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NATO and EU step up refugee rescue efforts in Aegean Sea

February 19, 2016 at 7:26 PM EDT
Refugees from the Middle East continue to hazard the perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece, with an average of two children having drowned every day since September 2015. In response, NATO and the EU are increasing their border protection and naval rescue efforts in the Aegean Sea, despite conflicting ideas of how to deter the rising tide of asylum seekers. Malcolm Brabant reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, new figures from the United Nations show that an average of two children have drowned every day since last September, as their families attempted the perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece.

This week alone, off the Greek island of Lesbos, more than 900 people have been rescued at sea.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant accompanied European Union border police this week as they patrolled the Aegean Sea, and he was there when dozens of those people were saved.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Dawn at Molyvos in northern Lesbos, where traditional rhythms of island life coexist with the new.

Portuguese maritime police attached to Frontex, the E.U.’s border agency, they’re heading out on patrol. So far this year, despite winter weather, more than 50,000 migrants have made the five-mile crossing from Turkey to Lesbos, driven by the war intensifying in Syria.

Frontex spokesman Chris Borowski:

CHRIS BOROWSKI, Frontex: Frontex is supporting the Greeks in both patrolling their waters and then, in the end, once the migrants arrive, we’re registering them to make sure that we have counted all of them and that we have — we know who’s coming across the border. They’re registered, counted, their nationalities are determined, and the point is to kind of know who’s coming into Europe.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But how is that protecting Europe’s borders?

CHRIS BOROWSKI: The bottom line is that it’s up to the Greeks to protect the borders here. We’re here to support them in any way we possibly can.

MALCOLM BRABANT: For more than a week, the Portuguese have not seen any migrants. The police don bulletproof life jackets, in case they encounter violent smugglers, or worse. There’s a boat in distress. The skipper cranks up the engines to 45 knots.

The calm weather is perfect for crossing from Turkey. Other European civilian volunteers have already arrived to ensure there’s no loss of life. This is a familiar scenario. The cheap outboards either die mid-channel, or the migrants cut the engines and call for help by mobile phone.

There’s a problem with the engine, they shout. The dinghy is carrying 58 people, including 18 mainly small children. The Portuguese prime concern is that, in their haste to get off, the refugees will destabilize the vessel and it will capsize.

MAN: Hold the line. You hold the line here.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Scores of people have drowned in these waters so far this year. As many as 4,000 died in 2015.

Where are both of you from?

MAN: From Syria.


What do you think of this? What do you think of the way that you’re being met?

MAN: It’s good, good. Thank you.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The gentle sea state helps the Portuguese agents.

MAN: Today, it’s them. Tomorrow, maybe Portuguese can need people, too. So, we have to take care of each other.

MAN: A normal day. The boat have a problem with the engine. It cannot move. The people inside, we have too many children, two sick guys, in this case, we have to put on board and take them ashore to have a medical test.

MAN: You wait. You wait for us to call you, OK? Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Like many of those on board, Abdullah Harmoush is from Latakia on Syria’s coast, the home town of President Bashar al-Assad.

ABDULLAH HARMOUSH, Syrian Refugee: There are many troubles in my city because of the violence, and it’s that we couldn’t stay there in Syria.

So, we left Syria to take refugee. It was a very good response from the police. We was very afraid in the sea, but when we entered the water of Greece, we have the support very quickly. We are expecting very, very fast response from the police in the sea from Greece.

It’s really an amazing feel that we — at the time we entered the water of Greece, we are rescued, and we are very, very, very happy about it, here in this boat.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Acting as purely a rescue service, which is what you’re doing, aren’t you actually encouraging more people to come because they know they’re going to be safe?

CHRIS BOROWSKI: We do not encourage people to come here. We’re here to help patrol the waters. And once the migrants cross in, we are — if it’s a search-and-rescue operation, we have to help them get to the — get on the boats, and then we have to allow them to come to Greece to then register them and allow them to seek asylum.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But some of the people on this boat were saying, we knew we were going to be rescued, so we just set off. So isn’t that just encouraging people?

CHRIS BOROWSKI: What we are doing is, we are supporting the Greeks in patrolling their borders and we are doing all we can to both make sure that we both register everybody who comes here and rescuing those who needs — who needs rescues.

MALCOLM BRABANT: In the past 10 days, NATO has deployed to reinforce Europe’s borders. There are five ships out in the international waters of the Aegean Sea, which divided Greece from Turkey.

Now, NATO insists that it’s not going to be intercepting refugee boats and turning them back. They will adhere to international treaties, which require them to go to the help of people in distress upon the sea. That means that people picked up by NATO vessels will be returned to Turkey.

Will this strategy work? Professor Christodoulos Yiallouridis, dean of Athens’ Panteion University, believes it could make a difference.

CHRISTODOULOS YIALLOURIDIS, Panteion University (through interpreter): NATO can’t stop them coming. She can, however, assist in restricting the flow of migrants simply because of her presence. It will be known that NATO is waiting for them, and this should act as a deterrent.

MALCOLM BRABANT: NATO didn’t deter these 90 Afghans picked up by the Greek coast guard.

How do you feel about being in Europe?

MAN: We are feeling good. Good.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Among them, Edriss Bayat, who used to work as an administrator for NATO in Afghanistan.

EDRISS BAYAT, Afghan Refugee: What do you think about the way Europe is reacting to the refugee crisis?

Well, I think they are doing a good job. At least, they are — they know that who is entitled to seek the assistance. And, for example, we come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and they are the people who very — really need to leave their country and — because save their life.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But why couldn’t you stay in another country like Turkey, for example? Why did you have to come to Europe?

EDRISS BAYAT: Well, there is a lot of issues in Turkey, for example, job-wise. They are not giving you the immigrants. You cannot get like a permanent visa or a Turkish passport or anything.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Where do you want to go in Europe? What do you want to do?

ABDULLAH HARMOUSH: For me, I want to continue my study and have a good future.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Do you want to stay in Europe, or do you want to go back to Syria? What do you want to do?

ABDULLAH HARMOUSH: Of course, when the war is over, I will come back to my country.

MALCOLM BRABANT: And what do you want to do for your country when you…


EDRISS BAYAT: I really wish to have a safe country. If our country gets safe, we will go back.

MALCOLM BRABANT: European Union nations are doing all they can to stem the migrant tide, but, as Middle Eastern violence threatens to draw in Turkey, the flow shows no sign of abating.

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