UNHCR - Statement on boat incident off Greece coast

Press Releases, 21 January 2014

UNHCR is dismayed to have learned of a boat cap-sizing off the coast of Greece in the early hours of this morning, which has left a woman and a child dead and 10 other people missing, among them infants and children.

According to accounts from some of the 16 survivors and Greek Coast Guard, the vessel was carrying 26 Afghans and two Syrians. It was intercepted in the southern Aegean Sea shortly after midnight following a mechanical breakdown and while apparently en route from Turkey to Greece. The boat, with all 28 passengers still aboard, was being towed by a Coast Guard vessel when it capsized. The survivors, now on the island of Leros, told UNHCR they were being towed in the direction of Turkey at the time of the accident.

"UNHCR is urging the authorities to investigate this incident and how lives were lost on a boat that was under tow," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's Southern Europe Regional Representative. "In addition survivors need to be quickly moved to the mainland so that their needs can be better looked after."

Tuesday's incident is the first of its kind in 2014, and the latest in a string of recent boat disasters in the Mediterranean involving people fleeing by sea towards Europe. More than 360 people died on October 3rd 2013 in a capsizing off of Italy's Lampedusa. Several other deadly incidents were reported over the following weeks.

Irregular boat crossings of the Mediterranean typically involve a mix of migrants and asylum seekers but conflict in Syria and the Horn of Africa region is being reflected in recent higher numbers of deaths of people fleeing refugee-producing countries.

In 2013, some 40,000 people arrived by irregularly by boat in Italy, Malta, and Greece. This compares to more than 60,000 in 2011 during the Libya crisis. Irregular boat crossings of the Mediterranean typically occur between March and October during the Spring and summer months, however this year they have been continuing throughout the winter, despite the extreme weather conditions. So far in Italy alone, over 1,700 people have arrived by sea.

UNHCR has urged European and other governments to work together to reduce losses of life among people making dangerous sea journeys across the Mediterranean and the world's other major sea frontiers, including by continuing to strengthen search and rescue operations, as well as the creation of legal migration alternatives to dangerous irregular movements.

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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