Mounting its biggest and riskiest sea rescue in years, the Greek Navy towed a disabled freighter carrying hundreds of migrants toward the Aegean island of Crete on Wednesday, fighting strong winds and high seas, officials said.
The 250-foot ship, the Baris, sent a distress signal on Tuesday when its engine broke down, according to a spokeswoman for the Greek Merchant Marine Ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under government rules. She said 500 to 700 people were believed to be on the ship, which is usually used to carry general cargo.
“This is not a simple operation,” the spokeswoman said. “It is the first time such a large vessel with so many people aboard has run into problems in Greek waters.”
Hundreds of migrants a week, many from war-ravaged countries like Syria and Afghanistan, try by land or sea to slip illegally into Greece, one of the closest European Union member states to the Middle East. The Coast Guard often rescues migrants from foundering vessels, but those are usually cases “involving 20 or 30 people in rubber dinghies,” the spokeswoman said.
Little specific information was immediately available about the people on the Baris, which is registered in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati but is managed by a Turkish company, according to the Equasis marine database. Neither could officials say yet where the ship had come from or where it was bound. There were no immediate reports of serious health problems among the passengers, except for one pregnant woman who suffered bleeding; she was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Crete.
A Greek Navy frigate took the Baris under tow on Tuesday afternoon and began heading for Ierapetra in southeastern Crete, where the two vessels were expected to arrive in the early hours of Thursday.
Aid workers and officials in Ierapetra were scrambling to collect blankets, mattresses and food for the migrants, who will be taken to a basketball arena in the city after they are screened for contagious diseases. “We are doing what we can to prepare for this, but we really don’t know what to expect,” said an official of the Ierapetra port authority, who said he was not authorized to speak publicly. “They have to be checked, registered, and then we can move them to temporary accommodation.”
The mayor of Ierapetra, Theodosios Kalantzakis, said that the authorities in Crete were “fully ready” to receive the migrants, with hospitals on standby and restaurants busy preparing meals. “We’re doing everything we can to help these poor people, but we can only host them for a few days,” he said. “The state must step in and send them to proper reception facilities.”
Concerns have been mounting in Europe over the perilous illegal sea crossings attempted by migrants, and the strained ability of countries likeand Italy to cope with them.
The Italian Coast Guard rescued more than 600 migrants last week from the waters between North Africa and Sicily. Nearly 300 Syrian refugees were saved over the weekend from a ship near Cyprus. Amnesty International says that more than 2,500 migrants have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Pope Francis spoke about the problem on Tuesday in remarks to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast graveyard,” the pope said, urging the European Union to do more to protect migrants.