ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s coast guard has rescued hundreds of migrants in more than a dozen search and rescue operations, including one in which a toddler found unconscious in one of the overcrowded dinghies died, authorities said Wednesday.
The coast guard said it picked up 534 migrants in 14 incidents off the coasts of the eastern Aegean islands of Lesbos, Chios, Agathonissi, Samos, Farmakonissi and Kos from Tuesday morning to Wednesday morning. Another 108 were picked up during the day Wednesday off the islands of Agathonissi and Chios. Those numbers do not include the hundreds more who managed to reach the islands of their own accord in overcrowded dinghies.
Separately, it said a child of about 2 or 3 years old was found unconscious in a dinghy spotted by a patrol helicopter and carrying 54 migrants off Samos. A coast guard vessel picked up the group and the child was taken to a hospital, but the little boy was later declared dead, the coast guard said. It was unclear what the child died of, and authorities said an autopsy would be carried out.
Greece has seen record numbers of migrant arrivals this year, most fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan and arriving on Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. About 160,000 migrants have reached Greece so far since January, compared to 43,500 in all of 2014, according to figures from the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. More than four-fifths are from Syria, and 14 percent from Afghanistan.
While cheap single-use inflatable dinghies with small engines are the predominant method used by smugglers to send migrants across to the Greek islands, some use alternatives. Groups of migrants have paddled the several miles separating some of the islands from the Turkish coast in toy dinghies, while others have used more sophisticated — and faster methods.
One smuggler was arrested Wednesday after transporting two migrants to the island of Lesbos on a jet ski, the coast guard said. All three were detained.
Few — if any — of those who arrive want to stay in Greece, which is reeling from a financial crisis of its own and has an unemployment rate of more than 26 percent. Instead, they head to Greece’s northern border with Macedonia and from there cross the Balkans, heading to the more prosperous European countries of the north, particularly Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
Short-staffed and cash-strapped authorities on islands have been overwhelmed with the sheer numbers of daily arrivals and have struggled to cope with registering the new arrivals.
With the tourism season at its peak, another problem has arisen — regular ferries are fully booked with holidaymakers heading to and from the islands, meaning thousands of migrants have been unable to find tickets to get to the Greek mainland and continue their journeys.
Hundreds of migrants have been camping out for days at the port of the island of Lesbos, which for months saw the largest numbers of arrivals in Greece. Similar scenes have appeared in other islands.
Authorities chartered a ferry they sent to Kos earlier this week, one of the most severely affected islands, where it acted as an accommodation and registration center for migrants.
The ferry set sail from Kos Wednesday morning with 1,308 migrants on board, the coast guard said, and headed to nearby Leros where it picked up hundreds more. It was continuing to Lesbos Wednesday evening to pick up some of the hundreds stranded at the port there before setting sail for the northern Greek port city of Thessaloniki. The ship was expected to arrive there early Thursday.
From Thessaloniki, the migrants were to be transported to the border crossing of Idomeni, where hundreds have been streaming across each day to continue their journey northwards.