ATHENS: Greece’s coast guard said nearly 500 asylum seekers rescued in a dramatic operation this week off the island of Crete had been temporarily transferred to a ferry for processing.
The migrants — including 128 boys and nine girls — were on board a derelict fishing boat that issued a distress call late on Monday whilst sailing southwest of Crete.
Because of bolstered patrols by the Greek coast guard and EU border agency Frontex in the Aegean Sea, migrant smugglers embark increasingly on a longer and more perilous route south of Crete, Greek officials say.
The group of 483 includes Syrians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Palestinians and Sudanese, said a coast guard spokeswoman.
“The operation is proceeding but it is slow owing to the large number of people,” she added.
“We also need to take testimony from them.”
Several nearby vessels responded Monday and a Greek navy frigate was dispatched, but near-gale winds made it impossible to rescue the migrants at sea.
It took half a day before the 25-meter fishing boat could be safely towed to the small Crete coastal town of Palaiochora on Tuesday.
In a statement on Thursday, the coast guard said the asylum seekers had been transferred to a Greek ferry on Wednesday evening.
The agency was not immediately able to say how long they would stay there.
Athens has said it would immediately ask fellow EU states to share out the large group.
“We ask the (European) Commission to immediately undertake and coordinate a relocation initiative in response to this (search and rescue) operation, ensuring the responsibility, in saving lives at sea, is fairly shared among member states,” Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said in a letter to the bloc’s executive body, released to media on Tuesday. Greece, Italy and Spain are among the countries used by people fleeing Africa and the Middle East in search of safety and better lives in the European Union.
The International Organization for Migration has recorded nearly 2,000 migrants killed and missing in the Mediterranean Sea this year.
Tens of thousands of people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa try to make their way into the European Union each year via perilous sea journeys.
The vast majority head to eastern Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast in small inflatable dinghies or attempt to cross directly to Italy from north Africa and Turkey in larger vessels.