Breaking News Emails
The dirt road along the northern coast of the Greek island of Lesbos is strewn with discarded life jackets, orange and bright.
Migrants left them behind after landing here on rubber boats, to take their first steps on this strange land. Some consoled crying infants on the rocky shores, others took selfies, relieved to have made it to Europe at last.
The seemingly unstoppable wave of desperate migrants and refugees has overwhelmed European agencies and sent government leaders scrambling for solutions.
On Sunday, European leaders meeting with Turkey's prime minister in Brussels, Belgium, agreed to offer more than $3 billion in return for greater Turkish efforts to prevent refugees from embarking on the dangerous sea crossing.
And as we saw when we joined Greek Coast Guard boat patrols on the Aegean, Turkish human-smugglers are operating openly on the waters.
We were on board Greek Coat Guard ship recently when, around 7 a.m. local time, the crew spotted a small speedboat. It had just entered Greek territorial waters but stalled, drifting in the water about half way into the four- to five-mile stretch which separates Greece and Turkey.
At the helm of the Coast Guard ship, Captain Argiris Fragoulis took notice. Unlike the inflatable dinghies the smugglers usually send the migrants on, unaccompanied, the speedboat was a valuable vessel which wouldn't just be used for a one-off journey. That meant, Captain Fargoulis explained, that one of the smugglers would probably be steering it.
"Classical case of a facilitator," he shouted from the balcony of the bridge.
The crew was subsequently ordered to prepare and board one of the "tender" boats of the cutter and the officers of the bridge were asked to sail away.
"This is a distraction," the captain said, explaining he was distancing from the speedboat in order to fool the smuggler into thinking he’s not going after him.
Aboard the tender boat three officers, some even armed, approached the speedboat in a hurry. On it 14 refugees, mostly from Syria were waiving their hands in the air.
"You are now saved," an officer yelled at them. "How many children?"
Seventeen-year-old "Evi" raised her hand. "Disgusting" is the word she later used to describe the trip.
“At the begging we floated a bit and then he stopped,” she said of the smuggler. “The water was almost at our knees.”
Greek authorities are increasingly taking an issue with the Turks conducting the lucrative business of smuggling people across the Aegean, as the rough seas of the winter endanger more and more refugees' lives.
In their efforts they are assisted by ongoing "Operation Poseidon" of the European border agency Frontex, which has brought 15 vessels, two helicopters and more than 100 border guards from all across the EU to help patrol Greece’s water frontier with Turkey.
Together with the Greek Coast Guard, since the beginning of the year — just off Lesbos alone — they have managed to arrest more than 50 people smugglers. But many more are trolling the Aegean waters, sometimes even forcing refugees to board non-seaworthy rubber boats, migrants say, at gunpoint.
It is for that reason that the officers were anxious to recognize the pilot of the speedboat as NBC News cameras were rolling.
"Who is the driver?" one officer kept asking.
A man standing near the wheel of the speedboat was singled out. The officers found two cellphones and keys in his pockets. NBC News later talked to the speedboat's captain and found out he was indeed from Turkey.
"It is my friend’s boat,” he claimed, seated handcuffed on the floor of the deck of the Coast Guard cutter.
By the same afternoon, Captain Fragoulis’ deck was cramped with 150 more migrants and refugees. Mothers and fathers smiling to their children, older women with signs of relief painted across their faces.
"This was a quiet day,” the captain said as his crew was offloading them at the port of Molyvos.
"It’s like this every day, every day."