Boat people risk all to reach Greece

News Stories, 22 October 2007

© UNHCR/K.Kehayioylou
Deqa and Mahamud are reunited at a detention centre on Samos after the death of their daughter.

SAMOS, Greece, October 22 (UNHCR) On a late September evening earlier this year, five-year-old Hodan boarded a dinghy and set out with her Somalian mother on the journey of a lifetime; hours later she had become another grim statistic.

The infant and her mother, Deqa, were trying to sneak into Greece from the Turkish mainland when the smuggler's vessel ran into a storm and foundered. A Palestinian man, who was helming the dinghy, attempted to save the girl but by the time he reached Samos Island she was dead.

Two days later, her father Mahamud received a phone call in London from a fellow Somali in Turkey. "Your wife crossed; your baby is dead," came the shocking news. Mahamud, who fled Somalia 16 years ago with his family and has permanent residency status in the United Kingdom, flew to Samos to attend the funeral and rejoin his wife.

Hodan and another Somali on her boat are among almost 100 boat people registered as dead or missing so far this year in Greek offshore waters. The figure is higher than previous years and is a cause for growing alarm at a time when death rates on other popular crossing routes appear to be falling.

Most of those making the crossings are driven by economic reasons, but some are escaping conflict and persecution people of concern to UNHCR. Deqa's trip was motivated by a combination of reasons: threats to her family in Somalia, desire for family reunion and Hodan's need for medical treatment.

"A steep rise in tragic incidents involving deaths at sea [in Greece] has been seen this year," noted Giorgos Tsarbopoulos, head of the UNHCR office in Greece. He cited official figures as showing that last year at least nine people died and 10 were missing at sea, but up until late September this year there had been 44 deaths and 54 missing in the Aegean Sea.

Greek officials said that in order to evade detection, people smugglers were using small, unseaworthy boats and risking crossings in bad weather.

Diamantis Bonafas, head of the Samos port authority, said the Greek Coastguard Service was sparing no effort to save lives, while adding that the numbers of people attempting the crossing had risen dramatically.

"Our staff are exhausted. Despite the fact that since the beginning of the year, there have been more than 40 arrests of smugglers [in the Samos area] ... the situation remains the same, as it is a very profitable business," he said.

The average number of people arrested, intercepted or rescued by the Greek coastguard in the Aegean every year since 2002 has been around 3,000. But during the first nine months of this year, almost 6,750 boat people were arrested on the islands of Samos and Lesvos alone.

Bonafas remembers the night of Hodan's death well. "The Greek coastguard had spotted the dinghy by radar off the north-east coast of Samos. When they approached, the boat had already sunk amid gale force winds. We rescued the seven survivors," he recalled.

Hodan's tragic journey began several years ago. Her parents met in 1999 when Mahamud went to visit Somalia. They fell in love and got married and had three daughters, but Deqa was unable to join Mahamud in the UK.

But she decided she had to get out of Somalia after Hodan was injured in a car accident at a time when the security situation was deteriorating. Her uncle had been killed and it was becoming dangerous for her family. Deqa decided to take her daughter to Turkey for treatment, but was detained and served with a deportation order after crossing the border from Syria on foot.

Mahamud planned to travel to Ankara to collect his family, but Deqa made the fateful decision to sneak into Greece because she feared Turkey was about to deport her and her child. "Every day people cross over to Greece. There were other Somalis there," she said, adding that she paid US$2,000 for the crossing.

Common destinations such as Samos, Lesvos and Chios are not far from the Turkish mainland, though the seas can become very dangerous during poor weather conditions. But it was calm when they boarded the dinghy at midnight on September 23 with six other Somalis and the Palestinian.

Things soon changed. "When we came into Greek waters, there were strong winds and high waves which forced the Palestinian to go back to Turkish waters twice," Deqa recalled, adding that the boat then turned turtle.

"I was petrified. I felt that I did not have the strength to survive. But who was going to take care of my baby if I died? Mahamud and my family thought I was still in Ankara," she said. Deqa said she tried to comfort and encourage Hodan, crying out: "Hang on, baby, we are going to make it."

The Palestinian then made his bid to rescue the child, leaving the upturned boat and heading for shore. It was the last Deqa saw of the five-year-old, but she will always be haunted by Hodan's last words to her: "I am not going to make it this time."

By Ketty Kehayioylou in Samos, Greece