Page last updated at 12:45 GMT, Thursday, 30 October 2008

On patrol with the Greek coastguard

By Iain Macinnes
BBC Scotland Eorpa Reporter

Stenhousmuir, East Stirling, East Fife - the conversation moved rapidly to football as often happens amongst men.

The Greek coastguard were surprisingly knowledgeable of Scottish football, as we passed the time throughout the night, in the stretch of water between Greece and Turkey.

Iain Macinnes
Iain Macinnes spent a night on patrol with the Greek coastguard

Eorpa was on patrol with the Greek coastguard as they search for immigrants trying to make their way into Europe through this point. The numbers attempting to enter has risen considerably in the past few years, with many coming from Afghanistan and Iraq and also from Africa.

The coastguard told us (between debates about Forfar and Albion Rovers) that each evening, they have to pluck many immigrants from this stretch of water.

The journey is in small boats, usually small dinghies, with the immigrants aiming for the Greek island of Samos, only a mile from the Turkish coast.

Overflowing with bodies

The Greek coastguard can usher them back into Turkish waters, but the immigrants, being fully aware of this, often start to damage their boats as soon as they catch sight of the coastguard, frequently sinking them.

If they end up in the water, then the Greek authorities have a responsibility to pick them up and take them to dry land - within the EU.

When they spotted something of interest on the radar, the speed of the coastguard boat increased to almost forty knots.

We then knew the race had started, and when the guns and bullet proof vests emerged, we were certain. A boat had been located, and the football chat was abruptly halted.

Although there has never been an incident involving guns, the coastguard can never be sure who they are dealing with, and therefore take particular care.

It was then the light hit the boat - bobbing about in the water, a dinghy, almost overflowing with bodies.

Immigrants in dinghy
There were 33 people on board a dinghy meant for eight

As we approached, the number of people on board was startling - each holding on to a makeshift inflatable tyre tube.

The concern was that they would damage their boat, and, with the rough seas we were encountering, this would be very dangerous indeed, not only for the immigrants but for the coastguard also.

Fortunately, only one corner of the boat was damaged, but this resulted in a few of the immigrants being thrown into the sea.

Quickly and professionally, the coastguard crew went about their business of saving those in the water, but the desperation of the young men trying to get aboard the coastguard vessel was evident - discipline was required to ensure everyone's safety.

Many were trying to scramble to safety, grabbing anything they could to haul themselves aboard the coastguard vessel.

With only four of a crew, the coastguard have to ensure only one person comes aboard at a time - something that the cold, wet, and desperate immigrants found hard to understand.

Eventually, after a head-count, it was confirmed that all 33 immigrants on the boat had made it onto the coastguard vessel.

The dinghy in which they had been travelling had a licence for only six to eight people, further emphasising the lengths people will go to, and the danger they will put themselves in, to look for a better life. A life in Europe.

Challenging job

As we travelled back to the port of Samos, where these young men would be fingerprinted, health-checked, then forwarded to the local detention centre, the crew told us that this was a fairly average evening.

The only difference was that it is often women with children that are being plucked from the Aegean sea between Turkey and Samos.

The detention centre on Samos - newly built - is already well over capacity, and along with other Greek detention centres, there are concerns about overcrowding and conditions facing immigrants there.

The Greek government is beginning to admit they cannot deal with the number of immigrants trying to make their way to Europe through this route, and are looking to the EU for assistance in manning its huge 16,000km coastline.

For the coastguard though, they will undoubtedly have to continue this challenging job each evening in the meantime. The waiting game will no doubt give them the opportunity to expand their knowledge as far as Ross County, and even perhaps Annan Athletic.

That is until they are called into action again, to rescue immigrants crossing this short sound between Asia, and Europe.

You can see more on this story on BBC Alba at 2030 BST on 5 November, on Eorpa on BBC2 Scotland at 1930 GMT on 6 November, and on BBC Parliament at 2330 GMT on 9 November.

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