A 77-meter cargo ship carrying 700 undocumented migrants is being towed to the Mediterranean island of Crete by a Greek navy ship after an engine failure left it dead in international waters, reports the Associated Press. Authorities believe most of the passengers are Afghans and Syrians fleeing violence in their home countries for the safety of Europe. The ship was headed to Italy before the engine failure left it stranded.
Local authorities and aid groups in the port city of Ierapetra are scrambling to set up accommodations for the 700 men, women and children. It is the largest group to be received at once in years. The migrants will be housed in an indoor basketball complex. Authorities are gathering food, water, blankets and beds for the migrants.
“A year or two ago we had to accommodate 140 migrants,” said Ierapetra mayor Theodosis Kalantzakis, according to Agence France-Presse. “But we have never had a situation involving 700 people; it is a major problem.… This has never happened before in Greece.”
The Kiribati-flagged ship was about 34 miles off the coast of Crete when it alerted authorities of the engine failure, according to Reuters. Strong winds and rough seas have made the rescue effort slowgoing. The ship is expected in Ierapetra late Wednesday night.
Frontex, a European Union organization that tracks migration and promotes border cooperation among member states, said that around 135,000 migrants have crossed into Europe illegally this year via what it designates as the “central Mediterranean” route, making it by far the most common route for migrants to enter Europe besides overstaying legal visas.
The Mediterranean route is also by far the most dangerous route for migrants: 3,000 had died as of late September, making up 75 percent of the 4,077 or so registered migrant deaths worldwide in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration. Migrants will often pay huge sums to smugglers to get them to Europe over the Mediterranean on overpacked, ill-equipped vessels that can capsize during crossing. In some cases, smugglers have left migrants stranded without help in damaged ships.
Pope Francis called on EU regulators to reform its immigration law to put an end to the problem and not allow the Mediterranean to become a "vast cemetery," on Tuesday, according to Voice of America.