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Greece migrant boat disaster: Was the coast guard to blame?

July 12, 2023

Research conducted by a team of international journalists is casting doubt on the Greek coast guard's account of the tragedy that cost hundreds of lives. Did the actions of the coast guard cause the boat to capsize?

Photo showing migrants onboard a trawler
The fishing trawler Andriana, crowded with about 700 migrants, before it sank off the coast of Greece on June 14Image: Hellenic Coast Guard/REUTERS

Less than a month after an overcrowded fishing trawler crammed with about 700 migrants sank off the coast of Greece, many relatives are still waiting for information and certainty.

Thirty-two-year-old Ali Shan from Pakistan hopes that his nephew survived the disaster, in which hundreds of migrants lost their lives.

Shan provided the Greek authorities with a DNA sample and has been waiting for news ever since. "They only ever say that I have to wait. Nothing more," he told DW. "There is a lot of talk in Europe about humanity. Are we not all humans?"

Migrants inside a warehouse
Survivors of the migrant boat disaster in a shelter in the port of KalamataImage: Angelos Tzortzinis/REUTERS

Ali Shan is convinced that many more people could have been rescued. The fishing trawler Andriana capsized and sank in the Ionian Sea off the coast of Pylos on June 14. Most of those on board perished; only 104 were saved.

International journalists investigate incident

An international media research team comprising staff from the British newspaper The Guardian, the German broadcaster Norddeutsche Rundfunk (NDR) and the Greek investigative medium Solomon spoke to 26 survivors, examined court documents, compared satellite data and log entries, and studied video footage from merchant ships.

Using the data collected, the Berlin-based research agency Forensis prepared a computer simulation of the Andriana's final hours. This simulation raises serious questions about the Greek coast guard's official account of the tragedy.

Differing accounts of what happened

The research indicates that the trawler drifted around for hours, before heading west shortly after encountering Boat 920 of the Greek coast guard authority. Survivors told the research team that the Greek coast guard guided them in that direction and assured them that a boat belonging to the Italian coast guard would be waiting for them in Italian waters.

The Greek coast guard said that the people on the trawler proceeded towards Italy of their own volition. Research conducted by the BBC published on June 18, which was based on data from a website that analyzes the movement of ships, had already raised questions about the official account given by the Greek coast guard.

What caused the trawler to capsize?

Statements made by survivors about the capsizing of the boat are even more incriminating. They claim that the trawler only capsized when the Greek coast guard tried to tow the completely overcrowded boat, which was incapable of maneuvering on its own, with a rope.

Two survivors who spoke to the journalists described how the Greek coast guard secured a rope to the trawler. Other survivors, who were below deck, reported feeling a heavy pull that could be explained by an attempt to tow the trawler.

Protesters hold a banner during a demonstration
The tragedy triggered protests in Greece: People are accusing the coast guard of having precipitated the capsizing of the trawlerImage: LOUIZA VRADI/REUTERS

The Greek coast guard has denied these allegations and said it offered to assist the overcrowded boat and passed the rope to the people on the trawler. It says that it did not tow the boat or cause it to capsize by doing so.

Offers of Frontex support ignored

It is not clear why the Greek coast guard simply ignored three offers of support from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and why the entire operation was not filmed.

Ninety percent of the funding for the coast guard's boat comes from the EU, and the vessel is equipped with cameras, which — according to the research of the investigative team — require little operation. The Greek coast guard has said that it preferred to concentrate on saving people rather than on filming what was happening.

Migrants seek answers after Greece boat disaster

When contacted by DW for a statement, Frontex pointed to the ongoing investigation. It said that the incident was being investigated by its Fundamental Rights Officer and was not willing to comment on the issue of the unused cameras.

EU Commission calls for transparent probe

In Greece, the incident is being investigated by the state attorney's office. Migration Minister Dimitris Kairidis has rejected the accusations and pointed out that it was the Greek coast guard that saved people, not any NGOs, foreign journalists or MEPs. "We are humanitarian, but we are not naive," he said.

For years, media and international aid organizations have been reporting on the illegal pushback of migrants by Greek authorities. Many are calling for an independent monitoring mechanism on the EU's external borders, among other things because the responsible investigating institutions in Greece are not independent.

Commissioner wants 'full clarity'

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson is very familiar with these problems. Despite numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence and proof of illegal behavior by the Greek authorities in recent years, she has yet to launch an infringement procedure against Greece or issue any kind of public admonition. After the disaster, her press office stated that Greece was legally responsible for investigating the incident.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson delivering a speech
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson has called for "full clarity about the facts, to establish, via a swift, thorough and transparent investigation, what has exactly happened"Image: MENELAOS MYRILLAS/SOOC/AFP/Getty Images

When contacted by DW, her office said that she had spoken to the new Greek interior minister and called for "full clarity about the facts, to establish, via a swift, thorough and transparent investigation, what has exactly happened" with a view to prosecuting any wrongdoing.

Green MEP calls for tougher approach

For Green MEP Erik Marquardt, statements like these are worth little. He calls on both the EU Commission and member states to take tougher action. Apart from expressions of condolence, he says, there was no major response to the disaster.

Marquardt says that little interest was being shown in clearing up the many open questions relating to the Greek coast guard and its role in the incident: "How is democracy supposed to function when EU member states in such cases lie in plain sight and no one says anything?" Marquardt told DW.

For Marquardt, this is not only a matter of safeguarding the rights of asylum seekers, but also of protecting the rule of law in the EU. "A country where certain groups do not have any rights will at some point become a country where no one has access to justice anymore," said Marquardt. Once that point is reached, he added, it is no longer legislation and the parliaments that shape law and order, but those in power alone.

This article was originally published in German.

Portrait of a man with brown hair and a beard
Florian Schmitz Reporter with a focus on Greece