Two-year-old Khalid, a Syrian boy who was travelling to Greece with his mother, became the first refugee to die in the Mediterranean this year when the rubber raft he was on was slammed against the rocks on the Aegean island of Nera, early on Saturday morning.
The boy’s body was pulled out of the water by fishermen from Agathonisi, the larger island of the archipelago that Nera forms part of. The remaining 39 people on board the dinghy made it out alive but some just barely.
Khalid was traveling with his 20-year-old mother Hanan Nahar.
The fishermen took the survivors to a rudimentary shack where the wet, bleeding refugees huddled. Around 10 people were injured by the violent impact with the sharp island rocks while a woman and a three-month-old infant were treated for severe hypothermia.
But the fishermen’s alert prompted a coordinated response by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) and it’s medical partner NGO, the Order of Malta Italian Relief Corp (CISOM), staff from the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) based in Aathonisi, the Emergency Response Rescue Corps (ERRC), the Swedish Sea Rescue Society, and Lagan Search and Rescue, from Belfast.
The survivors said they were sailing for about five hours. They were spotted at about 7:30am. Typically, refugees are given basic navigation instructions and are drawn to the first land they sight but many of the desolate islands that dot the Aegean do not have good landing sites and in bad weather the rock face has proven deadly for dozens of people crossing this route.
The news comes after the latest official tally released on Thursday by the International Organization for Migration shows that 3,770 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year. In reality, the count is probably higher but many deaths, especially off Libya are not reported.
The route between Libya and Italy remains the deadliest – 2,892 or 77% died in this stretch of sea. However, the number of migrants losing their lives between Greece and Turkey has been on the rise, following the swell of people traveling this route this year – 816,752 this year according to the latest IOM figures.
Even though numbers have dwindled during winter months due to strong winds, high seas and numbing cold, many still take their chances often on the promise of a good weather window.
In a statement MOAS said it was in the waters close to Agathonisi when it received the alert and deployed a fast boat, from it’s 60-metre rescue ship, the Topaz Responder, with a team of medics who assisted other medical staff from MSF on the island.
After treatment, and processing by Greek authorities, the wounded and deceased were transferred to the Responder and taken to Pythagoria, the southern port on the island of Samos. MOAS was met by the Hellenic Coast Guard, Greek police and the coroner.
MOAS Founder Christopher Catrambone said: “Nothing can prepare you for the horrific reality of what is going on. Today we came face to face with one of the youngest victims of this ongoing refugee crisis. It is a tragic reminder of the thousands of people who have died trying to reach safety in miserable conditions.
“The light in all of this darkness is that there are so many individuals and organisations dedicating themselves to saving lives. As we have seen today, collaboration and cooperation is crucial to all of us being effective in our efforts,” he added.
MOAS launched its life-saving mission in the Aegean Sea late last month in the waters between Turkey and Greece, aboard the MOAS Responder, which is fully-equipped to conduct mass rescue and post-rescue care. MOAS also coordinates with all stakeholders including the Hellenic Coast Guard, NGOs, fisherman and volunteers. The Responder is also able to deploy two fast 30-knot weather tight rescue boats Alan and Galip, named after two Syrian brothers who drowned in September.
“It is a fitting testament to our public support that MOAS can apply our public donations to save people and serve local lifesavers,” said MOAS Director Martin Xuereb
Last week, MOAS rescued some 59 refugees from two separate unseaworthy boats and will continue to mount search and rescue operations where needed.