All night, every night, volunteers on the Greek island of Chios stand watch over the thin slice of Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, searching for rubber dinghies carrying asylum seekers who are praying for safe passage and a peaceful future.
On my last full night as a volunteer, I joined the Chios Eastern Shore Response Team – CESRT for the 3–8 am shift at a 1000-year old Watchtower, the team’s lookout point for the southern side of the Island. From there, we could watch over a giant swath of water and coastline.
I had a selfish desire to greet new arrivals. It’s a privilege to meet someone after a harrowing journey, and an honor to offer them dry clothes and food—perhaps their first in days, because smugglers sometimes make them sleep in forests, without shelter or provisions, for a long time before embarking across the sea.
But on the morning I woke at 2:30 AM to meet two other volunteers, my only hope was that no one would brave the journey on such a windy night. High winds mean high waves, and tiny rubber boats can be in big trouble if the waves reach over 1.5 feet high.
At 2:45 AM I met with Moritz and Melissa to patrol the southern coast of Chios, then, as the light came up, head to the watchtower. Moritz, who has welcomed over 100 boats since January, explained that our first stop would bring us to a beach where we wouldn’t see much in the dark, but could listen carefully for the sounds of approaching dinghies.
There, he gave us a crash course in what to do if a boat came in for a landing.
First we’d use a special phone called “Alpha” to coordinate the response with the Salvamento Marítimo Humanitario team (Spanish for “Humanitarian Sea Rescue”). They have a rescue boat, lifeguard team, and ambulance that will rush to the landing site. Then we’d use Alpha to notify the coast guard and Frontex, the border police, to pick everyone up on a bus.
As volunteers, we had 10 things to do:
- Don’t interfere with the landing—if you jump into the water, a smuggler might think you’re police and head back to Turkey.
- Find an English speaker, introduce yourself, and ask them to help you translate, if they are willing.
- Tell everyone they are safe now, and you are there to help.
- Find out if anyone is missing.
- Identify children traveling alone, pregnant women, and anyone with a medical condition. Even healthy people can experience shock from a difficult journey.
- Guide everyone to a place where a bus can navigate the roads to pick them up. You might need to give extra help to people with disabilities.
- Keep everyone together until they get on the bus, which will take them to register at Vial, the registration “hotspot” on the Island.
- Invite a couple people at a time to visit your car, which is packed with clothes, food, water, and information pamphlets. Help everyone find dry clothes and something to eat.
- If Frontex has reached the boat first, don’t interfere. Ask if it is okay to distribute food, water, and clothing.
- Encourage people to cooperate with Frontex, because once they register they are entitled to receive a place to stay, food to eat, and access to medical care (though, if you’ve been following my posts, you know that the quality of all of these things can vary between horrific and adequate).
After Moritz gave our instructions, we waited. The sky was dark and filled with shooting stars darting across the Milky Way. If not for the undercurrent of fear that a boat full of people could be in grave danger, it was a beautiful night.
Thankfully, no boats arrived so, at 5:00 AM, we drove 30 minutes to the watchtower.
From there, we could see that the distance between Greece and Turkey is remarkably small. Tourists spend only 45 minutes and $28 to travel the distance by ferry. But when you are fleeing war and persecution, the price for a ride in a smuggler’s boat skyrockets to anywhere between $550-2700, and the trip can take 6-8 hours. You’ve probably also spent $275 on a bogus lifejacket filled with materials that sink when wet, made by refugee children in a Turkish factory.
From the watchtower we could see two ferries—giant structures lit up like a carnival, gliding effortlessly between countries. What would you make of them while jostling around in a tiny rubber dinghy taking on water?
This year alone 193 people, including children, have died or gone missing while crossing from Turkey to Greece, and nearly 3000 have died crossing from Northern Africa to reach Italy.
The night shifts at the watchtower are, in part, to help prevent these deaths from happening.
So we sat and, as the sun rose, took turns sweeping the seascape with powerful binoculars. Three quarters of the way between Greece and Turkey there are a couple tiny uninhabited islands. If a dinghy makes it past these islands into Greek waters, they have made it into safe territory.
A little later we saw the coast guard in Greek waters and Moritz explained that, if they find a refugee boat, they will rescue them and bring them to shore.
Not long after that, we saw the Turkish coast guard patrolling Turkish waters. Their imperative, according to the EU-Turkey deal, is to prevent refugees from reaching Greece. If they spot a boat, they will pick up the travelers and bring them back to Turkey. I’ve seen photos of the Turkish coast guard using long sticks to beat the weary travelers and attempt to sink the boat.
These are the details we don’t hear about in the news. If you take the EU-Turkey deal at face value, you might wonder why a refugee would mind being sent from Europe to Turkey—after all, the EU has deemed Turkey as a “safe third country,” and it is certainly safer than where they came from… right?
Not really. Turkey might send you back to your home country, even if you fled because you were targeted by militants. And if you are allowed to stay in Turkey, you may be detained without access to adequate food or medical care, even if you are a child.
In the best-case scenario, you would be allowed to live in a camp, but the Turkish government won’t allow you to earn money. Your life would be spent in living without access to adequate food, healthcare, or education. Life becomes very bleak indeed, and this is the reality for nearly three million refugees living in Turkey today.
Watching the two boats pace back and forth between the two countries, one to rescue and one to capture, felt like watching a sinister video game—one where you would try to navigate your tiny vessel to safety against seemingly insurmountable odds.
It must be a strange thing to watch the fate of so many lives unfold from so far away.
I am glad that, on such a treacherous night, I didn’t experience that feeling. At 8:00 AM we packed up our binoculars and drove home to sleep. The next night, two boats would arrive safely, and the next, one more.
So it will go until the world’s governments adhere to the principles they decided upon long ago—that people fleeing war need special protection, and that they must do everything they can to help them establish a safe and peaceful life.
#RefgueesWelcome #SafePassage #NoBorders