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World The debris of the desperate: Finding life jackets and passports off the coast of Turkey

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(Video: What happened to this family? Finding life jackets and passports at sea)

It was a beautiful day of clear skies and light winds when Gordon Walker and his family set out on their final sailing trip of the summer. Strong gusts from the north had delayed their departure, but by the end of August, the weather was perfect and the boat was stocked. There was meat for the barbecue and beer to wash it down, along with an assortment of other supplies for a three-day sail.

Their destination was Turkey’s Karaburun Peninsula, about four hours away across a stretch of the Aegean Sea. Once the sails were set, Mr. Walker, a Canadian who lives in Spain, revelled in the quiet. His wife, Sonja, and young daughter, Nikita, spotted dolphins swimming off the port bow.

They spent two nights anchored near Karaburun, snorkelling in the turquoise waters and swimming into the nearby harbour for lunch. Late in the morning of Sept. 2, they began their return journey to the Turkish town of Foca, where they spend every summer.

Gordon Walker's wife Sonja aboard their sailboat named Yaren.

The sun was shining in a cloudless sky, but the wind had vanished. In the near total calm, Mr. Walker, 55, turned on the motor and took the helm. About four nautical miles later, he spotted what he thought were fishing buoys floating in the distance.

As the boat drew closer, he became puzzled. The buoys were orange, an unusual colour, not the clear or white plastic normally used by fishermen. There were no other boats nearby and no sign of nets or divers. It was almost as though the buoys were in a line, stretching across the glassy sea.

He slowed the boat and moved nearer. With a start, he understood what he was seeing: life jackets, more than 30 of them, in every direction. His mind raced. Life jackets are light, he thought – maybe they had blown off the shores of Lesbos, the Greek island to the north, where thousands of refugees are arriving every day and discarding them on the beach.

Then he saw large forms in the water and his chest grew tight. There were bags, backpacks so wet they barely floated. He realized that they had discovered a field of debris – the “debris of the desperate,” he said. “That’s when I thought, ‘Jesus, maybe I should send Nikita below deck.’”

His 11-year-old daughter surveyed the scene around them. “Why are there so many life jackets, and why are their backpacks with everything they have in the water?” she asked. He had no answer for her.

Mr. Walker manoeuvred the boat toward some of the backpacks. Edgar Lockhart, a retired geologist who lives in Vancouver and was also travelling with the family, helped lift three of the heavy, waterlogged bags out of the water and onto a small platform at the stern.

As they arrived back in Foca, the mood was sombre. The familiar sights and sounds of the harbour – the palm trees, the pines, the boats, the calls to prayer – only underscored the difference between their journey and the one taken by the people whose bags sat, dripping, on the edge of their boat.

Unable to shake what he had seen, Mr. Walker wrote an e-mail to friends and relatives urging them to sponsor refugees and help them come to Canada. While he and his family had returned to the welcoming bays of Foca, he feared that “no arms awaited the backpack owners other than the cold, blue arms of the deep.”

Life jackets and backpacks floating in the Aegean Sea near Foca, Turkey, south of the Greek island of Lesbos.

The Missing

How many migrants and refugees go missing on the long journey to Europe? No one truly knows. More than 440,000 people have already arrived this year by crossing the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations, most of them originally from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Almost 3,000 have died, including at least 76 this month, 29 of them children. They include three-year old Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a shore in Turkey – an indelible image that shocked the world.

Experts add that some bodies are never found, and when they are, not all of them can be identified. “The major challenge that we face is that not only do people go missing or end up dying on some of these terrible journeys, but the families are usually left in limbo for many years because there is no proof of death,” said Frank Laczko, who heads a global data analysis centre at the International Organization for Migration. “And that creates problems for them both emotionally and legally, in terms of moving on.”

Dutch researchers at VU University in Amsterdam compiled a database of migrant deaths on Europe’s southern borders between 1990 and 2013. In the more than 3,000 cases they examined, fewer than half of the bodies were successfully identified.

For families whose loved ones go missing, there are few options. The IOM has tried to help with such inquiries in an ad hoc way, referring families to local authorities. The International Committee of the Red Cross also works to trace people who have disappeared. Two years ago, it launched a new project directed specifically at migrants and refugees travelling to Europe. People searching for missing relatives can send photos of themselves, which are then distributed online and on posters. As of this week, there were more than 344 people searching for lost family members.

An Iranian passport belonging to a 16-month old boy that was found in a backpack floating in the Aegean Sea.

The Passports

As he returned to Foca, Mr. Walker thought about possible scenarios. His best guess was that a boat or boats carrying refugees had set off from the Turkish coast for Lesbos on one of the preceding days when the winds were blowing strongly from the north.

The waves would have been high in the strait between Greece and Turkey, he thought. Maybe the bags had been dumped overboard to help the boats ride higher in the water and the passengers had reached Lesbos. In the worst case, the vessel was swamped and sank somewhere along the crossing. Even then, it’s possible those in the boat were rescued by the Greek or Turkish coast guards, he told himself.

After arriving in Foca and unloading the boat, Mr. Walker went straight to the local police station. They told him to contact the coast guard, which called over to Karaburun to inquire if there had been any recent rescues or sinkings nearby. When the answer was no, the coast guard referred Mr. Walker back to the local police in Foca, where the officers took down his story without much interest.

Mr. Walker and his family opened the bags and began to sift through their soaked contents. One bag contained two large water bottles, cigarettes and clothes, some of them never worn, including new pairs of socks.

Baby clothes found in a backpack. 

In the other large bag, they found clothes for a small child: T-shirts, pants, a hat, a pair of shorts printed with the word “Smile.” The bottom compartment of the backpack was filled with diapers. Nestled above the diapers, there were three Iranian passports: a 33-year-old man with close-cropped hair and a direct gaze; a 30-year-old woman, presumably his wife, with wide eyes and wearing a black head scarf; and their son, a round-faced little boy just 16 months old.

In the smallest of the three bags, there were clothes, cellphones, charging cables, toiletries and a large container of hair gel. There was also a Turkish visa for a 35-year old Iraqi man born in Baghdad. A piece of paper, folded and refolded repeatedly into a small square, contained Arabic handwriting in blue ink. It included two verses from the Koran and prayers asking for protection – “May God bless you and his blessings surround you,” part of it read.

Mr. Walker returned to the police station the next day with the identifying details and this time the reaction from the officers was more attentive. They took possession of the bags and their contents. Meanwhile, Mr. Walker and his family began getting ready to return to Seville, where he is a senior manager at a company providing laboratory services to mines.

When he left Foca, he said, town residents were talking in grim tones about the upcoming fishing season. During the summer, big vessels are barred from the nearby waters, but they return in the fall. The larger fishing boats drop their nets down to the sea floor and drag up everything, usually fish and other sea life but also, often, ancient amphora. “As they start dragging in any of those crossings, people believe they’ll start to bring up bodies too,” he said.

A note containing a prayer for protection found in a backpack believed to have belonged to a 35-year old Iraqi man.

The Search

Over the past week, The Globe has attempted to track the people whose bags Mr. Walker found. The Greek and Turkish coast guards did not respond to inquiries about boating incidents involving refugees and migrants. The Greek authorities on Lesbos, believed to be the destination of those on the boats, said they were overwhelmed and didn’t have time to search for possible arrival records for those four individuals.

The police, the gendarmerie and the coast guard in Foca had no further information about the whereabouts of the four people. Last Friday, a police detective there recommended checking with Turkish immigration authorities in the days and weeks to come. A week earlier, he said, the coast guard had rescued 124 refugees from the sea.

Initial efforts to trace the four people on social media and in telephone directories in Tehran and Baghdad were not successful. A Facebook appeal in Arabic by a newspaper editor in Iraq also did not yield results. The newspaper contacted a local arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross to begin a tracing request, but was informed that only family members can initiate such a search.

Mr. Walker, meanwhile, has asked everyone he knows in Iran for help locating the family whose passports he found. He remarked with some bitterness that Turkey has an efficient network of buses which could safely transport migrants and refugees over land to the border with Greece, but that frontier is closed. Instead, those who want to get to Europe must play a cruel game of “sink or swim,” he said.

“You can’t just say to people … if you risk your life, then we might do something for you, slowly,” he said. “You have to tackle it seriously.” He noted there are precedents for such efforts, including the way Canada sent officials to Asia to process tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s.

A native of Deep River, Ont., Mr. Walker has spent all of his life around water, from the Ottawa River of his childhood to his years sailing the Mediterranean Sea. Most of his memories of the sea are fond ones, he said.

But what he saw in the Aegean earlier this month “is sticking with me like a tattoo,” he wrote in his e-mail to family and friends. In the days that followed, when he was tired enough to sleep, he would close his eyes and see a sea littered with backpacks and life jackets.

With reporting by Vecdi Tamer in Foca, Turkey

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