Greek migrant boat tragedy: Women, kids were in vessel's hold; Pakistanis 'forced' to stay below deck

Testimonies about the horrific tragedy reveal that migrants on the boat had reportedly denied offers of assistance; they were forced to drink urine when fresh water ran out, and more.

Published: 18th June 2023 03:40 PM  |   Last Updated: 06th August 2023 07:32 PM   |  A+A-


This image provided by Greece’s coastguard on June 14, 2023, shows a large number of people on a battered fishing boat that later capsized and sank off southern Greece. (AP)

By Online Desk

Women and children aboard the ill-fated Greek fishing boat that capsized last week were travelling in the hold (compartment which carries a ship's cargo) of the vessel, as per survivor accounts.

In one of the worst disasters in the Mediterranean in recent years, the 'Ionian Sea', a fishing boat overloaded with migrants capsized and sank on June 14 in international waters, 47 nautical miles (87km) southwest of Pylos, off the Peloponnese.

At least 78 people have already been confirmed dead in the disaster.

104 people, all males, were found alive and moved to a Kalamata warehouse.

The survivors are mainly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan.

With reports suggesting that up to 750 people were aboard the fishing vessel, many more are still missing.

As there have been no women or children rescued so far, many fear they were dragged into the water when the boat sank owing to where they were placed on the boat.

When a reporter from Greece’s ANT1 channel asked if there were 100 children onboard, one survivor replied: “Yes.”

“We can assume that many of these children will have lost their lives, as reports of survivors are so far limited. Our deepest sympathies are with the children’s families, and all those affected by this horrendous event,” Unicef said in a statement.

On the other hand, Pakistani nations were forced below deck, with other nationalities allowed on the top deck, The Guardian reported.

The report said that according to leaked testimonies told by survivors to the coastguard, the vessel's crew members maltreated the Pakistanis when they came up in search of fresh water or when they tried to escape.

The exact number of Pakistanis onboard is unknown. The Guardian said one estimate pegged it to be 400 while Pakistan's foreign affairs ministry has so far confirmed that only 12 of the 78 were from Pakistan.

Chances of finding more survivors are rare.

As the spot of the accident is close to one of the deepest areas of the Mediterranean, chances of retrieving the vessel are minimal.

The 'Ionian Sea' which came from Egypt stopped at the port of Tobruk in Libya where it picked up migrants destined for Italy, as per media reports.

A photograph handed out by the Hellenic Coastguard showed the rusty blue boat with scores of people crammed onto every inch of its deck.

Nine people — all men from Egypt, ranging in age from 20 to 40 — were arrested and detained and charged on June 16 with people smuggling and participating in a criminal enterprise — one of them the captain of the boat carrying the migrants. 

Greece’s caretaker prime minister, Ioannis Sarmas declared three days of national mourning following the disaster saying "with our thoughts on all the victims of the ruthless smugglers who exploit human unhappiness”.

Survivors arrive by yacht after a rescue operation at the port in Kalamata town, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of Athens on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (AP)

Even before it sank, people had died aboard the boat: Reports

There had already been six deaths on the boat before it capsized as it had run out of fresh water, as per reports. A Greek social worker told Sky News that she had heard from survivors that they were forced to drink their own urine and suck water from the melting refrigerators.

One of the many survivors who are suffering from psychological trauma told the social worker, as reported by Sky News, that he was surrounded by the bodies of children for two hours while he was trying to swim. "A young man in his 20s wanted to commit suicide, wanted to jump into the sea and kill himself because he couldn't take it anymore".

Overcrowded fishing vessel; nobody had life jackets on: Coastguard

Coastguard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou told state ERT TV it appeared that the 25- to 30-metre (80- to 100-foot) vessel capsized after people abruptly moved to one side. "Its deck was full of people, and we assume the interior was just as full."

None of those rescued had safety equipment such as life jackets, the coastguard said.

"It was like an abandoned ship... we saw no lifesavers or life jackets either on (the migrants) or the boat," local rescuer Constantinos Vlachonikolos told Proto Programma radio.

A judicial investigation is also underway into the causes of the sinking. Greek officials say the vessel capsized minutes after it lost power, speculating that panic among the passengers may have caused the boat to list and roll over.

The timeline of the disaster and what led to it amidst several other related factors are being questioned.

Rescue workers carry bodies from a coast guard vessel to a refrigerated truck at the port in Kalamata town, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of Athens late Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (AP)

Coastguard says passengers refused help many times; not an excuse, argue experts

The coastguard said a surveillance plane with Europe's border protection agency Frontex had spotted the boat on June 13 afternoon, but that the passengers had "refused any help". He also said that a vessel provided food and supplies to the migrants but a second one offering assistance was reportedly "turned down".

Later, in the evening on June 13, a coastguard rescue vessel reached the migrants.

Some reports have suggested that the boat went down after 02:00 on Wednesday because a rope was attached by the coastguard on that vessel around 23:00, three hours before.

Media reports said that video footage showed a survivor telling Greece’s former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, that the coastguard had thrown a rope at people on the boat. “Because they didn’t know how to pull the rope, the vessel started tilting right and left,” a translator told Tsipras. “The coastguard boat was going too fast, but the vessel was already tilting to the left, and that’s how it sank.”

Initially, the coastguard said the rescue vessel maintained "a discreet distance" from that boat but later, government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris confirmed that the coastguard had "used a rope to steady themselves, to approach, to see if they wanted any help" but insisted that the rope was not used to tow the boat.

According to the Greek rescue vessel captain's testimony, the migrants had refused all help, saying they were going to Italy, scared that they would be taken to Greece instead. The migrants then untied a rope loosely tied to the trawler's bow and continued course when the coast guard ship had gone closer to inspect, he said, as quoted by local Greek media.

Coastguard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou argued that any effort to tow the overcrowded trawler or move hundreds of unwilling people onto nearby ships would have been too dangerous.

“Υou will have a disturbance, and the people will surge — which, unfortunately is what happened in the end,” Alexiou told state-run ERT TV. “You will have caused the accident.” It was "fortunate" that rescue ships were nearby or more lives would have been lost, he added.

The boat's engine gave up shortly before 2300 GMT on June 13 and the vessel later capsized, Ilias Siakantaris said, sinking in around 10 to 15 minutes.

However, new testimony indicates that the trawler’s engine failed days before it sank, making it likely the crew would have sought help. 

Survivors of the shipwreck sit inside a warehouse at the port in Kalamata town, on Thursday, June 15, 2023. (AP)

Alarm Phone, an organisation supporting rescue operations of migrants at sea, said they had sent an email on Tuesday afternoon warning the coastguard and others that as many as 750 people were on board and that they were urgently asking for help.

Meanwhile, Leftist former prime minister Alexis Tsipras claimed that the passengers had "called for help". "What sort of protocol does not call for the rescue... of an overloaded boat about to sink?" he asked.

International maritime law and coast guard experts have said that the conditions on the trawler clearly showed it was at risk, and should have prompted an immediate rescue operation, regardless of what people on board may or may not have said.

Flavio Di Giacomo of the Mediterranean office of the U.N. migration agency IOM tweeted that all migrant boats should be considered dangerous and rescued immediately because “even when they appear to have no problems, in a few minutes they can sink.”

Syrian survivor Fedi, 18, right, reacts as he reunites with his brother Mohammad, who came from Italy to meet him, at the port of Kalamata, Greece, Friday, June 16, 2023. (AP)

"Gripped by despair but would not take a decision to go back to Syria"

Most of the survivors were moved from the warehouse at Kalamata, where relatives also gathered to look for loved ones, to migrant shelters near Athens on June 16.

Abdo Sheikhi, a Kurdish Syrian living in Germany, travelled to Kalamata to find out what happened to five family members who were on the boat. Abdo Sheikhi said the trip to Greece cost him at least 600 euros and that he couldn't speak English.

On June 16, he discovered that only his younger brother Ali and another relative had survived. He managed to speak on the phone to Ali, who has been moved to the camp near Athens. “(Ali) told me he jumped (off the) ship while the others could not jump," Sheikhi said. “They were scared. They were holding on to the boat as it swayed.”

“In Syria, there are no means for a life,” Abdo Sheikhi said. “Once they decided, I told them the Libya road is very dangerous and very long. They said: others made it. We too will take that road.”

Shahin, another relative of Sheikhi's, who is also a resident of Germany, said he last heard from his relative when he complained about the conditions in waiting in Libya for months. The smugglers wouldn't let them leave the rooms where they were, ostensibly to avoid detection, often confiscated their phones, and would not bring them the food they requested.

“They were seven to a room ... They didn't see the sun," said Shahin, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to not jeopardize his ability to stay in Germany. “They were sad and gripped by despair. But they would not take a decision to go back to Syria."

The men from the Sheikhi family texted relatives late last Thursday to say they would leave in a few hours, on a boat that was supposed to carry 300 people, said the elder Sheikhi.

The family waited for a confirmation photo from Italy. None came. “The (smugglers) sent the boys to their deaths,” Abdo Sheikhi said.

In this photo from May 2023, Ali Sheikhi, 29, poses for a photograph at an airport in an undisclosed location. (AP)

Mohamed Abdi Marwan, who spoke by phone from Kobani, a Kurdish-majority town in Syria, said five of his relatives were on the boat, including a 14-year-old. Marwan said he’s heard nothing about them since the vessel sank.

He believes his nephew Ali Sheikhi, 29, is alive after family members spotted him in photos of survivors, but that has not been confirmed.

“Those smugglers were supposed to only have 500 on the boat and now we hear there were 750. What is this? Are they cattle or humans? How can they do this?” Marwan said. He said each of his relatives paid $6,000 for the trip.

ALSO READ | Italy migrant shipwreck: How it happened, and unanswered questions

An urgent call for an effective migration policy

The worst migrant tragedy in Greece was in June 2016, when at least 320 people were listed as dead or missing in a sinking near Crete, according to AFP records going back to 1993.

The Mediterranean's worst disaster was in April 2015, when between 800 and 900 migrants died on a trawler that sank within sight of a Portuguese rescue freighter.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said the disaster was entirely preventable. "What happened is the consequence of the absence of safe and legal pathways to come to Europe," said Juan Matias Gil, of MSF Sea.

A group of nongovernmental organizations, including Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, said the EU should “stop seeing solutions solely in the dismantling” of smuggling networks, and set up state-led search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Police said thousands of people in Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki protested with signs reading "the government and the European Union kill" and "No to fortress Europe, solidarity with refugees".

Greece, Italy and Spain are among the main landing points for tens of thousands of people who seek to reach Europe as they flee conflict and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Greece was under a conservative government until last month.

The country as well as other southern European Union nations toughened border protection measures in recent years, extending walls and intensifying maritime patrols.

“This is a European problem. I think it’s time for Europe to be able, in solidarity, to define an effective migration policy for these kinds of situations not to happen again,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during a news conference at U.N. headquarters in New York late Thursday.

This month, European Union interior ministers made a fresh attempt to weigh new measures for sharing out responsibility for migrants entering Europe without authorization. 

Europe's asylum system collapsed eight years ago after over a million people entered, most of them fleeing conflict in Syria, and overwhelmed reception capacities in Greece and Italy, in the process sparking one of the EU's biggest political crises. 

The EU has also tried to outsource its migrant challenge, making legally and morally questionable deals with countries like Turkey or Libya, which many people transit through on their way to Europe. 

Last year, nearly 3,800 died on migration routes within and from the Middle East and North Africa, the highest recorded there since 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

About 72,000 refugees and migrants have arrived so far in 2023 in Italy, Spain, Greece, Malta and Cyprus, according to UN data. Italy has seen the most number of them.

(With inputs from AFP and AP)

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