Greece migrant tragedy: Survivor accounts claim coastguard rope toppled boat

30 June 2023 - 10:05 By Reuters
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A migrant who was rescued from the open sea along with other migrants after their boat capsized sits outside a warehouse used as a shelter at the port of Kalamata, Greece on June 15 2023.
A migrant who was rescued from the open sea along with other migrants after their boat capsized sits outside a warehouse used as a shelter at the port of Kalamata, Greece on June 15 2023.
Image: REUTERS/Stelios Misinas

Survivors of a boat disaster that likely killed hundreds of migrants near Greece have given accounts of traffickers in North Africa cramming them into a clapped-out fishing trawler. They recounted hellish conditions above and below deck, with no food or water.

Some also said the tragic end, when it came, was precipitated by the actions of the Greek coastguard. They have told judicial authorities of a doomed attempt to tow the overloaded trawler that caused the vessel to capsize in the early hours on June 14.

A disastrous coastguard towing attempt was recounted in six of the nine statements from survivors submitted to Greek judicial officials investigating the causes of the tragedy, according to evidence seen by Reuters.

One Syrian survivor said he and other migrants on board the Adriana, which had broken down en route to Italy, screamed “Stop” after a Greek coastguard vessel attached a rope to the bow of the trawler and began to pull it while picking up speed.

The migrant boat tilted left and right and then turned upside down, he said.

Three witnesses said they didn't know what caused the Adriana to capsize. Reuters is not publishing the names of the nine survivors who gave the accounts, which haven't been made public.

The statements of the six witnesses clash with the public statements given by the Greek coastguard and government, which have said no attempt was made to tow the boat and that it overturned when the coastguard was about 70m away.

The shipping ministry, which oversees the coastguard, told Reuters it couldn't comment on issues that were the subject of a confidential investigation by prosecutors. Greek prosecutors are forbidden by law from commenting on live inquiries.

The nine survivors submitted their accounts on June 17 and 18 to investigators conducting a preliminary probe into the disaster. Α group of suspected traffickers, arrested on June 15 on charges including manslaughter, migrant smuggling and causing a shipwreck, have been jailed pending a fuller investigation that could culminate in a trial. They deny wrongdoing.

The towing episode was also recounted by two other survivors who were separately interviewed by Reuters and asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from Greek authorities. One of them, who gave his name only as Mohamed, described the terrifying moments when the Adriana overturned, which he said came when the coastguard started tugging the boat.

“They quickly pulled us and the boat capsized. It moved to the right, to the left, to the right and it capsized. People started to fall on each other,” he said.

“People were on top of each other, people were screaming, people were drowning each other. It was night and there were waves. It was scary.”

On June 15 a coastguard spokesperson, responding to local media reports that cited some survivors who said the trawler was towed, publicly denied a coastguard vessel had attached a rope to the Adriana at any time.

A day later the coastguard amended its account. It said its vessel had attached a rope to the Adriana to help it draw nearer to communicate. The coastguard denied it had subsequently tried to tow the trawler, saying it had kept its distance.

Nikos Spanos, a retired admiral in the Greek coastguard, told Reuters it was unlikely a coastguard vessel would have attempted such a dangerous manoeuvre as towing the stricken trawler.

“The coastguard's aim was to establish a better contact to help the vessel and assess the situation. This is my understanding. Because if they had tried to tow it or anything else, it would have been too risky and this wouldn't have been the right way to do it.”

When the Adriana capsized and sank about 75km southwest of Pylos, in international waters within Greece's search-and-rescue jurisdiction, it was carrying between 400 and 750 migrants mostly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, the UN refugee agency said.

A total of 104 survivors have been found but rescuers said it's unlikely anyone else will be recovered, dead or alive, in one of the of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean.

The coastguard ship's log was also submitted to the judicial authorities and details two instances two hours apart when the coastguard vessel approached the Adriana, according to the evidence.

At 11.40pm on June 13 the vessel approached the trawler, which had a malfunctioning engine, and tied a rope to the boat to allow it to draw closer and talk to those on board to assess the situation and if they needed help, the log said.

People on board shouted “No help” and “Go Italy” and untied the rope, according to the log which said the Adriana's engine was then restarted and it headed west.

At 1.40am the coastguard vessel was instructed by its operation centre to return to the trawler to inspect its condition after the Adriana had stopped moving.

The coastguard vessel approached to a distance of about 70m from the Adriana and heard a lot of shouting, and in under seven minutes the trawler had capsized, according to the log.

The Adriana set off from a beach in or near the Libyan town of Tobruk around June 10, according to survivors. Before they boarded, the traffickers took away their belongings and threw out bottles of drinking water to make room for more people, survivor Mohamed told Reuters.

Each traveller only had 40cm of space, a Syrian migrant told judicial authorities, according to the evidence.

All 11 survivors said they paid between $4,500 (about R84,603) to $6,000 (about R112,804) for the journey, and the smugglers told them they would reach Italy in three days. Three survivors told authorities they paid anywhere from €50 to €200 (about R1,021 to R4,085) extra for places on the outer deck, considered safer.

They were among thousands of people trying to get to southern Europe this year by setting off in boats from North Africa. More than 50,000 “irregular border” crossings of the central Mediterranean, most of which begin in Tunisia and Libya, were detected in the first five months of 2023, up 160% from a year ago, according to EU border agency data.

A week after the tragedy near Greece more than 30 migrants were feared dead after a dinghy headed for Spain's Canary Islands sank.

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