Imagine for a moment...
It's night, pitch black, although by now your eyes have got used to the darkness. You’re in the middle of the sea, on a rubber dinghy, around you just water. You’re driving the dinghy. Not that you have any experience, but someone had to do it so you are taking turns with two others. You can feel the salty water splashing on your hands and on your face as the dinghy makes its way forward in a choppy sea. In the beginning, it felt nice, in the last warmth of the day, but it's been almost two hours now, you are soaked and shivering. Your hand on the throttle is completely numb.
The dinghy is so packed, there are 50 of you on board, and it feels very flimsy. For this, the smugglers asked for a thousand euros each. You can swim but you wonder how many of the others can. There are a few elderly people and several children, some of them very little, also a baby. You’re all wearing life jackets, which makes you feel a bit safer. At least if anything happens you'll all float until rescue finds you, right? What you don't know is that many of the life jackets are fake, they are made of a cheaper material that will soak up water, instead of floating. They will actually make people drown.
The only noises now are the high-pitched whine of the engine and the waves crashing. Everybody is silent. There was some nervous chatter at the beginning, someone prayed at some point. Now just silence. You are all cold and scared. You don't even know if you are going in the right direction anymore. Your mind is battling so many thoughts, as you try to stay calm and focused. You think of the last phone call with your mum. You were worried about them and the shelling, and she was so scared about this crossing. You had a hard time convincing her it was a good idea, pretending to be convinced yourself. With all the stories you had heard in the past few weeks…a family you met had tried to cross but they had almost sunk, people were desperate. You’ll never forget the look in the eyes of the father as he was telling you what happened, and about his children’s nightmares afterwards. Another couple told you of their first attempt, they had made good progress when they were approached by another boat which forced them to stop. It was terrible, they said, people were screaming, the men on the other boat took their engine and left them to drift away with the current, back towards Turkey, for hours. In both cases they were eventually rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard, and back to the start. That’s why everybody was saying it was better to go at night, less chance of being seen. Now you are not sure if it really was better anymore, you're starting to think you won't make it.
The lighthouse flashes to indicate this is an extremely dangerous area, but people making the crossing head towards the light as they don't know it.
This is the story of thousands of people every year, trying to cross the stretch of sea between Turkey and Greece, to seek asylum in Europe. Many have to attempt the journey multiple times, as they are caught and sent back. And too many lose their lives. This is just one leg of the perilous journey that people fleeing their home country are forced to make. They are fleeing war and bombings, the fear of snipers in the streets of their home town, beatings and imprisonment for speaking up against an oppressive regime or persecution for their religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. In the absence of a safe and legal pathway to seek asylum, the only option they are left with is putting their lives in the hands of the smugglers, and at the mercy of the sea. Risking their lives in the search of safety, isn’t it ironic?
"...like a wave that never breaks", that's how they teach you how to recognise a dinghy on a night vision telescope during spotting training. In Autumn 2019 I joined Lighthouse Relief as a volunteer in the emergency response team, on the Greek island of Lesvos. The NGO, alongside Refugee Rescue sea team, was assisting boat landings on the North shore of the island. This involved looking out for incoming dinghies to alert search and rescue vessels. This is a crucial job to reduce the risk of fatal incidents during the last part of the crossing, made so dangerous by the conditions, the inexperience and the rocks. It also involved providing first response and support to people arriving on the shores, so important after such a terrible journey, with emergency blankets, food and tea, dry clothes and a warm shelter for the night, along with first aid whenever necessary.
In March 2020, before the pandemic hit this corner of the world, the situation in Lesvos became more critical. Turkey opened its borders and there was a surge in attacks on migrants and NGOs perpetrated by far-right extremist groups, of which I had seen some of the initial episodes. This forced many humanitarian organisations to suspend their operations. The situation is now even harder due to the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the virus. My thoughts go to the migrants who are forced into even more precarious conditions and to the locals and NGOs who are trying to deal with the situation with humanity and courage. The work of organisations like Lighthouse Relief and Refugee Rescue will continue to be much needed until Europe provides a legal and safe way to seek asylum. Until then, people will keep on entrusting their hopes for a safer life to a flimsy dinghy, like a wave that never breaks.
In commemoration of those who lost their lives at sea in search of safer shores. Remembering the 28th of October 2015, when a wooden boat that left Turkey trying to reach the Greek island of Lesvos, capsized, in the worst accident in the Aegean Sea of our times. Fishermen, members of the coast guard and NGOs worked for hours and saved 272 lives. But we'll never know how many were lost that day...
About the author: Chiara is Italian but is now based in London. Her professional background is in Research Science, and she is a passionate documentary and street photographer. She is very interested in the issues related to forced migration, as the world is turning upside down, and she feels that we can't just watch and tolerate it. She has volunteered with different charities and NGOs working with refugees and asylum seekers, both in London and abroad, in Lesvos, Calais, Amman and Kuala Lumpur. Recently she has joined Europe Must Act and has contributed to the preparation of the Aegean Grassroot Report.