Europe

Migrants' risk grows with Greece bad weather discounts

Migrant families on Samos (October 2015)
Image caption Families rest on the island of Samos after the dangerous voyage from Turkey

"Go now and it's 850 dollars, and your kids can go for free, wait until tomorrow and it's double."

A Syrian nurse, Nancy Ahmed, recounts the conversation she had with Turkish smugglers in Izmir, as she chose to risk setting off on a rubber boat to Greece.

"They offered a discount because the seas were rough and it was raining. It's riskier, but we were told we'd be okay," she says.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption As winter draws in conditions for those attempting the crossing get more treacherous

Nancy, her 11-year-old twin boys and her 70-year-old mother travelled along with 40 others in one of seven boats that set out early in the morning last Friday.

She says the dinghy nearly overturned three times, and survived "out of luck and the skill of the Iraqi driver".

The driver was another migrant, designated to steer by the smuggling gang. He had spent an hour being taught basic seacraft.

The boat was picked up by the Greek coastguard and taken to the island of Samos.

Another boat that set off an hour after Nancy's faced even worse conditions. Thunderstorms and rain in the Aegean Sea caused the boat to capsize - 13 people drowned.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption This baby girl is one of many who drowned near Lesbos on Wednesday

In Samos last week, I met a grief-stricken Syrian man. He had been rescued by another migrant boat, but his wife and sons were missing, presumed drowned.

He told aid workers he had taken advantage of a "discount" being offered by smugglers.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it has received many migrant reports of smugglers offering to charge less for people willing to travel in turbulent conditions.

Image copyright AP
Image caption These people made it safely to Lesbos on Friday - despite a heavily listing boat
Image copyright AFP
Image caption For those who arrive safely on Greek soil the relief can be overwhelming

The UNHCR spokesman in Greece, Ron Redmond, believes the discount has contributed to the sharp rise in drownings in recent days.

"In Lesbos at the moment we're hearing from migrants that they're being offered up to 50% discounts to travel when it's windy or raining."

He says a false sense of security is being given by smugglers, who are offering wooden boats to transport people across the Aegean, rather than rubber dinghies.

"This is the other thing - people may think the wooden boat is safer. But I've seen these boats, they look very old and unseaworthy, mechanically not in good condition.

"And they're packed with 300 to 400 people. If it sinks, the coastguard can't get to everybody. That's what we're now seeing."

Image caption Weather conditions are worsening for those on the Greek islands too

On Wednesday night, close to the Lesbos coast, an old tourist boat with three decks full of 400 migrants capsized. Greek patrols rescued 274 people, 16 died. The others remain unfound.

A sense of the conditions migrants are travelling in was confirmed when it later emerged that one of the boat's decks had collapsed.

The figures speak for themselves.

So far this year, around 202 people have died in Greek waters, with many more missing, presumed drowned. Half of those deaths happened this October.

As the weather worsens, aid agencies are calling on EU leaders to once again provide more search and rescue boats, to help support the Greek coastguard, now clearly overwhelmed.