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Deadly tide of migrant trafficking crashes on Greek shores

October 29, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
A boat carrying an estimated 300 people capsized while crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos -- just one of a series of deadly accidents involving traffickers’ boats on Wednesday. More than 240 passengers were saved, but the survivors are struggling with trauma and anger over the harrowing trip and the loss of loved ones. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, for now, the United Nations Refugee Agency says 15 people drowned and 38 more are missing and presumed dead after a series of accidents involving traffickers’ boats in the windy strait separating Turkey from Greek islands.

In the worst incident, which we reported on last night, a boat carrying an estimated 300 people capsized. Of those, more than 240 were saved and brought to the island of Lesbos.

As special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, many of the rescued are grateful to be alive, but also angry.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Emotionally fraught from losing his daughter at sea, this man from Mosul in Iraq lashes out at a fellow survivor.

MAN (through interpreter): He’s the one. He’s the one who drove the boat that sunk. You all attest to that, and you all know him.

MALCOLM BRABANT: U.N. Refugee Agency officials intervene and off-camera say the allegation is likely to be unfair, because the smugglers usually appoint a refugee to steer the vessel.

The Iraqi, who left Mosul to escape the so-called Islamic State, went to the police to press his claims. The accused man was briefly questioned, and later released. Survivors, camped out in the port of Molyvos, exuded relief, exhaustion and trauma.

Not yet old enough to grasp the miraculous nature of their deliverance, children slept or played. But this mother was shocked into virtual silence, as family reunification teams tried to elicit details about her missing child.

Accountant Anas Khaoula, from Damascus, said the boat was old and badly modified with an extra deck that broke away under the strain of the waves and overcrowding.

ANAS KHAOULA, Syrian Refugee: We stayed at the water, I think, three hours or more than three hours, I think, until the police came to collect us. And there were so many dead, some of them dead because of the cold of the water, and the others was drowned in the boat when was sinking.

And some of them don’t — don’t know to swim. They sink also. And there were a lot of children, women.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The survivors lined up on the dockside to give their details to officials, trying to collate lists of those who made it, and those who didn’t.

The U.N. Refugee Agency protested that people were dying unnecessarily and called for more search-and-rescue resources.

Field worker Andrew Knight:

ANDREW KNIGHT, UNHCR: This is one of the worst incidents that we had in recent times, in memory, in fact, tens of people lost at sea, just some of the most awful stories, families, people still looking for members of their families. It’s absolutely awful, absolutely awful.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The traffickers have adopted a new tactic, increasing the price of a ticket on a wooden boat to more than $2,500.

Greek-American volunteer Aphrodite Vati Mariola was careful to condemn the trade on the criminals, not ordinary Turks.

APHRODITE VATI MARIOLA, Hotel Volunteer: There’s no respect for human life whatsoever, in my opinion. They just send them away, and whatever will happen will happen.

MALCOLM BRABANT: On this beach, soaking wet youngsters pulled from the waves were given lollipops to comfort them after their crossing. In the water, almost every day, Briton Philippa Kempson:

PHILIPPA KEMPSON, Volunteer: It’s the last couple weeks, and it’s increased the last day. We had a huge metal boat with maybe 300 people on board. Again, it — well, it was further out from the shore than this one, so — and it took a lot of work to get them off, but, again, they were all safe.

I think they’re just using anything and everything to get the amount of people across. I don’t know how many people are waiting, but they are using every boat they can find now.

MALCOLM BRABANT: If this new tactic continues, the beaches of Lesbos are going to littered with unseaworthy wrecks, as well as the remains of treacherous inflatables.

The traffickers are weaving dreams that, for most of their passengers, are unattainable. They are sending innocent people to their deaths. They are causing chaos in Europe, possibly undermining the European Union, all the while making a fortune.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Lesbos.

GWEN IFILL: You can find a different look at the refugee crisis online. Syrian photographer Nour Nouralla was visiting Berlin and captured a rally to support incoming refugees. Take a look at her photos on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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