After roaming the high seas for four days as Greece and Turkey haggled over its fate, a cargo ship packed with hundreds of Afghan refugees has been allowed to dock at an Aegean island, with passengers disembarking to apply for asylum.
In what Greece’s migration ministry called “an unusual and special case”, the Turkish-flagged vessel was towed into the port of Kos on Sunday. About 375 passengers, the biggest single influx of asylum seekers in years, were taken to a reception centre on the island. Six others were detained for questioning and one woman was admitted to hospital on the island of Karpathos.
Greek coastguard officials said those onboard were mostly young Afghan males. Many were reported to be hungry and dehydrated after an ordeal that began on Thursday when the freighter, initially bound for Italy, developed engine trouble and sent out a distress signal off the island of Crete, shortly after setting sail from Turkey.
Days of negotiations between Athens and Ankara followed after the Greek government appealed via the European Commission for Turkey to take the vessel back in line with a 2016 accord reached with the EU intended to staunch migrants flows.
When the Turkish authorities made clear they would not be accepting the ship, Greek coastguard officials launched what they called one of the largest search and rescue operations in the eastern Mediterranean.
The country’s minister for migration and asylum policy, Notis Mitarachi, described the incident as “another dangerous and illegal journey from the Turkish coast … facilitated by criminal gangs”.
He said on Sunday: “We have notified the EU that Turkey has refused to take their vessel back. Greece has rescued hundreds of thousands of people in the last seven years. It is time for the EU to act and provide impactful solidarity and ensure the  EU/Turkey statement is upheld.
“Unlike Turkey and others that ignored the problem, Greece stepped up, providing immediate humanitarian support to people in need as we always do. But Greece cannot solve the migration crisis alone.”
Numbers have dropped precipitously but Athens and Ankara have been in a war of words over migrant arrivals. Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August, fears have mounted among EU states of a replay of the 2015 refugee crisis when almost 1 million Syrians streamed into Europe via Lesbos and other frontline Aegean islands.
Turkey has repeatedly accused Greece of forcibly returning boats crammed with asylum seekers into Turkish waters by pursuing a policy of pushbacks, and has invited the international media to witness such incidents. Athens has charged Turkish authorities with deliberately escalating tension by encouraging smugglers to organise the illicit journeys.
The NGO Aegean Boat Report said Greek authorities were made aware through local media reports that the cargo ship was in distress, but that they held off confirming the incident, raising fears that another pushback was under way. None of those onboard wanted to return to Turkey because they did not consider it a safe country, the organisation said.