Greek Immigration and Asylum Policies Minister Notis Mitarachi | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ
Greek Immigration and Asylum Policies Minister Notis Mitarachi | Photo: ARCHIVE/EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

Greece on Wednesday urged the European Commission to urgently intervene and relocate the 500 migrants that Greek authorities rescued at sea on Tuesday in the latest high-profile migrant search and rescue operation in the country.

On Tuesday (November 22), the Greek Coast Guard rescued around 500 migrants, successfully towing a stricken, rusty fishing vessel to port on the island of Crete following a major rescue operation that was launched following a distress call.

This incident is the latest in a long line of similar rescues that have taken place in Greek waters since the summer months.

Greece's Minister for Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, sent an open letter to the European Commission Vice President Margaritas Schinas and Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, pleading for the EC's urgent intervention to relocate the rescued migrants.

'First reception countries cannot be expected to shoulder burden'

"Greece has repeatedly drawn attention to the new modus operandi of migrant smugglers employing larger vessels and trying to cross to Europe and has stressed the point that we need to collectively act in order to prevent this type of trafficking activity that puts the lives of migrants at risk," said Mitarachi in the letter.

He added: "First reception countries cannot be expected to shoulder an ever-increasing burden out of proportion to their respective capacities. Europe must prove that it is in a position to provide immediate and tangible solidarity, in far speedier timeframes and in higher numbers than the ones we have witnessed thus far." The minister in the letter called on the EU to coordinate a relocation initiative to distribute migrants among EU member states.

Dramatic rescue operation

According to the coast guard, Tuesday's rescue operation involved a Greek navy frigate, a tanker, two cargo ships and two Italian fishing vessels responding to a distress call in the early morning hours. An earlier rescue attempt had to be abandoned due to the bad weather conditions, said the coast guard.

The vessel was eventually towed to the port of Palaiochora on the island of Crete, where the coast guard said the migrants were safe. Greek Red Cross rescue and health workers were on standby to administer assistance.

Greek state television channel ERT reported that most on board were asylum seekers from Egypt and Syria, and that a hundred children had been allowed to disembark first.

Commission 'Action Plan' proposal

Before Tuesday's events, the European Commission had already announced an 'Action Plan' proposal to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. The move came after a bitter dispute between France and Italy over states' responsibility for rescued migrants.

The European Commission has unveiled a so-called Action Plan for the Central Mediterranean to be discussed by the EU interior Ministers meeting this Friday (November 25).

Outlining measures intended to address the "immediate and ongoing challenges" along the dangerous migration route, it comes as the number of migrants arriving in Europe is rising and the lack of a coordinated approach to migration and asylum is becoming more critical.

Earlier this month, France and Italy became involved in a row over France's acceptance of a boat carrying 234 rescued migrants whom Italy had turned away.

UN ask EU to create 'safe pathways' in European waterways

The latest distress call off Crete is one of many similar occurrences in Greek waterways in recent months, and comes on the back of fresh pleas from the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for the EU to create "safe pathways" in European waterways in the wake of a series of shipwreck tragedies in Greece.

In Greece in particular, for every successful search and rescue mission with a happy ending there is also a steady stream of tragic shipwrecks as people continue to try to cross the Aegean from neighboring Turkey.

In September, the two organizations had already called for the EU to create such safe pathways in European waterways after two other fatal shipwreck tragedies near Lesvos and Kithira. But nothing has yet come of that plea, and it remains to be seen what actions from EU authorities will be forthcoming after these latest incidents.

In comments made at the 73rd Session of the Executive Committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees last month, Mitarachi stated that "Smuggling networks today, get to decide who enters Europe, Greece is committed to protecting its borders".


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