More than 80 people are confirmed dead and hundreds are missing after an overcrowded fishing boat capsized off the Greek coast. The tragedy has sparked outrage across Europe and the EU has been accused of complicity. Media investigations, NGO reports and testimonies by survivors contradict official Greek version of events but so far the only people under legal scrutiny are nine survivors charged over crewing the boat.
There were approximately 750 people reportedly including 100 children onboard a fishing boat that departed Tobruk in Libya attempting to reach Italy when it capsized in the Ionian Sea, 87 km from the Greek coast off Pylos on 14 June and just 104 have been rescued – reportedly by a private superyacht reacting to distress calls. By 19 June, more than 80 bodies had been recovered leaving more than 500 missing. Leaked testimonies from survivors describe how Pakistani nationals were forced below deck, while other nationalities were allowed on the top deck, with a greater chance of surviving a capsize. The testimonies also reveal how women and children were effectively “locked up” in the hold to be “protected” by men on the overcrowded vessel. Guardian reported on 18 June: “No women or children are thought to be among the survivors, while reports from Pakistan on Saturday indicate hundreds of its citizens may have died when the rusty trawler sank off the Peloponnese peninsula. Local media reported that at least 298 Pakistanis died, 135 from the Pakistani side of Kashmir”.
The tragedy has sparked strong reactions at international and local levels across numerous actors. The mayor of Kalamata where the survivors were taken, stated “For us, human life is priceless and we will do our best for our fellow human beings in this difficult time”. And, in Athens and Thessaloniki, 5,000 people took to the streets in protest and solidarity with the victims of the tragedy. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, called for “urgent and decisive action to prevent further deaths at sea following the latest tragedy in the Mediterranean, the worst in several years”. Further reminding “Both shipmasters and States” that “the duty to rescue people in distress at sea without delay is a fundamental rule of international maritime law” and pointing out that this is the case: “regardless of their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they are found, including on unseaworthy vessels, and irrespective of the intentions of those onboard”. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, stated: “Last week’s shipwreck off the Greek coast is yet another reminder that, despite many warnings, the lives of people at sea remain at risk in the face of insufficient rescue capacity and coordination, a lack of safe and legal routes and solidarity, and the criminalisation of NGOs trying to provide life-saving assistance”. UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor stated: “It is clear that the disaster was a product of political decisions. While Greece and the European Union, including through Frontex, its border and coastguard agency, have placed the blame for the catastrophe on people-smugglers, they are not the reason people choose to embark on extremely dangerous routes in the hope of reaching the EU”. The Guardian has pointed to a need for Europe to admit responsibility over the “deadly failure” to establish safe routes concluding in an editorial: “draconian deterrence measures do not stop irregular migration; they force desperate people to contemplate still more dangerous actions. But it is not only Greece that should take stock. Throughout Europe, governments are disingenuously claiming that the erection of high walls and barbed-wire fences, and the palming off of responsibility for asylum seekers to third-party countries, can be construed as a moral act”. NGOs have also pointed to EU complicity. European Media and Editorial Director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), Andrew Stroehlein stated: “Mass drownings at sea are to the EU what mass shootings are to the US. It keeps happening. And every time it happens, politicians pretend to be concerned, yet keep in place the government policies at the root of the problem. So, people keep dying”. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson has defined the deadly shipwreck as maybe “the worst tragedy ever” in the Mediterranean Sea. However, Solomon points out that: “While EU officials express their grief over the deadliest shipwreck in recent years, Solomon’s analysis exposes the EU hypocrisy: Out of 800 million euros allocated to Greece for border management, only 600,000 euros (0,07%) are for search and rescue”. “It is tragic but unsurprising that the priority is keeping people out rather than saving lives”, Catherine Woollard, director of ECRE told Solomon.
The Greek authorities and caretaker government (pending new elections on 25 June) have met critique at the political level and from NGOs as testimonies from survivors and media investigations have challenged the official outline of the tragedy. Media describes political friction with the left-progressive alliance SYRIZA demanding information on whether a rescue operation was carried out, whether the captain had left the vessel, why it was not possible to provide life jackets, and why Frontex assistance was not requested. In response, the caretaker government referred to an investigation saying it: “listens, records and carefully evaluates all relevant information, opinions and views, but its position is that it is up to the competent bodies within the rule of law and in particular the independent judiciary to make a final institutional judgment”. Former migration minister Notis Mitarakis seems to have already concluded, stating: “we are talking here about 49 miles off the coastline of Greece. There the coast guard has no right to intervene in international waters”. The same point was made in a statement released by the Hellenic Coast Guard on 19 June as part of the preliminary “investigation” further claiming that the vessel had rejected assistance despite several attempts by nearby vessels and eventually the coast guard vessel – instead keeping a steady course towards Italy. However, Dr Nora Markard, professor of international public law and international human rights at the University of Munster, told Al Jazeera: “They were on the scene, they were in their own search and rescue zone, they failed to rescue and they failed to coordinate a rescue. And then they actively put the lives of the people on the boat at risk”.
The timeline and nature of events between the first alert on 13 June and the shipwreck on 14 June remain disputed. According to Syria Direct, Frontex alerted Greek and Italian authorities of the overcrowded fishing boat at 9:47 AM on 13 June – which is cooperated by a video released by the agency – and the organisation refers to BBC information that the fishing boat sank at 11 PM on 14 June. BBC contradicts the official Greek version of events, stating: “Analysis of the movement of other ships in the area suggests the overcrowded fishing vessel was not moving for at least seven hours before it capsized. The coastguard still claims that during these hours the boat was on a course to Italy and not in need of rescue”. NGOs and activists have also rejected this explanation “Neither Frontex nor the Hellenic Coast Guard intervened in a safe & timely way, despite the boat being obviously unseaworthy, overcrowded and in distress”, said Eva Cossé, Europe senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. According to New York Times (NYT): “the decision not to intervene has raised concerns that an alignment of interests between smugglers paid to reach Italy and Greek authorities who would rather the migrants be Italy’s problem led to an avoidable catastrophe”. While Greek authorities have disputed receiving distress calls, Markella Io Papadouli, a lawyer specializing in maritime law and human rights at the Advice on Individual Rights in Europe Centre, told NYT that this is beside the point, stating: “If the Greek Coast Guard recognized the boat as in distress, and this is an objective assessment, they should have tried to rescue them no matter what”, further pointing out that no SOS call had been required, as the Greeks have insisted. Papadouli also noted: “Regardless of what the smugglers wanted,” or where the migrants hoped to go “you have an obligation to rescue” when a ship is in grave danger. “Negotiating with the smugglers is like negotiation with plane hijackers”.
Greek authorities remain under scrutiny and pressure as testimonies from survivors and accusations of negligence and even direct responsibility have emerged. According to a survivor, the Hellenic Coast Guard had thrown a rope to people on the boat but “Because they didn’t know how to pull the rope, the vessel started tilting right and left,” adding “The coastguard boat was going too fast, but the vessel was already tilting to the left, and that’s how it sank”. Video material has been released of a Syrian survivor reportedly explaining: “The Greek Coast Guard arrived and said that he would take us to Italian waters. We agreed to follow them, although we did not know that it was true that we would be taken to Italy or Greece. After 30 mins the boat’s engine broke down, so we informed them and asked for their help. Then the Greek Coast Guard came and tie our boat to their ship. It was a warship. They were wearing black and they were masked. They tied our boat with one blue rope. After they tied us up, they set off quickly. While we were in the ship, we sensed that something was not right. Then, they started to go right and left. We were in front of them, and they were pushing from right and once from the left. First it started from the left, then right, then left. Fourth, our ship overturned”. The Syrian national further stated: “They only turned on the searchlights on the boat. They made no rescue attempt. For half an hour, 45 minutes, they started sending boats. When I saw this scene, I swam away. I was afraid that they would drown me”, and added: “I spoke to other survivors and we are 100% convinced that the Greek Coast Guard drowned us, but we do not know if it was intentional or if it was just a mistake”. Initially, Greek authorities denied having tied ropes to the boat but later the Hellenic Coast Guard according to NYT “acknowledged that it had tied one rope briefly to ascertain the condition of the boat and passengers, some of whom, survivors said, were already dead from exposure and thirst”. According to the testimony from another survivor backed by four other survivors – interviewed by The Sunday Times – the Hellenic Coast Guard ignored the people in distress for at least three hours after the boat had capsized “They just watched,” he said adding “They could have saved so many more”.
While 180 NGOs have demanded “full and independent investigations” into the events, the UN has welcomed an independent probe and the European Commission has stated that any investigation should be “thorough and transparent”, the Greek Supreme Court prosecutor Isidoros Dogiakos, has reportedly urged absolute secrecy in the investigation. El Pais describes how “During their stay in the port of Kalamata, the survivors had limited mobility and access to communications. The Coast Guard confined them inside a fenced compound that they were not allowed to leave. Later, screens were installed next to the portable toilets to prevent journalists from asking questions from the other side of the fence”. The Spanish outlet further adds: “Since Friday [16 June], the survivors of the shipwreck have been confined in Malakasa, a refugee camp near Athens. They are no longer in the custody of the Coast Guard but of the Ministry for Migration and Asylum. Its interim incumbent, in office until the elections to be held next Sunday, is Daniel Esdras, former special envoy to Greece for the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration. Under his command, restrictions on journalists and migrants have remained in place”. Frontex initiated a “serious incident report” (SIR) on 22 June, requiring the agency’s fundamental rights officers to record potential human rights violations, an agency spokesperson told POLITICO.
Meanwhile, nine survivors of Egyptian origin are facing charges including participation in a criminal organization, manslaughter and causing a shipwreck. A court in Greece’s southern city of Kalamata ordered their detention after questioning them for hours. According to El Pais: “One of the court-appointed lawyers assigned to the detainees — who preferred not to give his name because the proceedings are still subject to the secrecy of summary proceedings — said he was confident the charges against his client would be dropped. “The evidence is so weak that no other decision could be explained,” he said. The lawyer revealed that, unlike the rest of the migrants, the nine Egyptians have not yet been allowed to start the procedures to apply for asylum, nor have they undergone any medical examination in custody. The legal representatives for the nine defendants have agreed to coordinate in order to exchange information”. People convicted of steering boats constitute the second largest group in Greek prisons and according to Christina Karvouni, spokesperson for the NGO Aegean Migrant Solidarity-Community Peacemaker Teams, most trials involving migrants are conducted without interpreters, have serious procedural deficiencies, and often with an absence of conclusive evidence. “According to the testimony of survivors, the real traffickers do not risk their lives by boarding boats like this one. At most they pilot it at the start, but then they abandon it to reach safety,” Karvouni notes.
For further information:
- ECRE, Greece: MEPs Confront Commission Officials over Pushbacks, People on the Move Again Caught in the Stand-off with Turkiye in the Evros Region, June 2023
- ECRE, Greece: Elections on Both Sides of the Border as Pushbacks and Push for Returns Continue, Border Guards Arrested in Evros – More Deaths in the Aegean, June 2023