Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2860

EU’s border regime has turned Med into refugee graveyard

The drownings off the Greek coast are racist murder—and European states are guilty, writes Isabel Ringrose
Issue 2860
Lanterns lit in memory of the victims

Lanterns lit in memory of the victims during the protest in Athens, Greece (Picture: NikosLikomitros)

The drowning of at least 78 refugees off the coast of Greece is a horrific tragedy—but by no means an accident. It was completely avoidable.

It’s the result of a hostile Greek coastguard, busy covering-up its role in the failed rescue mission, and anti-migrant policies at the heart of the European Union’s (EU) border regime. That’s a regime that the Tories in Britain are only too happy to emulate in the Channel and onshore.

As Socialist Worker went to press, more than 500 people were still missing from the fishing vessel that capsized in the early hours of Wednesday last week. Only 104 men had been rescued. The boat carrying up to 750 men, women and children from mainly Afghanistan and Pakistan sank 50 miles off the southern Greek town of Pylos. 

Nine people suspected of people smuggling have been rushed in front of a Greek court for piloting the fishing trawler. But the graveyard in the Mediterranean is the result of Greek and Italian authorities refusing to pick up vessels in distress. And because policies that slam borders shut, open the door for smugglers.

The boat left Libya for Italy. Greek authorities were quicker to deny the drownings were their fault than they were actioning a rescue mission. They continue to claim the boat said it didn’t need help and wanted to reach Italy. There are huge discrepancies in the official version of events.

Three days after the incident the government admitted that shortly before the sinking, a rope was thrown to the boat. It’s possible that attempts to tug the boat caused it to capsize, which has been strongly denied by the coastguard.

But a survivor said, “The coastguard threw a rope but because they didn’t know how to pull the rope, the vessel started dangling right and left. The coast guard boat was going too fast but the vessel was already dangling to the left, and that’s how it sank.”

Tarek Aldroobi, a man who had three relatives on board, said that they had seen Greek authorities towing the vessel with ropes. But they were tied in the “wrong places”. “When the Greek navy tried pulling them, it caused the boat to capsize,” he said.

Government spokesperson Ilias Siakanderis claimed the coastguard arrived two hours before the boat capsized after its engine broke down and there had been “no connection” between the two. Nikos Alexiou, a spokesman for the Hellenic coastguard, added, “When the boat capsized, we were not even next to the boat. 

“How could we be towing it? There was never an attempt to tie the vessel, neither by us nor any other ship.”

But the ongoing revelations will mean more evidence is likely to come out about the real role the coastguard played.

Without safe and legal routes into Europe and Britain, more bodies will continue to pile up. Shutting down routes doesn’t stop refugees attempting to reach a better life and safety.

Instead, tougher borders fuel smuggling gangs’ business. The way to stop the deaths is to abolish borders

Eyewitness report of Greek protests

Demonstrations raged across Greece last Thursday. Petros Constantinou from the anti-fascist group Keerfa told Socialist Worker, “The demonstrations were massive, and within a call of 24 hours. It was amazing to see.

“In Athens we had more than 30,000 people. And there were demonstrations in 20 other towns around Greece, from the ports near the shipwreck to the north. It was a massive day of action showing solidarity to refugees and anger at the policies of closed borders.” 

Petros said protests also raged at the Greek coastguard’s manipulation of events. “The arguments by the Greek coastguard are open lies. It tried to force another pushback. Survivors have said it was responsible for the shipwreck.

“And the boat was broken from when it left Libya. It was going around for five days, drifting in the sea. It’s a very clear lie that it was travelling to Italy. It needed to be rescued.”

Greece currently has a temporary government ahead of Sunday’s elections. “This is also the responsibility of the previous government,” Petros said. “It paved the way for the barbaric methods of pushbacks in the Mediterranean and Evros river. It’s very proud that only 5 percent of refugees now enter compared to 2019.”

Petros explained how border forces savagely stop refugees from reaching Greece. “They take refugees who manage to reach Greek islands, put them in life rafts and throw them into the waves when the wind is going in the direction of Turkey.”

Petros, along with activists Iasonas Apostolopoulos and Javed Aslam, have received open death threats from fascists. Petros says that’s because “the demonstrations were very successful, and the fascists want to get back into parliament”.

“It’s a scare tactic. They don’t want anyone to defy the Greek coastguard. But they can’t go on the streets to oppose us.”

Keerfa is now campaigning to get justice for the victims, and the survivors who are being processed by Greek immigration. “Women and children, and hundreds of people from Pakistan are missing. They may never show up because that area is one of the deepest in the sea,” Petros added.

Frontex and the authorities have blood on their hands

Evidence obtained from the BBC shows that the fishing vessel was not moving for at least seven hours before capsizing. The coastguard says during these hours the boat said it was safely headed to Italy.

Then a government spokesperson said the coastguard had attempted to board the boat to assess the danger, but those on board refused to let them board. Testimonies have reportedly revealed that the boat’s engine may have failed days before it sank. 

“We started the journey at dawn on Friday,” a migrant told the coastguard. “We were travelling for three days and then the engine failed.”

Inconsistencies in the Greek coastguard’s version of events have fuelled accusations that it deliberately avoided a rescue mission. “Where is the video, the video that should have been taken of the operation?” asked Christos Spirtzis, a former transport minister. “That is the key question.”

Survivors said that the situation on the boat was horrific. There was a shortage of fresh water and six people had already died before the sinking.

“I can testify that these people were asking to be saved by any authority,” said Nawal Soufi, a Moroccan-Italian social worker. Aretia Giezou, a Greek social worker said, “One man was swimming for two hours among the bodies of kids until he was seen by someone and rescued. They are all still in shock.”

She explained how one survivor contemplated suicide on the boat “because he couldn’t deal with the situation”. “They were five days without water. They were drinking sea water and also their urine. And the liquid from the fridges on the boat. That’s why so many are in hospital with stomach problems.”

The survivors were taken to a warehouse in Kalamata, before being transferred to AthensDespite their hellish ordeal, many now face deportation.

A timeline shows refugees could all have been saved
  • Tue 13 June: 9:35: Twitter user Nawal Soufi sounds alert about a large boat in distress, carrying, according to them, 750 people. Nawal Soufi says that authorities in Italy, Greece, and Malta have been alerted.
  • 14:17: Alarm Phone refugee monitoring group  receives the first call from the boat in distress. It is difficult to communicate with them. They say that they cannot survive the night, that they are in heavy distress. Alarm Phone tries to receive their current GPS coordinates in order to be able to alert authorities. But the call cuts out. 
  • 15:35:  A Greek Coast Guard helicopter locates the trawler. An aerial photo showed it packed, with people covering almost every inch of the deck. Some had their hands outstretched.
  • 16:13: Alarm Phone receives the position from the people in distress.
  • 16:53: Alarm Phone alerts the Greek authorities, Frontex and UNHCR Greece.
  • 17:20:  The passengers call Alarm Phone saying the boat is not moving and the captain has fled on a smaller boat. 
  • 18.30: The Greek coastguard says the boat is “sailing on a steady course”.
  • Wed 14 June: 0015 The boat sinks. 

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