Deadly shipwreck off the Greek coast raises questions about the state’s responsibility

On 14 June, the Mediterranean Sea saw one of the deadliest tragedies at sea that happened in recent years. A boat carrying migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean capsized and sank off the Greek coastal town of Pylos. 82 dead bodies were recovered from the sea as of 21 June, while 104 people were rescued. Hundreds of migrants and refugees went missing and are presumably dead as the boat reportedly carried up to 750 people. Amid search and rescue operations, chances of finding more survivors were slim as the boat sank in deep waters. Witnesses say that the vessel departed from Egypt, then stopped at the Libyan port of Tobruk to embark more people and finally set off for Italy. After five days at sea, the engine stopped working and the boat sank around 2 a.m. (14 June) about 80 km from Pylos. Survivors were taken to the Greek port of Kalamata near Pylos, staying at a warehouse shelter before being transferred to a migrant reception centre outside Athens.

Questions emerged over the role and responsibility of the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG), the national coast guard of Greece, in the incident. NGOs and activists claimed that the HCG should have intervened earlier to perform a full-scale rescue attempt. The UNHCR Special Envoy for the Western & Central Mediterranean, Vincent Cochetel, called for an independent investigation. While an investigation is being carried out by the Greek public prosecutor, the European Commission refused to carry out any independent probe. The EU’s home affairs spokesperson Anitta Hipper believes that letting Greek authorities do their own review would ensure “a thorough and transparent investigation”. The EU is cooperating with the Greek authorities in order to collect evidence on the incident, doing so by dispatching officials from non-investigative bodies, namely the independent Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and Frontex. Meanwhile, an investigation by Forensis revealed inconsistencies in the narrative provided by the HCG and proved that the shipwreck was a result of the actions taken by the coast guard. Furthermore, from their analysis, it appears that the HCG tried to manipulate evidence and silence witnesses. The coast guard did not activate cameras and tracking devices onboard, they ignored assistance offered by Frontex and they confiscated the cellphones of the survivors of the shipwreck. According to the evidence by the BBC, once survivors started talking about the responsibility of the HCG in the shipwreck, they were silenced and intimidated by Greek authorities. 

Activists and NGOs have been sharing the content of the calls they received from people on the boat before it capsized. These stories bring further doubts over the version of events provided by the HCG. According to the latter, no rescue attempt was put in place as people on the boat repeatedly refused any help and said they wanted to continue with the vessel to Italy. An HCG spokesperson, Nikos Alexiou, said that it would have been impossible to carry out a violent diversion on such a crowded vessel without any cooperation from the people aboard. However, maritime law requires authorities to attempt a rescue if the boat is unsafe, regardless of what passengers say. Furthermore, Greek authorities released aerial pictures showing people on the decks of the boat looking up with outstretched arms, hours before it capsized. Independent refugee activist, Nawal Soufi, reported about the dynamics of the events that took place the day prior to the sinking. She said she received the first call for help in the early morning of 13 June and, as soon as she was able to get their location, she alerted authorities in Malta, Greece and Italy. People aboard told Soufi that another ship approached their boat and tied two ends with ropes creating a dangerous situation. This version was confirmed later by the survivors of the shipwreck, who said the coast guard tried twice to tow their boat, which started to move side to side and then, when the rope was cut, it lurched suddenly. Greek authorities denied accounts that the boat flipped after the coast guard attempted to tow it, saying that no physical contact happened with the boat. They further claimed that the boat instead capsized due to a sudden shift in weight. “There was never an attempt to tie the vessel neither by us nor any other ship”, said government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris. According to the coast guard, the boat only halted at 1:40 a.m. on 14 June when the engine stopped and at 2:04 a.m. it began swinging violently from side to side, before capsizing. People on a deck were thrown into the sea or kept holding onto the boat, while many others were trapped below the deck. In fifteen minutes, the boat vanished underwater. 

A new investigation by The Guardian suggests that two towing attempts by the coast guard took place and ultimately led to the capsizing of the boat. Moreover, the coast guard vessel moved away from the boat, creating large waves that made swimming difficult, and directed its lights towards the people adrift in the water. A small inflatable boat was sent for rescue only once the boat with refugees sank, after approximately 20-30 minutes. The NGO Alarm Phone was in contact with the boat in distress and said it had informed Greek authorities, Frontex and the Greek division of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Evidence later showed that the boat packed with people did not move for seven hours before capsizing. The HCG stated instead that the boat was steadily moving towards Italy, refusing any help, and it was not in danger until just before sinking. Tracking data by MariTrace also showed two Greek vessels, the Lucky Sailor and the Faithful Warrior, standing by or circling in close proximity of the boat for at least four hours on 13 June. These data are supported by another maritime analytics platform, MarineTraffic, which produced a timeline of the events of that day. The coast guard replied that throughout those four hours it kept contact with the boat by radio, satphone and helicopter to make sure it was not in danger. 

The Greek authorities arrested nine Egyptians for arranging the deadly crossing. They were accused of negligent manslaughter, exposing lives to danger, causing a shipwreck and human smuggling. One of the survivors said that he and others of his family paid $4,500 each to smugglers for the trip and had been told not to bring any food or lifejackets as the boat was equipped with them. All of the accused pleaded not guilty before the Kalamata Court on 19 and 20 June. One of the suspects’ lawyer said his client was a passenger who paid the smugglers for the trip. Nonetheless, on 21 June the Court decided to detain them pending trial. However, according to the new evidence, two survivors were pressed by the HCG to identify nine Egyptians on board as traffickers. Further, 14 people were arrested by Pakistani authorities for allegedly taking part in the trafficking of several migrant and refugee victims of the shipwreck. According to a statement from the office of the Pakistani Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, a high-level investigation into the human trafficking network, suspected to be involved, was ordered by the government. 

Waves of criticism as well as calls for policy change and accountability have accelerated among Greek and international communities. On 15 June, protests exploded in Athens and in Thessaloniki calling for the European Union to revise the migration policies, while in Kalamata protesters outside the migrants’ shelter marched with banners reading “No to the EU’s pact on migration”. Ex Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also expressed his opinion on the EU migration policies, stating that they turned the Mediterranean “into watery graves”, as it is proved to be one of the deadliest and most dangerous migrant crossings in the world. Member of the European parliament Tineke Strik claimed the inefficiency of the EU pact on migration and asylum in this regard and called for an EU pact on SaR operations in order to save lives at sea. In an open letter to the Greek and EU authorities, academics highlighted the urgent need to address pushbacks and delayed responses in the Mediterranean Sea and prevent any misinterpretation of legal obligations by the state actors.