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Tragedy in the Mediterranean: Fate of women and children on sunken migrant boat remains unknown

The disaster in the waters off southern Greece has caused at least 79 deaths. Around 100 men have been rescued alive but several hundred people are still unaccounted for

Two men carry a bag with the body of one of the migrants killed in Wednesday's shipwreck in the Ionian Sea, June 14, 2023.

In the port of Kalamata, a double fence surrounds the hangar where most of the survivors spent the night after a fishing boat full of migrants capsized early Wednesday morning in the Calypso Trench of the Ionian Sea, an abyss around 4,000 meters deep off the coast of southern Greece. Opposite, in a dock at the same port, the bodies of some of the at least 79 migrants who perished in the tragedy were laid out on Thursday: around 30 corpses that five workers had unloaded from a Coast Guard patrol boat to transfer them by refrigerated truck to the industrial area of Athens Sjistos Korydallos, where autopsies will be carried out.

All those rescued alive are males aged between 16 and 40, but the stricken vessel did not contain only men: around 100 children and women were crammed into the hold. What has become of them remains unknown. An SUV parked near the hangar containing the survivors appeared on Thursday morning, loaded with cardboard boxes bearing the legend: “body bags.”

Relatives of the migrants, both dead and alive, began to arrive early, at 7:30 a.m. A couple spoke Arabic among themselves, and switched to Greek to talk to port officials. Two people, who preferred to remain anonymous, were sent to the port authority office, but the name they were looking for was not on the Greek Coast Guard’s list of survivors.

Another man, Malek, a Syrian national, had better luck. His 18-year-old brother, Ahmed, was on the list. The teenager had survived and was among the rescued. Malek found him and was able to give him a fleeting hug through the fence before a Coast Guard officer approached to order the two brothers to cease physical contact.

Migrant boat captain faces 3,000 years in jail

On Thursday morning more relatives and friends of the victims arrived but there were no translators at the Kalamata Port Authority office and the officer who attended to them only spoke a little English. The relatives of the hundreds of migrants missing in the shipwreck were then taken to Kalamata hospital to provide DNA samples, which in many cases may be useless. According to the migrants who issued the SOS to the rescue organization Alarm Phone on Tuesday, there were 750 people on the boat, which had departed from Libya. At the moment, only 104 are confirmed to have been rescued alive, while the verified death toll stands at 79. The rest are missing near the Calypso Trench, one of the deepest points in the Mediterranean Sea, from where it will be extremely difficult to recover their bodies. There is no official missing persons figure yet. The International Organization for Migration estimates, for its part, that up to 400 people could have been on board.

The Greek police have deployed several special units in the port. Most of them are carrying out public security work and preventing the migrants from leaving the fenced-off area. An official from the Ministry of Migration and Asylum confirmed to EL PAÍS, on condition of anonymity, that police are also making arrests among the survivors. Authorities announced Wednesday that they are looking for the captain and the rest of his crew to charge them with one count of human trafficking and several counts of reckless homicide. In Greece, the offenses attributed to the captains of migrant boats are punishable by 10 years in prison, plus an additional 10 years for each passenger. If the figures are confirmed, the charges against the captain of the vessel that sank on Wednesday would add up to 3,000 years in jail.

The same Ministry source stated that the migrants will be transferred to the Malakasa refugee camp “as soon as the Coast Guard and the police complete the identification procedures.” The Greek police Disaster Victim Identification team is in charge of matching DNA samples with those of the deceased and survivors. Numerous relatives who are unable to travel to Greece have phoned this office, but, although the rescue operation still included six boats and two planes on Thursday, as the hours passed, hopes of finding more survivors faded. Rescuers have found no one alive since most of those rescued boarded the luxury yacht Mayan Queen IV.

Five days without water

Inside the fenced perimeter, the Greek Civil Protection disaster response unit, the UNHCR and the Red Cross are attending to those survivors who did not need to be transferred to hospitals, or those who received medical attention but have already been discharged. Many of them were suffering from hypothermia, pneumonia, fainting and hypoglycemia. Ekaterina Tsatá, a Red Cross nurse, told EL PAÍS that medical staff treated several people for panic attacks and severe dehydration. The passengers on the sunken trawler had gone “five days without drinking water,” she added. Through the fence, Mohamed, a young Syrian doctor who was on the sunken ship, can only manage to say that he and some of his companions are well “now.” But when he begins to recount the horror he experienced on the trawler, a Coast Guard officer shouts at him to forbid him to speak to this newspaper.

The Coast Guard plans to hand over custody of the migrants to the Greek police on Thursday. The latter, in turn, plans to transfer the migrants to Malakasa, one of the many refugee camps set up in Greece over the past decade, located 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Athens, on a military base. It was built in 2016 as a “temporary solution” for asylum seekers arriving on the Greek islands. Initially, it consisted of canvas tents, but it now houses refugee families in barracks that have a bathroom, two bedrooms and air conditioning. Several political leaders have visited the port of Kalamata. The first was Dimitris Kutsubas, leader of the Communist Party, on Wednesday afternoon, as well as a local committee of the liberal-conservative New Democracy grouping. Alexis Tsipras, of the leftist Syriza, announced that he will visit on Thursday. The tragedy coincided with campaigning ahead of the elections to be held on June 25.

As of Wednesday afternoon, residents of Kalamata have been bringing bags loaded with food, clothes and sports shoes to the port. Other similar gestures of solidarity are being repeated all over Greece and on Thursday afternoon demonstrations will be held against European immigration policies, called by social movements, trade unions and left-wing parties. Meanwhile, in the port of Kalamata, workers continued Thursday to unload the bodies that have been recovered from the sea. One of the workers had a swastika and the symbol of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, declared a criminal organization in 2020 largely because of its attacks on migrants, tattooed on his arms.

The trawler’s final destination was Italy, authorities have said. Greek state broadcaster ERT has reported that the vessel set sail from the Libyan city of Tobruk, which lies to the south of the Greek island of Crete. Most of the occupants were young men, aged around 20. Their nationalities, as well as the port from where the ship sailed, have not yet been confirmed by the Greek authorities. An unnamed source at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs quoted by Reuters said that most of those on board were from Egypt, Syria and Pakistan.

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