Migrant Death at the Clashing Rocks: The Tragedy of the Torun
Guest post by Theodore Baird, postdoctoral researcher at VU University Amsterdam in the Migration Law Section of the Faculty of Law. He lived and worked in the Black Sea region for over four years before moving to Northern Europe. He continues to work on issues of migration in the East Mediterranean and the Black Sea region. In this blog post, Theodore reviews the recent deaths of migrants in the Black Sea, placing the event in historical and geopolitical context. He demonstrates that new migration routes are opening in the Black Sea, embedded in a rich history of migration and geopolitical struggle.
In Greek myth, the Symplegades―floating rocks at the Bosporus―could crush any ship which passed through, until Jason tricked it and the rocks became fixed. The Symplegades have been identified as an islet on the European side and a shallow reef on the Asian side of the Bosporus dividing Istanbul. The myth underscores that the Bosporus Straights are treacherous to cross, with quick moving waters, sharp edges to turn around, and jutting rocks which can impale hulls and sink ships. Significant course alterations are necessary to pass the Bosporus, sometimes leading to wreckage and death. Recently, a boat carrying migrants sank close to the European side, raising the specter of Jason and the Clashing Rocks of the Symplegades.
The vessel Torun (‘Grandchild’), carrying around 40 people, sank approximately five kilometers north of the Black Sea entrance to the Bosporus early on the morning of Monday, 3 November 2014. The Torun was a small tour boat, a pleasure cruiser for tourists, and was multiple times over its maximum capacity. At least 24 people from Afghanistan and Syria died in the shipwreck. Most of the dead are children.
The boat was half submerged when rescuers arrived, with discarded life jackets covering the sea. It’s thought that the children were too small to fit into the life jackets and subsequently drowned. Seven people were saved by search and rescue teams; the rest remain missing. The accident is thought to be the result of overloading, poor weather conditions, as the wind was strong that morning, or collision with another vessel (the diminutive Torun didn’t have lights, making it difficult to see in the pre-dawn morning).
The Istanbul Governor’s Office said the boat had issued a distress call early Monday morning, but local fishermen have claimed that their calls to the Coast Guard Command (SGK) for assistance weren’t answered. Others reported that the Coast Guard arrived and checked the area, but turned back because they found no boat or bodies. A second team reportedly discovered the bodies. Civil society and the media have made claims of negligence, and an investigation has been launched.
The sea-goers were likely on their way to Bulgaria or Romania, paying 7,000 euro to human smugglers for passage. The boat is thought to have set out from an Istanbul suburb on the Sea of Marmara, the southern side of the Bosporus, before sailing north through the Clashing Rocks before meeting its fate. Two have been detained in relation to the drowning.
The Black Sea is a region on the move, and has been for millennia. Climatic and geologic change have historically determined the movement of migrants in the Black Sea. The Black Sea was a mostly fresh water lake until global sea levels rose during the Neolithic period, making it a salt water sea following catastrophic flooding. The dramatic rise in water levels in the early Holocene caused a major loss of land, driving local residents to migrate and spread farming techniques throughout Neolithic Europe. Since its formation, Greeks, Tatars, Caucasians, Venetians, Jews, Turks, Kurds, Laz, Slavs, and many other cultures and peoples have come into the region and settled, sometimes displacing those who were there before, sometimes integrating with them. The multiplicity of place names, nationalisms, local and regional identities, cuisines, and conflicts attests to the continuing diversity of peoples and the lasting impression migration has made on the region.
Recent migrations have been spurred primarily by geopolitical events. The mass displacements following the First and Second World Wars, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, and ongoing conflict in the Caucasus, the Ukraine, and Turkey, have all contributed to shifting population patterns in the region. The Bosporus and Dardanelles―which together comprise the Turkish Straights―connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. This area is heavily trafficked by oil tankers, container ships, warships, fishing boats, and luxury cruise-ships. The Bosporus is one of the world’s busiest waterways, and remains a vital route for Russian oil and NATO warships. As such, the Black Sea is incredibly dangerous for migrating peoples; accidents are common and thought to be exacerbated by ongoing climatic and geopolitical change. Following the sinking of the Torun, boat traffic along the Bosporus was halted during the rescue, signaling the importance of the Torun as a potent symbol of geopolitical change in the region.
Typically, migrant smuggling operations that depart either in the Marmara or the Black Sea coast near Istanbul are attempts to defraud migrants: migrants are led to believe they are in the Mediterranean or Aegean, but then are dumped on nearby islands which are actually Turkish territory (this happens in the Aegean and Greek Adriatic as well). Smugglers will then have migrants call in their payment codes so money can be transferred, and then disappear, leaving migrants stranded. Reports that migrants paid before getting on the Torun raise red flags as normally the more sophisticated smuggling operations involve payment only after arrival.
Another common tactic is transfer to a larger ship. For example, in the Aegean Sea, a small boat takes migrants off shore and a bigger ship takes them to Greece or Italy. Such a tactic is also possible in the case of the Torun, but failed tragically. The launch of the Torun was far from Bulgaria or Romania; that is, it wasn’t far enough up the Thracian peninsula to be a viable journey on a small tourist boat. A larger engine and more fuel with a bigger hulled ship is needed to make it all the way to Romania from Istanbul, which at least a day or two’s journey, even on a fast boat. Smaller boats usually launch from up the Thracian coast near the Bulgarian border and then sail around the Bulgarian patrols―if they can―and into Bulgaria itself; smaller boats are swifter and less detectable, and carry fewer people. Larger boats are needed for longer journeys across the sea because of the strong countercurrents and often harrowing conditions; seasoned navigators since the Greeks have had to rely on surveillance of the sea in order to navigate across it because it’s known to be treacherous in parts. Any sailor worth his or her salt would know not to send a tourist boat further than a few kilometers without discerning current conditions.
In order to avoid controls at the Greek and Bulgarian land and sea borders, migrants are now departing from the Marmara Sea or the Bosporus Straights into the Black Sea, with coastal destinations in Bulgaria and Romania. Recent statistics indicate that migrants are using the Black Sea as a route to skirt European controls. For instance, Frontex reported that from 2009 to 2012 the ‘Black Sea Route’ had only apprehended two migrants, but that number jumped to 148 in 2013. One event in 2013 seems eerily similar to the Torun shipwreck: 118 migrants, mostly Syrian and Afghan, were aided by Turkish smugglers attempting to reach the Romanian coast. Although these incidents are considered ‘isolated cases’ by Frontex, they remain important indicators of the changing geopolitics of border management in South Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. The tragedy of the Torun reinforces the importance of current geopolitical predicaments.
Commentators have suggested that Mare Nostrum, Italy’s recently terminated search and rescue operation, has induced migrants to move northward because of the possibility of being rescued. What the new Black Sea route underscores is that search and rescue operations have little to do with why people move, but a lot to with their conditions of reception. European governments need to recognize that the countries of South Eastern Europe are not as prepared to handle the large boat migrations found in the Central Mediterranean, and should support governments in the region in providing protection to migrants.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):
Baird T (2014) Migrant Death at the Clashing Rocks: The Tragedy of the Torun. Available at:/ (Accessed [date]).