by Maurizio Sacchi

As the days pass since the tragedy that left hundreds of migrants dead off the Greek coast, disturbing details are emerging about how the shipwreck happened in the first place, and above all about the failure of the rescue operation that could have saved them. 

How did the government in Athens respond to the wave of outrage that followed the disaster?  Greek authorities claimed that they did not intervene because the pilot and the ship’s organisers “did not want to” and because any attempt to stop the ship could have caused a maritime accident. But  Greek authorities violated their international obligation to rescue ships in distress, whether there is a request for help or not, according to maritime law experts.

Nikos Alexiou, a spokesman for the Greek coastguard, said that intervention would also have been dangerous because the ship was overcrowded and full of migrants on their way to Italy. Without the cooperation of the crew or passengers, a ‘violent interception’ could have led to a ‘maritime accident’, he brazenly claimed and he added that even if the ship was in Greek search-and-rescue territory, ‘no action can be taken in international waters against a ship not involved in smuggling or other crimes’.

Greece declared three days of mourning and campaigning for the 25 June general election was suspended. Critics urged the country, and Europe in general, to change its approach to migration in the Mediterranean. “This situation underlines the urgent need for integrated and coordinated action by states to save lives at sea and reduce dangerous journeys by strengthening safe and regular migration routes,” Gianluca Rocco, head of the International Organisation for Migration’s mission in Greece, said in a press release.

The tragic shipwreck has become a source of confrontation between the country’s interim government and the left-wing Syriza party, which has spoken of “unanswered questions” regarding the handling of one of the worst Mediterranean tragedies of its kind, asking whether or not there was a rescue operation on the ship, why lifejackets couldn’t be provided and why Frontex assistance wasn’t requested. The government replied that it was up to the independent judiciary to make a final judgement on the matter. Indeed, Greek Supreme Court prosecutor Isidoros Dogiakos ordered an investigation into the shipwreck, with the aim of holding ‘those involved’ criminally responsible.

“The government listens to, records and carefully evaluates all relevant information, opinions and views, but its position is that it is up to the competent bodies within the rule of law, and in particular the independent judiciary, to make a final institutional judgement,” the interim executive announced. Former Immigration Minister Notis Mitarakis, for his part, told state broadcaster ERT that according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), “the coastguard has the right to stop a vessel in its territorial waters in order to verify its illegal activity. Greece has 12 nautical miles of territorial waters. Under certain conditions, there may be an additional 12-mile zone, the border zone, which does not exist in the Ionian Sea and which can double the jurisdiction of the coastguard. In any case, we are talking about 49 miles off the Greek coast. There, the coastguard has no right to intervene in international waters”.

But Alarm Phone, a self-organised hotline for refugees and migrants in distress in the Mediterranean, said it had received repeated distress calls from the ship during the same period. Acting Immigration Minister Daniel Esdras said the survivors would be taken to the Malakasa migrant camp near Athens by Friday. Greece will consider their asylum claims, although he added that those who do not qualify for protection will be sent home.

Thousands of people demonstrated in cities across Greece on Thursday to protest against the authorities handling of the shipwreck and EU migration policy. On Thursday, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras spoke to EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson about the shipwreck tragedy. “This incident shows in the clearest way the failure of the EU to promote a structured refugee migration policy that puts human life first,” Tsipras said after visiting survivors in Kalamata.

The Greek Coast Guard’s decision not to intervene has raised suspicions that the interests of the smugglers, who are paid to reach Italy, and the Greek authorities, who would prefer the migrants to remain Italy’s problem, are aligned, leading to an avoidable disaster.

Survivors described a panicked captain, and engine problems and even suggested that the Greek coastguard caused the sinking. The Greek government’s version of events has changed in recent days. It initially denied tying ropes to the fishing boat, but later admitted that it had done so briefly to assess the condition of the vessel and its passengers. The coastguard, which is leading the investigation into the disaster, has been put on the defensive by the lack of footage to support its version of events.

When the rusty 25-metre fishing boat began to capsize after its engine stalled and began to list, a Coast Guard patrol boat sent to the area intervened. “Where is the video, the footage that should have been taken of the [rescue] operation?” asked Christos Spirtzis, former minister of transport. “That is the key question.” For Markella Io Papadouli, a lawyer specialising in maritime law and human rights at the Centre for Advice on Individual Rights in Europe, “If the Greek coastguard recognised that the boat was in trouble, and that’s an objective assessment, they should have tried to rescue it at all costs”. Asked about this last week, Nikos Alexiou, a spokesman for the Greek coastguard, replied: ‘The boat’s cameras were working, but the operation was not recorded [on video]. There is no footage.

More than 300 people of Pakistani nationality died in the shipwreck. Although there were refugees from Libya, Afghanistan and other countries, Pakistanis were apparently the largest number, and in Islamabad, it was described as ‘the worst tragedy ever’. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Monday declared a day of national mourning for those who died in the shipwreck. In a tweet on Sunday, he ordered a “high-level inquiry” into the incident. “I assure the nation that those who were derelict in their duties will be held accountable. Accountability will be established after the inquiry and heads will roll,” Sharif wrote. Meanwhile, police in Pakistan-administered Kashmir said on Sunday they had arrested 10 people allegedly involved in sending local youths to Libya for onward travel to Europe. Officials said nine people were arrested in Kashmir and one in Gujrat, a city that has long served as a springboard for migrants.

“Testimonies suggest that women and children were indeed ‘locked’ in the hold, apparently to be ‘protected’ from the men on the overcrowded ship,” said a report in London’s Guardian, adding that Pakistani nationals were mistreated ‘when they appeared in search of freshwater or tried to escape’ from the hold. The Guardian claimed that the situation on the ship was so ‘bleak that six people died of thirst before it sank and that passengers called for help a day before it sank’. A statement that contradicts the claims of the Greek authorities. Quoting an Italian-Moroccan activist, the British newspaper added: ‘I can testify that these people were asking to be rescued by any authority.

Maurice Stierl, of the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabrück in Germany, accused “many EU countries of ‘playing for time’ by delaying rescues as long as possible, or what he called a phase of strategic neglect and abandonment’. In fact, they are actively hiding from migrant boats to avoid being involved in rescue operations. We can see them creating a strategy that actively and deliberately slows down rescue operations.

In a joint statement, the International Organisation for Migration and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said between 400 and 750 people were believed to be on board. The UN agency said it could be the second deadliest refugee and migrant shipwreck on record, after another ship capsized on the Libya-Italy route in April 2015, killing around 1,100 people.

A year ago, on 22 June, the United Nations warned. “The Greek government’s current approach to the issue is defined by framing migration as a matter of security and prevention,” said Mary Lawlor, UN envoy to assess the conditions under which NGOs providing assistance to migrants operate. “What this has created for refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and human rights defenders working in solidarity with them is an atmosphere of fear, especially fear of criminalisation.” Lawlor visited Greece from 13 to 22 June at the invitation of the government to assess the situation of those working to promote and protect human rights in the country.

The Russians were also involved. A Federation-flagged warship and a cargo ship reportedly rescued 68 people from a boat in the Mediterranean on the night of 13 June, according to the Moscow Defence Ministry, which said in a statement that the warship Admiral Gorshkov was the first to receive a distress call from the Avalon, which it described as a “yacht-type vessel” flying the Greek and German flags.

Admiral Gorshkov is one of Russia’s most important warships and has been used in the past to test and deploy hypersonic missiles. It is unclear why it was in Mediterranean waters and what weapons it was carrying at the time of the incident. The Gorshkov and the cargo ship Pizhma carried out a rescue operation, the passengers received medical assistance and were transferred to Greek coastguard vessels off the island of Kalymnos, the statement said, without giving details of the passengers or their nationalities.

Cover image: a Greek Coast Guard boat © Paul Cowan/