The number of unaccompanied refugee children arriving in Greece from the shores of Turkey spiked in the first quarter of 2016, according to figures presented on Tuesday by the head of the Hellenic Coast Guard’s personnel union federation (POEPLS) Thanos Tsatsoulis in a press conference.
Tsatsoulis said that 537 unaccompanied minors up to the age of 13 had arrived on the island of Lesvos, Greece, alone in the first three months of the year, compared to a total of 750 in 500,000 people arriving on the island throughout 2015.
Coast guard officers at the press conference described harrowing scenes during their rescues of refugees and migrants and said that some of the children that spoke English said they had come alone because their parents did not have enough money. The majority, they added, communicated with their families via Facebook and had been instructed to post their whereabouts as soon as they arrived at any kind of institution in Greece or Europe, so that their parents or relatives could come and find them.
Talking about rescues in the Aegean, officers said that panic was the cause of many shipwrecks as refugees — crammed as many as 50 to a boat designed for six — moved about and caused the dinghies to capsize. Many of the people on board did not know whether they were in the sea or a river, they said, while many infants had no lifejackets and even when these existed, they were of poor quality.
A Super-Puma helicopter operator noted that the most difficult rescues were those of babies and small children. In one hair-raising incident he recounted, the occupants of the boat had insisted that the rescuers first lift a travel bag into the helicopter which, once opened, proved to have an 11-day-old baby inside.
Tsatsoulis and the other coast guard officers said those serving in the Aegean rescue missions were under immense psychological strain as a result of all they have witnessed over the past year, with many on the verge of psychological collapse, and asked that the state provide care but also some form of material compensation for their very important work.