LESVOS, Greece– On a fateful night earlier this year, two terrified women set off with more than 20 other people on a smuggler’s crowded dinghy that they had been told would take 15 minutes to ferry them to the Greek island of Lesvos from Turkey.
When Greek coastguards arrived 15 hours later, pregnant Patricia,* a popular 20-year-old TV and stage actress in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, and 42-year-old Marguerite,* escaping violence in Cameroon, were the only ones still alive.
Their journey was another sign that people are continuing to cross to Greece by sea, albeit in much fewer numbers than 2015-early 2016. In the first nine months of this year, around 20,000 have made it to Greece – most probably knew little about the dangers, the obstacles to onward travel and the policies on asylum that would affect them after arrival.
“The number of people crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece has dropped drastically over the past one and a half year, but this tragic incident showed that the dangers and the risk of losing one’s life remain very real,” says UNHCR Representative in Greece Philippe Leclerc.
Both the African survivors came from humble backgrounds. Patricia lived in poverty and was unable to attend school. Her mother sold bread to support her three daughters, but it was a struggle. Marguerite was an orphan who was married off at the age of 16 to a man who was 25 years older.
At 15, Patricia discovered acting and found she could make enough money to get by. “I was a simple actress. I made a living out of it and that was my daily life,” she says, humbly. In fact, she was very popular and had a loyal following of fans.
Neither woman particularly wanted to leave their homeland, but at some stage they began to fear for their safety. Patricia became more and more concerned when her partner disappeared after getting involved in politics. She thought she would be next. “I was pregnant and scared,” she said, adding: “I did not feel safe.”
Marguerite fled persecution and a threat to her life in Cameroon. She ended up believing that her survival depended on fleeing the country. Leaving her children with friends she headed north last December. At about the same time, Patricia left the Democratic Republic of the Congo and carried on through Africa to Turkey, where her path crossed with Marguerite’s on the fateful night.
Both women said they were not aware of the dangers of crossing the Aegean, short though the distance might be. They were also not aware of the March 20, 2016 European Union-Turkey Statement aimed at ending the crossings. Like so many of the travelers before them and to come, they knew little about the risks and believed what the smugglers and other passengers told them. UNHCR has called for legal avenues to be increased for those fleeing war and persecution so that they do not resort to smugglers and gamble with their lives.
Both Patricia and Marguerite become emotional at the memory of their ordeal at sea, which began when the inflatable dinghy they shared with more than 20 other people ran out of petrol between Turkey and Greece.
When the boat began sinking in the dark, people were thrown into the water on either side. “There was nobody to help us. I thought I would die,” recalls the heavily pregnant Patricia, who cannot swim. “The waves separated us and we were shouting, ‘Save us,’” adds Marguerite. “I thought of my children who could become orphans.” Finally, the Greek coastguard arrived at the scene. “God gave me the power,” says Marguerite. “I cannot say it was strength. I don’t know what kept me going.”
Patricia and Marguerite were taken to hospital on Lesvos, making a remarkable physical recovery before being moved into a shelter run by UNHCR partners.
As survivors of a shipwreck, they are regarded as vulnerable and exempt from border procedures. Their cases will be examined under the regular asylum procedure in Greece. “My priority is the baby and then I’d like to see if I can study,” Patricia reveals.
Marguerite has been in touch with her children, but is still haunted by the deadly journey. “I can’t say that I feel that good. I think of the people who died … I don’t sleep well at night because I hear voices shouting in the dark and see their faces. I feel scared.”
Both women, with hindsight, say they should have stayed on shore. “I did not know that the distance and water would be so big. Now, I would not advise anyone to do this journey,” Patricia stresses.
- By Leo Dobbs, ed. Kate Bond
As refugees and migrants continue entering and crossing Europe via the Mediterranean and Western Balkans routes, without legal means available to them many are still risking death, serious abuses, or both.
See our latest report “Desperate Journeys” for these dangerous crossings during the first half of 2017 here: http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2017/8/599ec5024/europe-refugee-migrant-arrivals-fall-reports-abuses-deaths-persist.html
* Names are changed for protection reasons