On July 21st this year, the Hellenic Coast Guard received an SOS call from a migrant ship southeast of the Greek island of Karpathos. The vessel was carrying 217 migrants and refugees from Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Sudan.
They were transferred to Sitia in Crete, where they were met and assisted by the local authorities and IOM Greece staff.
One of the 217 on the boat was Omid (not his real name), a 21 year old Syrian, who shared the story of his journey from Syria to Europe, leading up to his rescue on July 21st.
Omid fled his country after the Syrian conflict began and lived in a refugee camp in Jordan for three years. In June 2015 he decided to that the only way to improve his life would be to go to Europe. Sweden or Germany would be his final destination.
He bought an air ticket from Jordan to Istanbul, Turkey, arriving on June 30th. He met his sister and brother in Gaziantep and after a few days moved on to the port city of Mersin with his brother.
In Mersin, the brothers sought out smugglers, who they were told would facilitate their journey to Europe. It did not take them long to find one.
“There are a lot of smugglers in Mersin. It’s not a secret. Everyone knows about smugglers and talks about them in Turkey. It is easy to find one, just like buying a pack of cigarettes. You’ve got to ask. It’s not a big deal. You can find ten smugglers in one hour. I have about 10 telephone numbers of smugglers,” said Omid.
Initially, they stayed in a hotel in Mersin and gave $5,500 each to friends to give to the smugglers once they safely reached Italy. After several attempts to book a passage with different smugglers, they moved to a place called Silifke-Antalya.
“Every day they (the smugglers) told us to try again tomorrow. But they were just lying to keep us distracted and not ask for our money back. Five or seven days later, my brother and I decided to go back to Mersin and find another smuggler.”
Finally, a smuggler took them by bus to Tarsus. Along the way they were transferred to smaller buses, which dropped them off on a mountain in the late evening. From there they walked downhill through a stifling tunnel for two hours.
“They did not want anyone to detect us, so we walked through the tunnel at night. There were also people who could not walk, handicapped people, old men and children. It was very hard.”
At the end of the tunnel was a rocky shoreline. The boat that was waiting for them kept hitting the rocks. It took about an hour to get all 217 migrants on board.
“When we got on board, they told us that we would be transferred to a bigger ship that was waiting for us offshore. We stayed there two days and were never put on a bigger ship.”
On the boat, there was no food and the limited water that was available quickly ran out. Eventually the boat’s engine also stopped when it ran out of fuel.
“I didn’t eat anything and I didn’t go to the bathroom for three days because there was nothing in my stomach. Everything was thrown up. If I drank water, I would throw up. After a while I didn’t drink water. If I wanted to sleep, I couldn’t sleep, because there was no space,” said Omid.
Several people lost consciousness. Others had arguments, screaming at each other because there was no space or because someone was sleeping on someone else or stepping on someone else.
“There was a woman who wanted to kill herself, she wanted to jump. I too started thinking of jumping into the sea, but I thought, if I jump, then what? And if I stay alive in the sea for four days, then what? I was desperate.”
The captain of the boat was a Syrian who knew how to operate the ship and had negotiated with the smugglers to get a free passage. When the boat ran out of fuel, he sent out an SOS and merchant ships approached them and stayed alongside for hours until the green light for the rescue was given.
Eventually, a ship normally used to transport animals from Europe to other countries rescued the 217 migrants from the stranded vessel. The whole rescue operation – coordinated by the Hellenic Coast Guard - took over 24 hours.
On arrival in Sitia, the migrants were temporarily housed in a stadium, while the sick and injured were transferred to hospital.
Omid said that he and his brother now planned intended to reach Norway, Germany or Sweden by travelling through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Serbia, Hungary and Austria.
“If you go to FYROM and then to Serbia, and after that to Hungary and then Austria, everything is fine. You can take a bus or train and you can choose the country that you want. I want to go to Sweden, because you can become Swedish subject after five years; they grant you documents. If I go to Sweden, I will study in college for three years, maybe economics. After that, maybe a Masters. I’ll finish college, I’ll take my passport and I will leave for Dubai where a sister of mine lives.”