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Greece: Not an unexpected tragedy

Kaki Bali | Dimitra Kyranoudi
June 16, 2023

The deaths of hundreds of refugees off the coast of Greece have shocked the nation. Even anti-immigrant politicians have expressed sympathy, but others are asking whether the authorities are to blame.

Two men wearing masks transfer a corpse in a body bag from a ship to a truck
The corpes of those who recently drowned in the open sea off Greece were brought to shore in Kalamata Image: STELIOS MISINAS/REUTERS

These days in Greece, hardly anybody is using the callous term "illegal migrants” in public discourse. Instead, people are speaking with sympathy of "refugees," "indescribable suffering," and "unjust deaths in the wet grave of the Mediterranean." People are shocked by the tragedy that just unfolded in the Ionian Sea: Hundreds of refugees are presumed to have drowned some 47 nautical miles southwest of the small coastal town of Pylos in the Peloponnese region. It is one of the worst and most shocking refugee-related tragedies in Europe of the past few decades.

Many have grown accustomed to seeing dead refugees off the Greek coast, which has become a sad reality. On May 26, a ship sank near the island of Mykonos and nine refugees drowned but there were few reports in the Greek media. It seems to have taken the tragedy near Pylos to shake the Greek population and authorities.

A small rusty vessel at sea, overloaded with people
The dilapidated fishing vessel was carrying 700 people before it capsized off the Greek coastImage: HELLENIC COAST GUARD/REUTERS

The transitional government declared three days of national mourning, and the campaign for the second round of parliamentary elections on June 25 was also paused for three days. In a rare show of solidarity, President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and several other politicians traveled to Kalamata, where most of the 104 people rescued are being treated. Even populist politicians who have built their careers on resentment towards refugees and migrants, such as ex-minister for development and investment Adonis Georgiades, and former health minister Thanos Plevris, appeared deeply moved. However, they also stressed the necessity for border control.

Denigrated as 'invaders'

Greek media loyal to the current, and most probably future, conservative government and New Democracy party have emphasized that this is all the "fault of the human traffickers." The daily Apogevmatini wrote that the refugees had drowned because they had been "crammed" onto a completely derelict vessel belonging to "criminal human traffickers." It is also frequent to see articles advocating that refugees would be better off entering Europe "legally" instead of risking their lives and those of their children. These do not explain that legal possibilities for entry practically do not exist.

What could legal migration routes look like?

Those in Greece who still speak of refugees' right to asylum and the international human right to safety and bodily integrity have become a minority. They are described by some as "bad patriots" willing to open Greece and Europe's border to "invaders."

Anti-migrant consensus

Since 2020, when several thousand refugees tried to enter Greece from Turkey by crossing the Evros River, the majority of the Greek population allowed itself to be convinced that refugees are "intruders" that the country needs to defend itself against. There is widespread consensus that a controversial border fence should be extended and there should be stricter controls.

Few seem to be outraged by regular reports that the Greek coast guard illegally pushed people who were possibly asylum seekers back into Turkish waters. On the contrary: The first round of parliamentary elections on May 21 made clear that voters were even in favor of the practice. Nearly 55% of the voters cast their ballots for Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' New Democracy party and parties even further to the right — in short, for parties that advocate "Fortress Europe."

Route through central Mediterranean

Officially, Mitsotakis' government has repeatedly denied reports over pushbacks. But word was meant to get around that refugees were not welcome, and that if they did succeed in getting to Greece they would be stuck in the country, without any prospect of continuing on to Germany, the Netherlands, or Sweden, for instance.

The message appears to have been received. More and more asylum seekers and migrants are no longer trying to get to the EU from Turkey via the Aegean Islands, but opting for the far more dangerous route west of Greece through the central Mediterranean. Those with more money are attempting to reach Italy from Turkey on yachts. Those with fewer means are departing for Italy from Libya.

Human traffickers not solely to blame

So far this year, at least 12,000 refugees and migrants have reached the EU via this route, but at least 1,166 lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean even before the recent tragedy near Pylos. According to the EU data portal Statista, nearly 30,000 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014, mostly after having been packed onto unseaworthy boats and abandoned by human traffickers.

Protesters hold a banner that reads "EU-Hellenic Coast Guard Frontex Murderers"
Protesters took to the streets of Athens following the deadly migrant shipwreckImage: LOUIZA VRADI/REUTERS

Stelios Kouloglou, Greek MEP for the left-wing Syriza party, said that the blame cannot be attributed solely to human traffickers and used a drug-related analogy. "Dealers are terrible," he told DW. "But the root causes of drug-related deaths run deeper. The same applies to the currents of refugees and shipwrecks. It is also the fault of EU member states and politicians like Giorgia Meloni who do not want to pursue a politics of solidarity that would share the burden of refugee and immigrant influx."

Is Greece criminally liable?

Kouloglou pointed to countries such as France, "who have caused refugee problems with their military inventions," or Poland and Hungary, "who won't take in the refugees allotted to them."

He said he believed Greece was also partially responsible for the tragedy of Pylos: "The coast guards' official records state that the shipwrecked people declined help from approaching boats. This could be due to the fact that the refugees feared they would be pushed back, or that their mobile phones or even their cash would be taken from them. That is why they risk going on towards Italy on overloaded boats. They prefer to risk everything over going back to where they started, back to Libya, to hell."

Syrian survivor Fedi (l) cries as he embraces his brother Mohammad (r) through bars
Syrian survivor Fedi (left) was rescued. His brother Mohammad (right) came from Italy to meet him in Kalamata, GreeceImage: Stelios Misinas/REUTERS

Some experts have raised the possibility that the Greek authorities could be liable.  "When the coast guard encountered the shipwrecked vessel, the Greek state was obliged to proceed with rescuing," said Vassilis Tsianos, a sociologist at the University of Kiel and chairman of the Migration Council (RfM), an association of around 190 academics. "I am sure that this is not just a case of negligence," he told DW. "If somebody is drowning, we do not stop to ask if we are allowed to save them. That is the fundamental logic of sea rescue."

This article was translated from German.

A woman (Kaki Bali) with shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes stands in front of a bookcase and smiles into the camera
Kaki Bali DW correspondent in Athens