was one of the deadliest in recent years and experts fear more may follow as tension between Greece and Tukey soars in the Aegean Sea that divides them. Anthee Carassava travelled to the island of Lesbos and tracked some of the Somali women who survived the shipwreck.
When monster waves flipped the boat over, thrusting it onto the rocky shores of this craggy island, Ismahan, like scores of other Somali women crammed in the rubber dinghy, struggled to stay alive.
“I was tossed in the sea. But within seconds, people around me were dead and drowning. I reached for a rubber tire that was keeping one the dead woman afloat and clasped on to it, remaining in the rough sea for about an hour until Greek police and authorities came to pull us out.”
“I never thought I would make it. These visions now haunt my head… dead bodies scattered in the sea… I close my eyes but I can no longer sleep,” she said.
She peels off her long purple scarf and reveals bumps and bruises on her head… Scars left behind from her traumatic sea crossing from Turkey.
The journey was the final leg of an escape, as she calls it, from Somalia that began in early August… a risky odyssey for which she paid $900, fleeing the country’s drought and humanitarian crisis, but also the abuse, she confesses, of her husband and his family.
Now, though, a week after the near-death crossing, Ismahan says she would do it again.
“I was left with no other option. I want get asylum here and bring over my eight children — two boys and six girls,” she said.
Scrunched, now, in an Isobox hut in a refugee camp on Lesbos, Ismahan and five other Somali women who survived the sinking, will put in their requests to local authorities on Monday.
And while it is unlikely that strict migration rules here will grant them asylum status, experts here are bracing for more migrant crossings.
Already this year, Greece has seen more than a 150 percent increase in migrant sea crossings from Turkey compared to 2021. Much of this has been linked to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the political crisis in Somalia and renewed unrest in Lebanon and other pockets of the Middle East.
But it also comes amid renewed tension between longtime rivals but NATO allies Greece and Turkey, as both their leaders face key election years.
Greece has linked the rising rate of refugee flows to Turkish designs to destabilize Greece, accusing it of turning a blind eye to human smugglers making a mint out of migrant misery. It has also slammed NGOs like Aegean Boat Watch for facilitating illegal migrant transfers.
VOA spoke with Tommy Olsen, the head of the group, by phone from Norway, days after the deadly sinking that Turkish smugglers organized.
“To put out these boats out in such weather… it is amazing they even thought of it. And that shows how little human traffickers care about human lives. They just care about the money,” he said.
Olsen said migrants were being used as pawns, as he put it, in a bigger power play, especially as elections near in Greece and Turkey.
Both sides are trying to win and to get votes, so, they need to spike nationalism to appear as defenders against the bad guy on the other side. But in doing so they are using innocent people as tools to reach their goals.
Olsen says the situation in Turkey is becoming so difficult for refugees there, that many are already on the move because they either fear fresh orders to be deported to the countries they escaped, or because a new leader that may succeed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is likely to be less tolerant of the 5 million refugees Turkey has been hosting for nearly a decade now.
“If more people are trying to leave Turkey, more people will be on the move. But what options do they really have? They must cross the Aegean Sea. There is no other option,” he said.
That prospect has Greece bolstering its sea and land patrols to block illegal crossings. It is also appealing to Turkey to do the same. But the U.N. refugee agency fears more sinkings may result from tougher border controls and illegal pushbacks Greece and Turkey have been waging in recent months.
Reyhaneh Shakibaie, head of the UNHC office in Lesbos explains.
“We are very concerned about the loss of lives in the Aegean. We are advising governments to facilitate safe pass ways to asylum that do not require migrants to travel illegally,” he said.
Whether governments, and refugees themselves, will heed such advice is uncertain. Ismahan and others, though, vow to continue their journey to safety at whatever cost.