Smugglers change tactics as refugee flow to Greece holds steady

Increased patrols and foul weather have forced smugglers to change tactics, but the refugee flow remains constant in Chios, Greece, where more than 3000 asylum-seekers arrived this weekend.

Looking over pitch-black waters, Pothiti Kitromilidi smokes a cigarette with her eyes fixed on distant streetlights along the Turkish coast. Aside from the stars, little else is visible.

It is Friday night, and Kitromilidi, a coordinator for the FEOX Rescue Team, is standing on the southeastern shore of Chios, a Greek island where asylum-seekers have been arriving under the cover of darkness ever since the Turkish Coast Guard increased its presence. Only a few refugees made the crossing in recent days, but Kitromilidi credits bad weather over the authorities, who she says “pretend to work during the week and take weekends off.”

Now the seas are calm again and Kitromilidi’s expecting a long night out. She radios back and forth with team members spread out over the area on ATVs and Vespa scooters. Everyone is waiting as Kitromilidi shines a light into the dark water below.

“We don’t see them, we have to hear them,” she said.

Then the call comes in: “Boat landed! Boat landed!”

Kitromilidi jumps in her car and speeds to the arrival site where 45 Afghans are standing, dripping wet and shivering. The rescue team gets to work, providing dry clothes and emergency thermal blankets with help from a Norwegian humanitarian group, Drop in the Ocean, while Spanish doctors from Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario (SMH) attend to the injured.

Amidst screaming children and aching bodies, the chaotic process seems almost streamlined: Wet clothes off, dry clothes on, plastic bags replace wet socks and everyone gets filed onto a bus while volunteers pick up any trash left behind in an impressive display of cross-organizational coordination.

Yet after months of refining their procedures, humanitarian workers in Chios continue facing new challenges as smugglers change tactics under new pressures from Turkey and the European Union. Whenever the flow seems to slow down, large backlogs of refugees arrive in short bursts of time, overwhelming humanitarian services. This past weekend, more than 3,000 people arrive in Chios alone.

“The numbers have been stable since the fall and now we are thinking they will stay the same until March,” said Edith Chazelle, Camp management coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We are all surprised they are still coming with the cold weather and the rough water.”

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