Lone Syrian refugee is rescued after hours clinging to sinking boat

A video released by the Turkish coast guard shows lone boat survivor Pelen Hussein being rescued.YOUTUBE
Refugee Pelen Hussein is rescued by the Turkish coast guard from a capsized boat (background).
Refugee Pelen Hussein is rescued by the Turkish coast guard from a capsized boat (background).PHOTO: REUTERS

ISTANBUL (AFP) - Turkey's coastguard said on Wednesday it had rescued a Syrian refugee who clung on alone for several hours to a sinking boat for his life after it went down while seeking to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece.

The coastguard released dramatic footage of the incident on Monday when Syrian refugee Pelen Hussein was picked up by rescuers off the Turkish port of Edremit in the western Baliksehir region.

The pictures showed Hussein, looking exhausted, hypothermic and desperate, clinging on to the bow of the boat as it was gradually sinking vertically into the water.

The coastguard helicopter spotted him and the rescuer winched down into the water. He urged Hussein in English to "jump into the water!" and then they were both winched up to the chopper.

Pelen Hussein was one of some several dozen refugees who set off in a 10m boat in the hope of reaching EU member Greece.

But the boat sank off Edremit and 27 people on board drowned including 11 children. The incident was widely covered as it coincided with a visit to Ankara by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hussein was one of just half a dozen saved in the search and rescue operation.

"He was on the verge of hypothermia, and in a state of shock," the coastguard sergeant who rescued him, Tuncay Ceylan, was quoted as saying by Turkish media. "I tried to calm him down."

"If it had been just a bit later, the boat would have already sunk, most of it was already underwater," he said, adding the refugee had been holding onto the boat for several hours before his rescue.

Hussein himself later told the state-run Anatolia news agency that as he clung to the boat he did not expect to survive the ordeal and was awaiting his death.

"I had been waiting from three in the morning until midday," he said.

"I had set out with a friend. He was among the dead. From there we were going to go to Germany. I did not know the others who died."

Turkey has become the major hub for Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi, Eritrean and other refugees and migrants seeking to undertake the risky crossing to the European Union in a flow that has caused huge alarm across the continent.

The Turkish government struck a deal with the EU in November to halt the flow of refugees, in return for €3 billion (S$4.7 billion) in financial assistance.

But the deal and wintry weather in the Mediterranean do not appear to have deterred the migrants, with boats still arriving on the Greek islands daily.

The International Organisation for Migration said the number of refugees and migrants who perished in the Mediterranean in January alone topped 360.

The footage showed Hussein being safely taken to shore by helicopter. Shivering violently, he was immediately put into a waiting ambulance.

Hussein told Anatolia that he had been treated well and was in no need of help, except for an injured foot.

"I am thinking of going back to Syria," he said.