Although the Aegean Sea is considered relatively safe compared to other flight routes across the Mediterranean, due to the short distances between the Turkish mainland and the Greek islands, it is still a route that claims many lives.
According to estimates from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 1,865 people have drowned in the Aegean Sea since 2014.1 According to UNHCR’s estimates, 2,104 people have drowned during that same period.2 For 2021, the two organizations also list very different figures. According to the IOM, there were 111 dead and missing, and according to the UNHCR, 53. The significant discrepancy in the IOM and UNHCR statistics on deaths and missing persons in the Eastern Mediterranean suggests that the number of unreported cases is high. Cases are only included in the statistics if there are official sources or published articles.
However, many of the drowned are never found and their names remain unknown. This makes it almost impossible, especially for their families and friends, to determine the whereabouts of their loved ones. They are forced to live with unbearable uncertainty. People often hope and search for years. A woman in the former Moria camp on Lesvos told us about a mother in Afghanistan who refused to leave her village even though the Taliban were on the advance. She said she could not leave because otherwise her son, who had gone missing on his journey to Europe, would not be able to find her when he returned.
The Aegean remains a dangerous and far too often deadly route. When Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in an interview with New York Times journalist Steven Erlanger on 30 September 2021, "No one drowned in the Aegean this year",3 it was not only a lie, but also an act of absolute disrespect for those who lost their lives, as well as their family members.
According to the IOM, 111 people drowned in the Aegean Sea and other waters between Turkey and Greece in 2021 while trying to reach Europe:4
Victims in the Aegean
- 19. January 2021: A man drowns near Lesvos
- 24. January 2021: One person is found dead in Turkish waters
- 19. March 2021: Four people drown, thrown into the water by the Hellenic Coast Guard as part of a brutal pushback; origin: presumably Sierra Leone
- 22. July 2021: Eight people go missing after a shipwreck southeast of Crete; origin: Syria and Iraq
- 30. July 2021: Two women and a child go missing after a shipwreck near Lesvos; origin: Syria, Iraq, DCR
- 14. September 2021: At least two people missing after a pushback from Samos
- 20. September 2021: Two found dead in Turkish waters
- 26. October 2021: Four found dead and at least one remains missing after shipwreck near Chios; origin: Somalia
- 5. November 2021: Two found dead and at least one missing after shipwreck near Bodrum
- 11. November 2021: One person drowns near Didim; origin: Iraq
- 19. November 2021: One person dies in hospital in Antalya after shipwreck on way to Cyprus
- 21. November 2021: One person dies after shipwreck near Crete
- 3. December 2021: Two people drown northeast of Kos
- 21. December 2021: Four found dead after shipwreck near Folegandros; 33 other people are missing and presumed drowned
- 24. December 2021: Eleven people die after shipwreck near Anthikytera
- 25. December 2021: 22 people die in shipwreck near Paros, three are missing
- 28. December 2021: Two women die in a shipwreck near İzmir; origin: Somalia
In the case of 30 July 2021, a boat capsized on Lamna Reef, north of Lesvos, on the way from Turkey to Lesvos. The Hellenic Coast Guard initiated a search for survivors and requested assistance from vessels in the area. When the Nomad, a fully equipped civilian rescue boat, arrived a short time later, it was forced to return to port by the relevant authorities. The captain, a local fisherman, was then ordered to join the search with his wooden fishing boat instead. This was a completely incomprehensible order considering the situation. It seems that the reluctance of the authorities to cooperate with the NGOs was greater than the need to find survivors. Two women and a child were never found. The Nomad was never again requested by the Coast Guard for a search operation, and without such a request, they are not allowed to conduct search and rescue operations.5
The militarisation of the Aegean Sea and the systematic implementation of illegal pushbacks have made crossing the shortest routes between the Turkish mainland and the Greek islands almost impossible. As a result, people are using increasingly dangerous routes to reach Europe, such as the Calabria route from Turkey to Italy, which claimed numerous lives in 2021. (see chapter “Shifting Routes”).