17/07/2015 13:29 BST | Updated 17/07/2016 06:59 BST

This Summer, Across the Greek Islands, Boats Filled With Refugees Are Nothing Unusual

The Coast guard patrol boat leaves harbor just as the sun starts climbing over the Aegean. This is a routine two-hour patrol along the northeast coast of the island of Lesvos. And what passes for routine these days means that within an hour the crew on board has spotted, hailed and rescued forty-four men, women and children. All Syrian, all fleeing the war. This summer, across the Greek islands, this is nothing unusual.

Spotting a refugee boat takes practice. It will appear first as a tiny fleck of black against the ink-blue sea, always riding perilously low in the water. Once it hoves into view, the scene will be depressingly familiar.

For the most part, the boats are inflatable rubber dinghies, fitted with old plywood for a floor. Each comes equipped with a cheap, knock-off outboard motor, which may or may not break down midway. The smugglers don't tell this to the refugees, of course. They simply show a couple of the men onboard how to steer, point them in the general direction of Greece and then turn away. Job done.


Before that, however, those same smugglers need to maximize their investment. So when they sneak the refugees down to the Turkish shoreline, up to fifty people might be crammed into a craft fit for ten. In most cases, cheap one-size-fits-all life jackets are included in the price. However, there's a catch. That one-size is too big for kids. This means parents traveling with small children have no choice to but to buy inflatable rings and arm bands for their kids. Toys suitable for the paddling pool are all that refugee children get as they cross the sea.


At its furthest point, the northeast coast of Lesvos is barely seven kilometres from Turkish soil. Once the boats drift into Greek territorial water the Coast Guard can move in. As they approach today's boat they tell a story. A few weeks before they were rescuing another group of refugees but as they hauled the people onboard they discovered two elderly women among them, both wearing life jackets, both still buckled into their wheelchairs.


From experience, the Coast Guard sailors know not to try and lash a rope to the dinghies to steady them. They are so flimsy that any pressure at all will simply tear them apart and everyone will go in the water. Instead, the crew looks out for the strongest man on board, throws him the rope and tells him to hold on as tight as he can. Only then are they hauled in.


Once everyone is aboard, the Coast Guard boat turns in a slow, wide arc and sets course back to the harbor. The fishermen hauling in their nets don't even bother to look up anymore. When they reach port, the refugees are escorted off, given water and arrangements are made for their transportation to a reception centre. Because this is a 21st Century refugee crisis, the first thing almost everyone does is unwrap their cell phones from layer upon layer of waterproof plastic wrap and call home.

Meanwhile, the crew write up the morning's paperwork, hose down the deck, refuel their boat and then head back out to sea.

Owen Fay is the Regional Editor for the UNHCR in the Mediterranean, based in Rome