The Greek government continues to deflect responsibility over deadly tragedy last month off Pylos as media investigations adds new evidence and Frontex remains “ambivalent” over a suspension of activities.
One month after the deadly shipwreck off Pylos, the recently reelected Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis stated: “It is very unfair for countries such as Greece … to be burdened with the task of managing this problem or be accused of actually not saving people at sea when this is what our coast guard does every day”. However, Greek authorities remain under intense scrutiny over the tragedy. 300 Greek and international academics and experts have addressed a letter to the Greek government, the European Commission and the Executive Director of Frontex. The letter outlines how the tragedy has highlighted the urgent need to address the systematic practices of pushbacks, points to the Greek responsibility to rescue under international law and calls for a thorough and effective criminal investigation to ensure accountability for the loss of up to 600 lives. International Rescue Committee (IRC) has also called for an investigation: “It’s deeply shameful that hundreds have perished in one of the deadliest ever shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea, yet – a month on – we have yet to see a full, transparent investigation into the incident. It’s time for concrete steps towards accountability, and to finally put an end to these needless and avoidable deaths, Harlem Desir, IRC Senior Vice President, Europe said. The NGO ‘Refugee Support Aegan’ (RSA) issued a statement which details how survivors were treated after the shipwreck: “During their stay in the Port of Kalamata, survivors were piled up in detention conditions in a warehouse, where they slept on the floor and were not allowed to go out even to contact their relatives/acquaintances who were arriving in shock from other countries”. Survivors were also “subjected to the demanding process of asylum interviews under extremely truncated procedures without sufficient time for preparation, legal assistance or appropriate psychosocial support”, noting that the interviews did not meet “basic procedural guarantees for vulnerable persons”. The statements finished by calling for an independent and transparent investigation as well as for adequate protection for the survivors.
New evidence from BBC challenges the Hellenic Coast Guards version of events around the deadly tragedy and the highly doubtful charges against nine Egyptian survivors of manslaughter and people-smuggling. Two survivors, Ahmad and Musaab, told BBC a coastguard had instructed all of the survivors to say that the nine Egyptian men were to blame for trafficking them. “They were imprisoned and were wrongly accused by the Greek authorities as an attempt to cover their crime,” says Musaab. According to a recent study by Borderline Europe “Smuggled people themselves, including asylum seekers, are systematically convicted of smuggling because they (allegedly) drove or assisted in driving the boat or car”. The study reveals that at least 1374 people were arrested for smuggling in 2022. “On average, trials last for 37 minutes, which drops to 17 minutes in trials with state-appointed lawyers; the shortest trial we documented lasted 6 minutes. Trials lead to an average prison sentence of 46 years and a fine of 332.209 Euros”, Borderline Europe states.
A joint investigation by the Guardian, ARD/NDR/Funk, Solomon and the research agency Forensis – based on numerous sources including distress signals, videos and photographs by the HCG [Hellenic Coats Guard], Frontex, and nearby commercial vessels as well as logs and testimonies – confirms “a series of efforts by the HCG to distort and manipulate evidence related to the incident and silence witness accounts”. According to the findings: “all the survivors of the wreck had their phones confiscated by members of the HCG. Some survivors we interviewed mentioned that these phones, protected in waterproof cases, included videos they took of the moments leading up to the capsizing of the boat. Yet none of these phones have been returned, despite repeated requests from their owners. The first testimonies from survivors gathered by the HCG the day after the incident display signs of possible manipulation: their accounts use identical, boilerplate language and all fail to mention the towing that migrants later reported to have experienced”. Further the investigation confirms that: “Nearby commercial vessels that were initially summoned by the HCG to provide assistance were subsequently ordered to leave after the ΠΠΛΣ 920 arrived on the scene. Likewise, repeated offers by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, to deploy aerial surveillance assets were ignored, and none of the several cameras onboard the ΠΠΛΣ 920 nor its AIS tracking system were activated that night as is required”. In its coverage of the investigation In-Cyprus writes: “masked men attaching a rope to the trawler were documented in the ship’s log, which mentioned the involvement of a special ops team called KEA. While it is not uncommon for KEA to be deployed in risky situations, the presence of such a team suggests that the trawler should have been intercepted based on security and maritime safety grounds alone”. Further, video material obtained by a Greek journalist and reportedly shot by the Hellenic Coast Guard, according to New York Times journalist, Matina Stevis-Gridneff: “Dispels any doubt that the authorities had not realized a shipwreck was imminent, and makes the failure to organise a rescue mission with several, better-suited vessels more incomprehensible”. Stevis-Gridneff notes that while the video needs to be verified – if it is: “accurate then the figures in background can only be the faithful warrior [cargo vessel], which left the scene at 00:30, 1.5 hours before the Adriana sank. Captain reported to Greek authorities that the Adriana was rocking dangerously”. BBC later confirmed the authenticity of the video writing: “BBC Verify has confirmed the footage was filmed when the coastguard claimed the boat was not in need of rescue – and was in fact filmed by the coastguard itself”.
Meanwhile, the debate over a possible suspension of Frontex activities in Greece following the deadly tragedy continues. Under the headline “When great power comes with no responsibility” the independent scholar and journalist, Nidzara Ahmetasevic asks “Is the European Union border security agency really using its immense powers ‘responsibly’?”. Ahmetasevic writes: “On the day of the “tragedy”, while people on the vessel were sending desperate SOS messages to Alarm Phone, I was with a group of scholars and journalists at the Frontex headquarters in Warsaw, Poland”. She further states: “The agency’s entire presentation was framed around an adage popularised by Marvel superhero, Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” One Frontex official, determined to communicate all the supposed virtues of the organisation, repeated the mantra several times during our short meeting. Of course, there is no sign that Frontex is making any real effort to use the immense power it has over tens of thousands of vulnerable people on the move responsibly. In fact, when we were listening to the Frontex representatives’ diatribe against “misconceptions” and sales pitch about “power and responsibility”, the people being slowly swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea were likely not even the only ones dying avoidable deaths under the watch of the agency”. While the agency’s Fundamental Rights Officer (FRO) Jonas Grimheden has reportedly recommended triggering Article 46 (4) of Regulation (EU) 2019/1896 and suspending activities over “chronic rights abuses against migrants” the Executive Director, Hans Leijtens remains “ambivalent”. “It’s an advice from the fundamental officer and of course we take that into account,” Leijtens told MEPs in the parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) but adding that it would have “serious consequences, also in our ability and capability to save lives”. According to the Frontex head: “We’re in the stage of asking for more information on a total of three incidents — two earlier and now this one — and define if they have any consequences on the cooperation with Greece”. The agency will likely depend on information from Greece – in response to a push from MEPs to launch an independent EU investigation into the shipwreck Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson stated: “We don’t have the competence to do that, member states can do that,” stressed Johansson, adding that she urged the Greek government to carry out a “thorough, effective and transparent” investigation.
A Greek police officer was arrested and later released over the deadly shooting of a 20 year old Syrian attempting to flee on foot after crashing a stolen pickup truck. Reportedly, the police officer who claimed that his gun had gone off accidently stayed at the prosecutor’s office for just ten minutes and was released as the autopsy has not been occluded yet as further Police internal investigation continues. Vassilis Tsarnas from Greek Helsinki Monitor stated “you don’t need to read the whole story” to know that the victim of a police killing in Greece would be member of a minority and adding: “Not only the victim was unarmed but he was running on foot when he was shot down. That doesn’t stop them from insisting on his criminal record as if it matters…#Migrants #HateCrimes”.
For further information:
- ECRE, Greece: Elections Mark Another Step to the Right, Suspension of Frontex Activities Recommended by FRO, Case Against Nine Pylos Survivors Weak, June 2023
- ECRE, Greece: Shipwreck Leaving Hundreds Dead and Missing Sparks National and International Outcry, EU Denounced over Complicity, Conflicting Narratives Emerge as Nine Survivors Are Facing Charges, June 2023