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Volunteer Groups Step In To Rescue Migrants En Route To Greek Islands


Despite cold weather, rough seas and border closures, still thousands of asylum-seekers are crossing by boat from Turkey into Europe by way of the Greek islands. Hundreds have drowned, including nine people early today off the coast of Turkey. The Greek and Turkish coast guards cannot keep up, so volunteer rescue groups have stepped in. Reporter Joanna Kakissis joins us from one of those private rescue boats in the Aegean Sea. Hello, Joanna.


MCEVERS: Tell us about the ship you're on and who is running it.

KAKISSIS: Sure. We're on the ship called The Responder. It's a giant search-and-rescue tug vessel. And its run by a nonprofit called the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, or MOAS. It's based in Malta, and it's run by an American insurance millionaire and his Italian wife. MOAS first started assisting in rescues in early 2014, and they started assisting on the route between Libya and Italy. Hundreds of people were crossing there in these giant rotting fishing boats. And they came to the eastern Mediterranean - and that's the sea between Turkey and Greece - just in late December, just a couple of months ago. What brought them here was the image last September of the little Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless little body was photographed washing up on shore. You know, that image moved a lot of people, and MOAS got a surge in donations to help here. So the MOAS responder, that's the ship I'm on, has these two speedboats. And they assist in rescues, and they're named after Aylan and his brother, Galip, who also drowned.

MCEVERS: Oh. You know, it's not like these crossings are stopping. I mean, 62,000 asylum-seekers arrived on the Greek islands just last month. During that time, 360 people have drowned in the Mediterranean. Knowing these numbers, how many rescues has MOAS done?

KAKISSIS: Well, in Greece, on the - the crossing between Turkey and Greece, in - just in the last month or so they've rescued about 400 people. But in total, since MOAS has started, they've saved the lives of more than 12,000 people.

MCEVERS: And who is actually doing the rescuing?

KAKISSIS: Some are employees of the nonprofit. We're going to hear now from Dominic Vella. He's from Malta and his friends call him Mimmo. He's a dad with three kids, and he drives those speedboats named after the Kurdi brothers.

DOMINIC VELLA: I cannot stand to see the kids on those boats. It's like - I say why my kids are at home safe and these kids have to risk their life? What's the difference?

KAKISSIS: And, you know, there are also volunteers here. I met Iain Brown. He's 51. He's from Scotland. And on this ship, he's suited up and ready to dive into the sea and rescue people if a boat sinks or capsizes. He's always trying to calm people down, you know, because many can't swim. They're scared, they're shaking.

IAIN BROWN: There's an old man holding onto my lifejacket. He's behind me. He's panicking. I'm holding a baby. I'm holding the boat. It's horrendous.

KAKISSIS: He says it's a description of a rescue that he could be doing, like, every other day.

MCEVERS: I mean, it's clear that this crisis is not letting up anytime soon. How is the European Union managing it?

KAKISSIS: At this point, you know, they're fumbling to come up with some kind of solution because nothing that they've discussed and approved and - has worked so far. So the latest plan is to push Greece to keep asylum-seekers in Greece and to make this country a kind of large migrant and refugee camp. And the Greeks, of course, say, you know, they can't afford to shelter hundreds of thousands of people. We all know that Greece is effectively broke.


KAKISSIS: And yet, with wars in Syria and Iraq and conflicts in Afghanistan continuing, you know, the flow of people isn't going to end anytime soon.

MCEVERS: That's reporter Joanna Kakissis. She's onboard a rescue boat in the Aegean Sea. And, Joanna, I understand NPR photographer Kainaz Amaria is also with you.

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's right. And we're happy to answer any questions via Twitter. You can find us at @joannakakissis and akainazamaria.

MCEVERS: All right, thanks to you both.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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