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.
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 news247.gr 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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