DAVID GREENE, HOST:
To understand the migrant crisis in Europe, we have been getting as close as possible. Yesterday, we heard from the owner of a ship in the Mediterranean, speaking to us from the bridge after he rescued more than 300 migrants from Africa - this morning, to the Aegean Sea, where people were taken by smugglers from Turkey to the Greek islands. Joanna Kakissis went on a night patrol with the Greek Coast Guard near the tiny island of Leros.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: It's dark, just after 9 p.m. when the bright-orange search-and-rescue vessel departs Leros with six crew members. It takes about 90 minutes to reach the patrol space, part of the sea border between Greece and Turkey. Crew member Kostas Vrastaminos points to glittering lights on a shoreline. That's the Turkish resort town of Didim.
KOSTAS VRASTAMINOS: (Speaking Greek).
KAKISSIS: "From there," he says, "you could reach Greek waters in 10 minutes by speedboat." But more often, the journey is made on small inflatable rafts with puny motors. Refugees from Syria and Afghanistan pay smugglers a thousand dollars apiece for a place on those rafts.
LEONIDAS PAPADAKIS: (Speaking Greek).
KAKISSIS: The boats appear on a radar monitored by Leonidas Papadakis, the boyish captain.
PAPADAKIS: (Speaking Greek).
KAKISSIS: "We can't reach them all," he says, "so we have to make choices. We rescue those in danger. We escort those who are not. Some arrive on our shores alone." The closest shore is on the tiny island of Farmakonisi. Papadakis explains that the voyage here can be treacherous.
PAPADAKIS: Especially when the sea is rough or we have bad weather conditions. The search-and-rescue operation must be done in five, 10 minutes mostly. And we are very worried because there has happened many times accidents, and people have been drowned.
KAKISSIS: The Coast Guard here still haunted by the drowning deaths of 11 Afghans - all women and children - near Farmakonisi early last year. Human rights groups accused the Greeks of pushing the migrants' wooden boat back to Turkish waters. But the Coast Guard says the boat capsized when passengers ran to one side. Papadakis suddenly sees something strange on the radar and orders his crew to speed up.
VRASTAMINOS: (Speaking Greek).
KAKISSIS: "It's a small speedboat," he says. "It doesn't have lights. That's suspicious. There's likely a smuggler on board. They're trying to outrace us. They don't want to be rescued." I notice another crew member holding a machine gun.
VRASTAMINOS: (Speaking Greek).
KAKISSIS: "We must be prepared," Vrastaminos says. "Sometimes the smugglers are armed." There are likely migrants on that boat, too. Smugglers try to evade arrest by leaving the migrants on Greek islands and speeding back to Turkey. But tonight, the Coast Guard pursues the suspicious boat for nearly an hour before it heads back into Turkish waters. And a few hours later, the crew returns to Leros alone.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Baba.
KAKISSIS: The next night, another crew rescues 46 Afghans, including three toddlers in tiny, orange life vests. Their inflatable raft was so overloaded, it was sinking. The Afghans say a smuggler fearing arrest had told them to head out to sea alone. The Greek Coast Guard under international law is obliged to rescue them. The crew brings the migrants to Leros just as dawn is breaking. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.
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