Greece is under growing pressure to launch an independent investigation into the June 13 sinking of a vessel that was carrying up to 750 migrants, amid accusations from survivors that the actions of the Greek coast guard came too late and may have contributed to the shipwreck.
Greek authorities strongly deny the claim.
In one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in recent years, at least 82 people are confirmed to have died and hundreds are still missing, including many women and children. Most were from Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan.
The fishing trawler set sail from Libya with up to 750 people on board. Footage taken from an aircraft belonging to Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, showed the packed vessel moving off Greece on the morning of June 13.
Frontex said in statement: “On 13 June before noon (09:47 UTC), a Frontex plane spotted the fishing vessel inside the Greek search and rescue region in international waters. The ship was heavily overcrowded and was navigating at slow speed (6 knots) direction north-east.”
“Frontex immediately informed the Greek and Italian authorities about the sighting, providing them with information about the condition of the vessel, speed, and photos. The plane kept monitoring the vessel, constantly providing updates to all relevant national authorities until it ran out of fuel and had to return to base.”
Greek Coast Guard
The Greek coast guard said at first that the boat was on a steady course towards Italy, so it did not intervene. It later said it tried to aid the migrant boat by attaching a rope, but said the migrants untied it.
Additional footage has emerged taken from a ship that had diverted to help the migrants later on June 13. The crew offered water and food. In the video, the migrant boat appears to restart its engine.
The vessel sank later that night in Greek waters, around 80 kilometers south of the Greek port of Pylos. Many survivors say the boat had lost power for several hours before it sank.
The United Nations has called for an investigation.
“The (U.N.) Secretary-General was horrified by the reports of a shipwreck that took place off the coast of Greece, claiming the lives of scores of women, men and children,” Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, told reporters June 14.
“As he said before, that every person searching for a better life needs dignity and safety. This is yet another example of the need of member states to come together and create orderly, safe pathways for people forced to flee, and for comprehensive action to save lives at sea and reduce perilous journeys,” Dujarric added.
Human rights groups highlight that survivors’ testimonies contradict the coast guard’s version of events.
“The survivors saying that the rope was given — and they understand that the cause of the incident was that rope tying (to) them, and then the ship taking the wrong turn and sinking,” said Kondylia Gogou of Amnesty International, in an interview with VOA.
Greece continues to insist that the migrants did not ask for help and were not in danger until the boat sank. It has launched a judicial investigation into the incident. Gogou said that is not sufficient.
“We think that it’s really essential that a proper and independent and effective investigation takes place. You can see from the aerial pictures that this is an unseaworthy vessel. So, you are obliged to intervene, this is your duty. And there’s a failure, there’s a delay,” she said.
Greek police have arrested nine Egyptian nationals who were believed to be on the boat. They deny charges of human trafficking and participating in a criminal enterprise.
Amnesty International’s Kondylia Gogou said Europe’s migration policy is also to blame. “As long as we don’t have sufficient policies in the EU for safe and legal routes, these kinds of dangerous journeys will continue,” she told VOA.
The survivors were taken to a migrant camp on the Greek mainland, close to the city of Kalamata. Amid the desperate grief there have been occasional moments of joy, as survivors are reunited with loved ones, many of whom have traveled from other countries in Europe and beyond.