BODRUM, TURKEY — Migrants on a Turkish beach scuffled over places on one inflatable dinghy and frantically bailed out another to keep it from sinking during a dramatic night that highlighted their desperation to reach the Greek island of Kos — and the safety of Europe.
The scenes of human trafficking, captured early Saturday by Associated Press journalists on a moonless night, came as Turkish authorities reported that 2,791 migrants have been caught in the Aegean Sea in the past 5 days alone, most of them Syrians.
Overall, more than 33,000 migrants have been caught or rescued in the Aegean this year, according to the governor’s office in Izmir.
Kos is only 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Turkey at its closest point, its twinkling lights at night an irresistible beacon to those fleeing war or poverty.
Tensions were high early Saturday at Fenerburnu Beach near the Turkish tourist town of Bodrum. Two migrants tried to clamber onto a small dinghy only to be forced off by angry fellow passengers, one of whom shouted: “You haven’t paid!” One passenger was also upset that the male intruders had touched the arm of a female migrant wearing an Islamic headscarf.
The two ejected migrants fled up the beach and into the bushes just as a Turkish military police vehicle, its siren wailing, approached.
Earlier, in the darkness well away from the shore, two migrant smuggling boats appeared to be intercepted by another vessel and their passengers taken into custody. It was not immediately clear if Greek authorities were once again intercepting migrants at sea.
Later in the night, another inflatable dinghy setting off from the beach appeared close to sinking under the weight of its human cargo, which included at least one of the men forced off the earlier vessel. Three women jumped out and ran away shouting “No, no, no!,” clearly terrified at the prospect of making even the short crossing to Kos in the flimsy boat.
Their panic spread to other passengers, leaving just four men to bail out the water using only plastic paddles. Then, using a tiny electric motor, they steered the boat toward the lights of Kos. As the dinghy gathered speed, three men who had earlier abandoned ship waded through the warm water to clamber back on board.
Asked if they had anything to say as they faded into the night, one man replied: “May God help us.”
Issa Jaefer, a Syrian waiting in Bodrum to make the crossing to Kos, said the migrants are aware of the dangers.
“We were left to die in Syria,” he said earlier in the week. “It doesn’t matter if we die on the rough sea. At the end, by God’s providence, we will reach the stability and security in Europe.”
The number of migrants trying to reach Europe by sea is on track to hit a record this year, according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration.
Financially struggling Greece has reported 134,988 arrivals from Turkey this year, it said, while Italy recorded 93,540 newcomers through July. Along with migrants landing in Spain and Malta, 237,000 people have made the crossing so far this year, the agency says — compared to 219,000 for all of 2014.
It also estimated at least 2,300 people have died this year trying to make the crossing.