By Elena Becatoros, AP
CHIOS, Greece–In the inky nighttime blackness, a small red dot appears on the radar screen, moving fast.
“That’s a smuggler,” the captain of the coast guard’s lifeboat says, swinging the vessel around and opening up the throttle, the boat cutting through the water on a frigid January night.
But the lifeboat, designed for search-and-rescue operations rather than high-speed chases, is no match for the smuggler’s speedboat. The smuggler ignores the searchlight, the shouts and the warning shots fired by the Greek coast guard, deftly navigating his small white vessel onto a tiny patch of beach among rocks.
There he disgorges his human cargo — men, women and children risking their lives in a quest for safety and a better future in Europe. They use ropes to scramble up a cliff, heading toward a lighthouse on an island they are soon to discover is deserted save for an army outpost. They will spend a cold, wet, uncomfortable night there until the coast guard can send boats in the morning.
Hour after hour, by night and by day, Greek coast guard patrols and lifeboats, reinforced by vessels from the European Union’s border agency Frontex, ply the waters of the eastern Aegean Sea along the frontier with Turkey. They are on the lookout for people being smuggled onto the shores of Greek islands — the front line of Europe’s massive refugee crisis.
Although smugglers are often arrested, the task is mainly a search-and-rescue role. Hours spent on patrol shows the near-impossibility of sealing Europe’s sea borders as some have demanded of Greece, whose islands so near to Turkey are the most popular gateway into Europe.
Some European countries — notably Hungary and Slovakia — have blasted Greece for being unable to secure its border, which also forms part of the external limits of Europe’s borderless Schengen area.
“We have been saying all along that if the Greeks are unable to protect the borders of their country, we should jointly go down south and protect them,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in November, with his Slovak counterpart Robert Fico echoing the thought.
But such calls ignore the realities at sea.
No matter how many patrol boats are out in Greek waters, attempting to force a vessel of asylum-seekers back into Turkish waters is both illegal and dangerous, even in calm seas. So unless a Turkish patrol stops a migrant boat and returns it to Turkey, there is little Greek or Frontex patrols can do once it has entered Greek territorial waters but arrest the smugglers and pick up the passengers or escort the vessel safely to land.
“Greece is guarding the national and European borders,” Greek Alternate Foreign Minister Nikos Xydakis said in a statement Sunday. “What it cannot do and will not do … is to sink boats and drown women and children, because international and European treaties and the values of our culture forbid it.”
The sheer numbers have been overwhelming.
More than 850,000 people, most fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, entered Greece by sea in 2015, according to the UNHCR. Already in 2016, 35,455 people have arrived despite plunging winter temperatures and days of stormy weather.