Just past 9 every night, six crew members from the Leros division of the Greek coast guard board a bright orange search-and-rescue vessel and depart from the tiny Aegean island of Leros.
They patrol until dawn, looking out for boats in distress, packed with migrants trying to reach Europe.
“We see people almost every day, at least 40 people at a time, just in our area,” says Captain Leonidas Papadakis. “Most say they’re from Syria. Others say Afghanistan, Iraq.” There are also Ghanians, Ugandans, even the occasional Dominican.
The number of migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece has tripled since last year. The Greek coast guard, with the help of the police, must fingerprint and register all new migrants. Most migrants can only stay in Greece for a month legally. Syrians, due to the protracted war, can stay for six months.
The vessel takes about 90 minutes to reach the sea border between Greece and Turkey. Crew member Kostas Vrastaminos, standing on the deck, points to glittering lights on a shoreline. It’s the Turkish resort town of Didim, just 5 miles away.
“From there you can reach Greek waters by speedboat in 10 minutes,” he says.
But more often, the journey is made on small inflatable rafts with puny motors. Migrants pay smugglers $1,000 apiece for a place on those rafts.
The rafts appear on a radar monitored by Papadakis, a boyish officer with a buzz cut. He sometimes sees three or four at once.
“We can’t reach them all, so we have to make choices,” he says. “We rescue those in distress; we escort those that are not. Some reach our shores alone.”
The closest shore is on the islet of Farmakonissi, which is uninhabited except for a military base. The voyage there can be treacherous.
“Especially when the sea is rough and (there are) bad weather conditions, the search and rescue operation must be done in five to 10 minutes,” Papadakis says.
The Aegean Sea crossing from Turkey to Greece isn’t as deadly as the Central Mediterranean Sea route from North Africa to Italy. The International Organization for Migration says 1,829 people have died so far in 2015 in the Mediterranean, but only 31 of those deaths have been recorded in the Aegean, or the eastern Mediterranean, and most in Turkish waters.
But the Leros coast guard is still haunted by the drowning deaths of 11 Afghans early last year near Farmakonissi.
“Only women and children died in this accident,” Papadakis says. “It was very bad.”
Human rights groups accused the Greek coast guard of overturning the migrants’ wooden boat while trying to tow it back to Turkish waters. But the coast guard says the boat capsized when the men on deck ran to one side. The women and children were all inside the boat’s cabin.
Papadakis suddenly notices something strange on the radar. He orders the crew to chart a course for it.
Vrastaminos explains that it’s a small boat moving at high speed. “It doesn’t have lights; that’s suspicious,” he says. “There’s likely a smuggler on board They’re trying to outrace us — they don’t want to be rescued.”
Smugglers face long prison terms in Greece if they’re arrested and convicted.
Another crew member stands on the deck holding a machine gun.
“Sometimes the smugglers have weapons,” Vrastaminos says. “We have to be prepared.”
There are likely migrants on that boat, too, he says. Smugglers try to evade arrest by leaving migrants on Greek islands and speeding back to Turkey.
Tonight the coast guard pursues the suspicious boat for an hour before it heads back to Turkish waters. A few hours later, the coast guard crew returns to Leros alone.
The next night, another crew rescues 46 Afghans, including three toddlers in tiny orange life vests. Their inflatable raft was so overloaded it was starting to sink.
The Afghans say a smuggler, fearing arrest, had told them to head out to sea alone. “He said, look for lights,” says one of the Afghans, 20-year-old Amir Baktash. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We cannot swim.”
Under international law, the Greek coast guard is obliged to rescue them. The crew threw a rope to the migrants, then gently pulled their listing raft close.
“They helped us onto their boat one by one,” Baktash says.
They arrive on Leros just as dawn is breaking.