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Syrian Migrants Are Latest to Try Perilous Sea Journey

  • Lisa Schlein

A policeman observes the scene as immigrants who arrived aboard a cargo ship from Turkey queue for meals in a basketball arena where they have been given temporary shelter in the town of Ierapetra, Crete, Nov. 28, 2014.

A policeman observes the scene as immigrants who arrived aboard a cargo ship from Turkey queue for meals in a basketball arena where they have been given temporary shelter in the town of Ierapetra, Crete, Nov. 28, 2014.

Thousands of migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, are continuing to make the deadly Mediterranean Sea crossing from North Africa to Europe each year, the International Organization for Migration said.

In Italy alone, more than 161,000 migrants have arrived safely since the beginning of this year, and more than 8,000 others have been rescued at sea just in November.

Many others haven't been so lucky. At least 3,200 have gone missing at sea and are presumed drowned.

IOM spokesman Joel Millman said desperation pushes the migrants to make this dangerous journey despite the terrible risks.

“This time of year, the waters are getting increasingly perilous," he said. "There are very wintry conditions and yet the amount of people crossing does not seem to be going down significantly."

Most of the people being rescued in recent weeks are from Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana, he said.

Housed in gymnasium

On Friday, officials in Greece were scrambling to feed and shelter 595 migrants rescued from a crippled smuggling ship off the coast of Crete.

The migrants, mostly from war-torn Syria, were being housed at a gymnasium in Ierapetra, where police, medical staffers and Red Cross volunteers gave them warm meals and clothing, plus blankets, soap, diapers and other supplies.

“We are doing whatever is humanly possible to help them so they can have food, shampoo for a bath and medicines for those that need medical care," a Red Cross worker said. "Shortly, as I understand, vaccinations will begin."

Authorities said housing at the gymnasium was only a temporary solution. Argyris Pantazis, Ierapetra's deputy mayor for civil protection, said the Syrian refugees would probably leave the arena within the next two days. Other migrants who do not immediately qualify for refugee status will be given the option to return to their country voluntarily or be interned in camps, pending deportation.

The migrants left Turkey last week, each paying smugglers between $2,000 and $6,000 to be taken to Italy. Coast guard officials said seven members of the cargo ship's crew have been charged with smuggling and endangering the lives of others; five are Syrians, and two are Afghanis.

Italian mission to end

The Italian government plans to close its Mare Nostrum sea rescue mission by the end of the year. That operation, which has saved the lives of more than 100,000 migrants, is being replaced by a European Union operation called Triton. Its mission is limited to controlling the borders and carrying out search-and-rescue operations.

Critics of Mare Nostrum argue the patrols encourage migrants to make the dangerous sea journeys. The IOM disagrees. Millman said the agency believes people are fleeing their home countries because of the terrible conditions that exist.

He noted that most of the migrants leave for Italy from Libya and do so for various reasons.

“It is either part of the large population of 200,000 to 300,000 overseas workers who are stranded in Libya and therefore subject to exploitation and forced, coerced, trapped in transit across the Mediterranean by criminal groups," he said, "or, it is people continuing to flee places of strife and taking the same trans-Saharan routes to Libya. I think it is probably a mixture of both. But we expect that population to continue to feel pressure and under threat in Libya, and that is going to continue to fuel the … option to get on these boats.”

Material for this report came from Reuters and AP.

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