The Turkish coastguard has mounted a dramatic rescue operation in the Aegean Sea, saving 51 people who became stranded on rocks as they attempted to cross to Greece.
Authorities intervened after receiving an emergency call at 1.12am local time. The coastguard said the rescue operation could only begin in daylight due to the rocky area and bad sea conditions. Helicopters dropped food and blankets in the night.
Footage from the rescue operation near the coastal city of İzmir showed coastguard personnel airlifting a child as others waited on the rocks next to a partially deflated rubber dinghy.
Five children and a woman were rescued in this way while the rest were transferred to coastguard boats with the assistance of fishermen in the area, the coastguard said.
There was no information on the migrants’ nationalities, but Turkey is home to 3 million refugees from Syria, and many have continued to attempt the risky boat ride across the sea to Greece despite a deal between Ankara and the European Union that has curtailed illegal crossings. While some still attempt the sea route, others try to cross into Greece through the land border, and are sometimes forcibly returned even after entering the Greek mainland.
In addition to refugees fleeing the Syrian war, economic migrants from Asia and north Africa also attempt the crossing. More than 800,000 people reached Greece from Turkey at the height of the crisis in 2015, most of them settling in Germany and Sweden.
The March 2016 EU deal, under which Turkey cracked down on illegal migration in exchange for an assistance package and visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, has been repeatedly criticised by human rights groups, who say Europe has shirked its responsibility to process asylum requests. Since the deal, Turkey says the number of people detained while making the illegal crossing has fallen by 85%.
Thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded in camps in Greece as the country attempts to deal with a backlog of asylum requests, and the influx has empowered far right and anti-immigrant parties across Europe.
A relocation scheme introduced by the EU in 2015 in an attempt to share the burden of migrant arrivals has been vilified by nationalist governments. Earlier this week the Guardian reported how Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, was ready to abandon the policy, which is being discussed by EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
On the ground, the suffering continues. A report by 12 humanitarian organisations released on Wednesday said 2,000 unaccompanied children were stranded on waiting lists for safe shelters in Greece, amid a chronic shortage of housing, with many sleeping rough.
While interest has waned in the refugee crisis, humanitarian organisations and governments on the Mediterranean continue to mount rescue missions for stranded people, many of whom now attempt to cross through Libya. A recent CNN investigation in the country documented the horrific and widespread abuse of migrants and refugees, describing how some are sold as slaves in local markets after their capture.
Human rights organisations have blamed the European Union, which is providing funds to curtail migration from Libya, for being complicit in the abuses.