Questions mount over latest migrant tragedy in Mediterranean

Anger is growing over the handling of a migrant boat disaster off Greece last week that has become one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean in years. The calamity is dominating the country’s political agenda a week ahead of snap elections.

The Hellenic Coast Guard is facing increasing questions over its response to the fishing boat that sank off Greece’s southern peninsula on Wednesday, leading to the death of possibly hundreds of migrants. Nearly 80 people are known to have perished in the wreck and hundreds are still missing, according to the U.N.’s migration and refugee agencies.

Critics say that the Greek authorities should have acted faster to keep the vessel from capsizing. There are testimonies from survivors that the Coast Guard tied up to the vessel and attempted to pull it, causing the boat to sway, which the Greek authorities strongly deny.

The boat may have been carrying as many as 750 passengers, including women and children, according to reports. Many of them were trapped underneath the deck in the sinking, according to Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency. “The ship was heavily overcrowded,” Frontex said.  

About 100 people are known to have survived the sinking. Authorities continued to search for victims and survivors over the weekend.

The disaster may be “the worst tragedy ever” in the Mediterranean Sea, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said on Friday. She said there has been a massive increase in the number of migrant boats heading from Libya to Europe since the start of the year.

Frontex said in a statement on Friday that no agency plane or boat was present at the time of the capsizing on Wednesday. The agency said it alerted the Greek and Italian authorities about the vessel after a Frontex plane spotted it, but the Greek officials waved off an offer of additional help.

Greece has been at the forefront of Europe’s migration crisis since 2015, when hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa traveled thousands of miles across the Continent hoping to claim asylum.

Migration and border security have been key issues in the Greek political debate. Following Wednesday’s wreck, they have jumped to the top of the agenda, a week before national elections on June 25.

Greece is currently led by a caretaker government. Under the conservative New Democracy administration, in power until last month, the country adopted a tough migration policy. In late May, the EU urged Greece to launch a probe into alleged illegal deportations.

New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is expected to return to the prime minister’s office after the vote next Sunday, blasted criticism of the Greek authorities, saying it should instead be directed to the human traffickers, who he called “human scums.”

“It is very unfair for some so-called ‘people in solidarity’ [with refugees and migrants] to insinuate that the [Coast Guard] did not do its job. … These people are out there … battling the waves to rescue human lives and protect our borders,” Mitsotakis, who maintains a significant lead in the polls, said during a campaign event in Sparta on Saturday.

The Greek authorities claimed the people on board, some thought to be the smugglers who had arranged the boat from Libya, refused assistance and insisted on reaching Italy. So the Greek Coast Guard did not intervene, though it monitored the vessel for more than 15 hours before it eventually capsized.

“What orders did the authorities have, and they didn’t intervene because one of these ‘scums’ didn’t give them permission?” the left-wing Syriza party said in a statement. “Why was no order given to the lifeboat … to immediately assist in a rescue operation? … Why were life jackets not distributed … and why Frontex assistance was not requested?”

Alarm Phone, a network of activists that helps migrants in danger, said the Greek authorities had been alerted repeatedly many hours before the boat capsized and that there was insufficient rescue capacity.

According to a report by WDR citing migrants’ testimonies, attempts were made to tow the endangered vessel, but in the process the boat began to sway and sank. Similar testimonies by survivors appeared in Greek media.

A report on Greek website said the vessel remained in the same spot off the town of Pylos for at least 11 hours before sinking. According to the report, the location on the chart suggests the vessel was not on a “steady course and speed” toward Italy, as the Greek Coast Guard said.

After initially saying that there was no effort to tow the boat, the Hellenic Coast Guard said on Friday that a patrol vessel approached and used a “small buoy” to engage the vessel in a procedure that lasted a few minutes and then was untied by the migrants themselves.

Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou defended the agency. “You cannot carry out a violent diversion on such a vessel with so many people on board, without them wanting to, without any sort of cooperation,” he said.

Alexiou said there is no video of the operation available.

Nine people, most of them from Egypt, were arrested over the capsizing, charged with forming a criminal organization with the purpose of illegal migrant trafficking, causing a shipwreck and endangering life. They will appear before a magistrate on Monday, according to Greek judicial authorities.

“Unfortunately, we have seen this coming because since the start of the year, there was a new modus operandi with these fishing boats leaving from the eastern part of Libya,” the EU’s Johansson told a press conference on Friday. “And we’ve seen an increase of 600 percent of these departures this year,” she added.

Greek Supreme Court Prosecutor Isidoros Dogiakos has urged absolute secrecy in the investigations being conducted in relation to the shipwreck.

Thousands of people took to the streets in different cities in Greece last week to protest the handling of the incident and the migration policies of Greece and the EU. More protests were planned for Sunday.

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Greek PM’s wiretapping admission begs the question of further secrets

By Georgios Samaras, Assistant Professor, King’s College London

The upcoming election provides an opportunity for Greeks to demand a government that respects their fundamental rights and values their privacy, Dr Georgios Samaras writes.

Greek society has been rocked by a scandal involving an unprecedented number of phone taps over the past year, which appears to be one of the most significant departures from the rule of law in the country’s modern history.

Ahead of legislative elections, the scandal has once again reached boiling point.

During the official debate between Greek political leaders on 10 May, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis shocked everyone by admitting that he knew the reason behind opposition leader Nikos Androulakis’ surveillance. 

However, he did not provide any further details, only stating that Androulakis, the leader of the centre-left PASOK party, was not a “national threat”. 

Until last week, Mitsotakis claimed he had no knowledge that Androulakis had been targeted. “When I was informed of it, I didn’t hesitate to admit that it was wrong,” he said in a televised speech as the story that first emerged in the spring of 2021 gained traction abroad last year.

This latest statement, however, has raised serious questions about Mitsotakis’ explanations until now, and some might wonder whether he was being ignorant or apathetic. Also, in some other countries, such remarks could have resulted in immediate legal action.

A serious problem either way

Mitsotakis considered the matter closed after his nephew and top aide, Grigoris Dimitriadis, stepped down due to his connections to Predator — a mobile phone hacking spyware said to have been used by the Greek authorities in the wiretapping.

The software, believed to have been developed in neighbouring North Macedonia, can access everything on a target’s phone, including messages, photos, and passwoords, while it can also take control of the phone’s camera and microphone, allowing it to be turned into a 24/7 surveillance tool. 

Members of the European Parliament participating in the PEGA inquiry committee have spent over a year looking into the use of Pegasus and equivalent spyware. 

The publication of the committee’s findings on 8 May 2023 confirmed that Predator was used against politicians, journalists, and citizens and that the Greek government led by New Democracy had even exported the technology to other countries, such as Madagascar and Sudan.

During PEGA’s press briefing, chair Jeroen Lenaers (EPP) and rapporteur Sophie in ‘t Veld (Renew) strongly condemned the use of Predator in Greece. This marks the committee’s first serious alert on the threat to democracy, which underscores an urgent need for action.

In ‘t Veld was questioned about the possible connections between Mitsotakis and the use of Predator. 

In her scathing response, she stated, “If he was aware of it, then we have a very serious problem. If he was not aware, then that is also a serious problem, because he should have been.” 

Well, the question has now been answered, and it leads to the conclusion that Mitsotakis knew yet still chose to hide the truth from the Greek public.

Who are the victims of New Democracy’s dark arts?

PEGA’s findings fully contradict the government’s statements until now, which had dismissed allegations of either using or exporting it. 

Greek officials have yet to provide a satisfactory explanation for their use of Predator to conduct surveillance on citizens. 

Those affected by the illegal practices have been left in the dark, and it is unclear whether this violation of privacy will persist under a new administration.

Nikos Androulakis, the leader of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement, is among those who have been targeted by the surveillance measures. 

Similarly, Thanasis Koukakis, a financial reporter, was targeted by Predator but has been unable to obtain any information about the extent of the surveillance. 

Another victim is Artemis Seaford, a former security policy manager at Meta. Her mobile phone had been hacked in September 2021 for at least two months. 

These cases demonstrate that the use of illegal spyware is not limited to high-profile individuals but can also affect ordinary citizens.

Trying to conceal the scandal has further worsened Greece’s political climate

Amid the Covid pandemic in March 2021, the Greek government quietly passed new legislation that made it impossible for individuals under government surveillance for national security reasons to obtain information about the surveillance or seek a remedy. 

In response to the widespread public outcry, the government introduced an amendment in late 2022 aimed at providing individuals with information about their surveillance three years after its completion.

The 21 May national election in Greece is taking place amid a highly polarised political climate, which has been exacerbated by the government’s efforts to conceal a major scandal and its aftermath.

Despite the recent revelations and the opposition’s calls for the government to come clean, Mitsotakis has managed to weather the storm, survive a no-confidence vote in January 2023, and is currently projected to win the election. 

Recent polls even suggest that Mitsotakis’ popularity is on the rise, as most Greeks appear unconcerned about the revelations.

Will the Greek voters punish Mitsotakis?

If New Democracy and PM Mitsotakis retain power, will state surveillance persist? 

Nobody knows, but Predator is a tool against democracy, while the use and export of such technology to developing countries are serious violations of international law and human rights. 

The Greek government must be held accountable for its actions and provide transparency and accountability to its citizens. 

The upcoming election provides an opportunity for Greeks to demand a government that respects their fundamental rights and values their privacy. 

And now, the question of whether Mitsotakis will be punished for his year-long deception will be answered in a matter of days.

Dr Georgios Samaras is an Assistant Professor of Political Economy at the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at [email protected] to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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