Traffickers’ trade turns to refugee tragedy off Greece

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    Hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing the ravages of war met another tragedy today, as their desperate journey to find a new home ended in despair.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from the Greek island of Lesbos.


    On the port side in Molyvos, a medical team worked frantically to revive a small child. This was happening two hours after the boat capsized.

    The doctors' efforts were in vain. The cries of the bereaved pierced the night. Lesbos is full of volunteers here to help the refugees and migrants. They swaddled young survivors in thermal blankets, trying to ward off hypothermia.

    Adult survivors were visibly traumatized. The island's small ambulance service was swamped and underequipped to deal with such a disaster.

  • Volunteer Eric Kempson:

  • ERIC KEMPSON, Volunteer:

    There's a lot of people still in the water. And there's — I would say the death toll is going to be quite high. And they're doing CPR on babies, children. It's a mess. It's a mess. We have got some lifeguards out there. We have got coast guard out there, helicopters out there.

    It was a big wooden boat, someone said over 200 people on board. So we just do the best we can and you save as many people as you can at the moment. We have got all the doctors down here. Everyone is here. All the emergency services are here. We just have to do the best we can.


    In the darkness, amid the chaos, Greek doctors and foreign colleagues from international aid agencies did what they could in the triage area.

    These people were running away from war and conflict, and they took a wooden boat because they thought it was safer than the inflatable craft used during summer. The people traffickers double their prices for a place on boats like this.

  • Eyewitness Iannis Costakis:

  • IANNIS COSTAKIS, Eyewitness (through interpreter):

    We could see the vessel through the binoculars, but within a matter of seconds, we lost sight of it. All we could see were life jackets on the surface, so we immediately called the coast guard and Frontex. And even two Turkish boats came and they filled up with people and went back the Turkey. There were at least 150 life jackets visible. It was a big boat. There must be an awful lot of victims.

  • MAN:

    Help here.


    As the hours passed, the mood became more ominous.

  • MAN:

    OK. Need help here.


    The coast guard cutter headed back out to sea to resume the forlorn task of searching for survivors. The sea was flat calm. The afternoon winds that capsized the boat had died down.

    A fishing boat that had joined the operation headed for the dock and was surrounded by medics. The crew had pulled at least one survivor from the water. Several hours earlier, at first light, a 35-mile-an-hour wind was blowing. No fishermen were out on the water. Coast guard boats remained in port.

    But despite the choppy seas, the traffickers' business was booming. The first arrivals of the day ran aground just off the rocky northern shore. Local fishermen and volunteers attached a line to the decrepit pleasure cruiser. They had to make sure the refugees didn't panic and capsize the vessel.

    Fisherman Panayotis Koutsos' priority was to help rescue the dozens of children on board.

  • PANAYOTIS KOUTSOS, Fisherman (through interpreter):

    Can't the United Nations do something? People are going to get drowned for nothing. It's an outrage. These rotting boats are coming over from Turkey. Take a picture so people can see. And the traffickers are putting people inside and sending them over in such dreadful weather conditions.

    Who is the person? Who is responsible? Who can say stop and put an end to the crime that's taking place? It's a disgrace. I'm in the water day and night, and I just can't watch these children drowning anymore. We're all trying to help here. We're not bad people on this island, Lesbos. We're trying to do what we can and do our duty. It's a question of humanity, but the powers that be have got to take a serious look at this issue and solve it.


    The rescuers formed a human chain to pass the children to safety.

    Nareen Tamar from the Syrian town of Qamishli was overwhelmed with having landed on European soil.

  • NAREEN TAMAR, Syrian Refugee:

    I'm really happy. I'm glad. I'm glad we are here, finally. Thanks, God. Thanks, God. And thanks for you to help us.


    Tonight, there is real uncertainty about the number of people who perished on this vessel.

    Some survivors talk about the boat carrying about 300 people, and they say that it went down extremely quickly. Now, there's been one survivor who has talked about there being a collision about 10 minutes out from the Turkish coast, and that seems to have happened when the people smuggler was due to get off the boat and get onto another vessel to take him back to Turkey.

    And there seems to have been a collision between the two boats. Whatever the truth, this is a really cynical example of the sort of business that these traffickers perform.

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

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