Greece imposes silence around shipwreck of overcrowded migrant boat

The 104 survivors of the tragedy have very limited mobility and access to communications. Some of them said Greek Coast Guard vessels threw them a line shortly before their vessel capsized

Aerial image of the fishing trawler 'Adriana' taken by Frontex on June 13 in the Greek SAR zone.
Aerial image of the fishing trawler 'Adriana' taken by Frontex on June 13 in the Greek SAR zone.FRONTEX

The silence imposed around the shipwreck of the Adriana, a fishing trawler loaded with more than 700 migrants that capsized on June 13 in waters off southern Greece, is triggering questions about the role of Greek authorities in one of the worst migrant shipwrecks on record in the Mediterranean Sea. Both the Greek Coast Guard and the Ministry for Migration have tried to prevent the survivors from talking about their experience.

After the ship sank on its way to Italy from Libya, only 104 people were rescued — 47 Syrians, 43 Egyptians, 12 Pakistanis and two Palestinians, all men. The search teams found two bodies in an advanced state of decay on Monday, bringing the number of recovered bodies to 80. There are no traces of the other passengers, including around 100 women and children.

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. A few relatives managed to greet and hug their family members, but Coast Guard agents, as well as the special police unit OPKE, watched over the perimeter and kept the press away.

The commander of the Coast Guard, Sotiris Tsoulos, did not clarify why the survivors were subjected to limitations more typical of a prison regime than an aid post for shipwreck victims. Restrictions of movement are routinely imposed on economic migrants and asylum seekers in Greece for days or even weeks. Complaints from humanitarian organizations, who say there is no legal basis for it, fall on deaf ears.

Since Friday, 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.

A man speaks with survivors at a migrant camp in Malakasa, north of Athens, on Monday, June 19, 2023.
A man speaks with survivors at a migrant camp in Malakasa, north of Athens, on Monday, June 19, 2023. Petros Giannakouris (AP)

Ahmed is a Syrian living in the U.K. who, after hearing about the shipwreck, traveled first to Kalamata and then to Malakasa to meet his cousin. From this center near Athens, he explained by phone about the limitations imposed on his relative. “He is fine, he is in good condition. But they don’t allow them to go out and they watch them all day,” he says. “They can use telephones to communicate with their families, the camp managers allow it,” he adds.

Greek authorities maintain that the occupants of the fishing boat refused at all times to be helped. According to this version, they only asked for food because their goal was to reach Italy. The Coast Guard said that two oil tankers, two frigates and two patrol boats approached to observe the trawler from a distance, but the few testimonies that have emerged question the way in which the Coast Guard vessels approached the Adriana. “The Greek Coast Guard threw a line at us and that’s when the boat started to sink,” a survivor told the German outlet Syria Direct. Last Thursday, several migrants took advantage of the visits by Alexis Tsipras, former prime minister and leader of the leftist Syriza party, and Krypton Arsenis, a former MEP from the Mera25 party, to mention to the media, for the first time, that the Coast Guard had thrown a line at the fishing boat before it sank.

BrirmI Jihed, an investigator dedicated to documenting violence at the Greek borders, traveled from the French city of Marseille to Greece after learning of the shipwreck. Jihed published an interview with a survivor on his Twitter account on Monday. According to his translation, the interviewee said: “The Greek Coast Guard arrived and said that they would take us to Italian waters. But the ship’s engine broke.” This is what, according to Jihed, the survivor described: “They were dressed in black and they were masked. They tied up our boat with a blue rope. Then they left quickly. While we were on the ship, we felt that something was not right. [...] We were in front of them and they were pushing us from the right and left. Our ship capsized. I spoke to other survivors and we are 100% convinced that the Coast Guard sank us, but we don’t know if it was intentional or a mistake.”

Although in a first version the Coast Guard did not mention any lines in their approach to the Adriana, later they recognized the launch of “a beacon.” The spokesman for the Coast Guard, Nikos Alexiou, said in statements to the public television ERT: “This maneuver lasted just a few minutes and after the rope was untied by the migrants themselves, the patrol boat moved away and observed the vessel from up close. There was no attempt to tow the boat.”

The survivor told Jihed that they saw hooded men dressed in black aboard the Greek ships. The clothing that he described has already been documented by victims of immediate deportations practiced by Greece. The conservative government of New Democracy officially denies the existence of this type of practice, but during the campaign it has constantly made references to the Coast Guard, convinced that its voters applaud a strong hand against migrants.

The trickle of statements by survivors raise even more questions about the lack of transparency of the Greek authorities. What did they intend with that maneuver? Were they trying to move the fishing vessel away from the maritime search and rescue area of responsibility (SAR zone) assigned to Greece? Did they intend to tow it to the coast? What happened to make the old ship capsize and sink in just 15 minutes?

According to the Coast Guard’s version, the fishing boat refused their help and was heading towards Italy. So why did they need to tie it up if it was really sailing on its course? And there’s more. After the shipwreck, it was the crew of a luxury yacht that ended up taking the survivors on board. Why wasn’t the Greek Coast Guard performing this job?

Meanwhile, in Kalamata, the nine Egyptian migrants accused of smuggling defended their innocence at a court hearing on Monday, according to the newspaper Kathimerini. Sources close to the defense have revealed that one of their arguments is that they paid to travel on the Adriana. One of them planned to argue before the judge that he was identified after a fight that arose in the old fishing boat when one of the nearby oil tankers threw bottles of water at them, upon which dozens of thirsty and desperate people pounced.

Greek authorities have not yet made public the list with the names of the 104 survivors, nor have they identified the 80 bodies recovered from the water. Almost a week later, hundreds of families still do not know if their loved ones are alive.

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