On Tuesday, Greek responders completed what is believed to be the largest migrant rescue operation in the Mediterranean in years. A fishing vessel carrying about 500 people was towed safely into port without loss of life.
The 100-foot fishing vessel had begun taking on water at a position about 15 nautical miles south of Crete. Some of the passengers on board managed to get a distress call out by phone at about 0100 hours Tuesay, and the Hellenic Coast Guard mounted a response. Weather conditions on scene were poor; despite a large-scale response effort involving five good samaritan vessels and a Hellenic Navy frigate, it was not possible to safely disembark the passengers from the stricken boat.
Instead, the boat was taken in tow and brought to the port of Palaiochora, Crete. All passengers arrived safely and no injuries were reported.
Photos taken of the vessel appear to show that large holes had been cut into the hull, leaving compartments belowdecks open to wind and waves during the voyage.
“I want to congratulate the officers of the Coast Guard who planned and carried out the rescue operation, even under adverse weather conditions, but also to assure that Greece will continue to effectively protect our maritime borders, which are also the maritime borders of Europe,” said Minister of Shipping and Island Policy Yannis Plakiotakis in a statement.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said in a social media post that he would ask the European Commission to help move the migrant arrivals to other countries.
It is the third major migrant rescue off Greece in the last two months, and more successful than the last. At least 22 people died and dozens went missing after two migrant boats went down off the islands of Lesbos and Kythera on October 5. The first vessel went down in stormy weather, while the second was smashed on a rocky shore on Kythera. A frantic effort by local firefighters saved 80 people out of an estimated 95 on the second boat.
According to local media, the heavy presence of Greek Coast Guard and Frontex patrols in the Aegean has prompted human smugglers to divert to a long and hazardous route to the south of Crete. In years past, the migrants would have taken a shorter, less expensive journey by raft from Turkey to the Greek islands.
“Greece has repeatedly drawn attention to the new modus operandi of migrant smugglers employing larger vessels and trying to cross to Europe,” wrote Mitarakis in a letter to the European Commission. “First reception countries cannot be expected to shoulder an ever-increasing burden out of proportion to their respective capabilities.