Greek coastguard faces tough questions over refugee boat tragedy

Some survivors say their overcrowded trawler capsized this month after the Greek coastguard tried to tow it.

Kassem Abo Zeed shows a photo of himself with his wife, Ezra, who is missing after a boat carrying refugees sank off Greece this month [File: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP]

Survivors of a June 14 shipwreck off Greece’s west coast have given Al Jazeera conflicting reports of how their refugee-laden vessel sank.

Witnesses from among the 104 survivors said 750 people were onboard. Eighty-two bodies were recovered from the scene, 75km (47 miles) off Pylos in the Ionian Sea, after their fishing trawler capsized about 2am (23:00 GMT June 13).

Among those feared drowned in the hull of the ship were about 100 children and teenagers, mainly from Syria, Al Jazeera was told.

“There were women, girls and boys – 13, 14, 15 years old. There were six or seven women with children, and there were families,” said Mohammed Alhosary from Egypt, who paid $4,000 for the voyage.

Alhosary said the trawler sank because it was overloaded.

“From the moment we embarked on the ship, it swayed from side to side constantly. And when it did so for the last time, we thought it was going to be like all the other times, but it wasn’t,” he said.

By the fifth day at sea, Alhosary said, the trawler’s engine was starting and stopping.

“While the ship was moving, it had some balance. But when it stopped, it started to lurch,” he said. Alhosary believes that is why the trawler sank.

“When the boat capsized, I was swimming among corpses,” he said, describing the first moments after the sinking.

“We went five or six metres [16 to 20 feet] down into the water. I wanted to get to the surface, but others were holding onto me. As soon as I got to the surface, I saw corpses, and someone was pulling me,” Alhosary added.

“For a long time, I was trying to break free, and someone was holding onto my clothes, and I tried to take my clothes off, so they couldn’t hold me. There were many who didn’t know how to swim,” he said.

Greece migration
Mohammed Alhosary [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Others believe the Greek coastguard, which they said was present at the time of the sinking and witnessed it, was partly to blame for the tragedy.

Another Egyptian survivor from the city of Ismailiyah said the coastguard caused the capsizing by trying to tow the trawler to safety. He used the pseudonym Mahmud Shallabi.

“The coastguard tied a rope to the port side of the bows,” Shallabi said. As the coastguard towed the trawler, “the boat lurched side to side, and when they cut the rope, it lurched suddenly.”

“We were stable to begin with,” Shallabi said. “… They should have pulled up alongside to stabilise us and had someone else help [with towing]. They towed us only a short distance and then cut the rope.”

No physical contact

The coastguard admits one of its high seas patrol vessels was at the scene but initially denied it had any physical contact with the trawler.

Its captain said the trawler’s engine failed at 1:40am on June 14 (22:40 GMT June 13).

Within 20 minutes, he said, he saw the boat lurch violently to starboard, then to port, then to starboard again and capsize.

“The fishing boat was 25 to 30 metres [82 to 98 feet] long. Its deck was full of people, and we assume the interior was just as full,” coastguard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou told state TV ERT on the day the boat sank.

“You cannot divert a boat with so many people onboard by force unless there is cooperation,” he said.

That story changed after the left-wing Syriza opposition leader Alexis Tsipras visited the dock in Kalamata and spoke with survivors the following day.

One video showed a survivor telling Tsipras that the boat had capsized after the coastguard had tried to drag it at excessive speed.

“So the Greek coastguard used a rope to drag you, and that is how you sank?” the former prime minister asked.

Government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris went on television on Friday to admit that the coastguard vessel had offered a rope to “stabilise” the boat but that it had been refused.

“There was never an attempt to tie the vessel neither by us nor any other ship,” he said.

But Al Jazeera now has further testimony repeating the theory that there had been a tow.

Refusing all help

There are also questions about the coastguard’s claim that throughout June 13, the trawler sped towards Italy, covering 30 nautical miles and refusing all help except food and water.

But Alarm Phone, an emergency hotline for refugees that was independently in touch with the trawler, made public an email in which it informed the coastguard that the trawler was “in distress” at 5pm (14:00 GMT), almost nine hours before the coastguard said the trawler’s engines failed.

Alarm Phone did not specify whether the boat had suffered loss of power or control, but a separate investigation by Britain’s BBC broadcaster found that MarineTraffic beacons suggested merchant ships involved in aiding the trawler hovered from about 3pm (12:00 GMT) onwards around the spot where it later sank.

The Greek coastguard has rejected the MarineTraffic evidence.

Finally, there are questions about when the coastguard was present on the scene.

The coastguard said its vessel departed Chania, in western Crete, about 3:30pm (12:30 GMT) and reached the trawler at 10:40pm (19:40 GMT).

According to that timing, the trawler whose top speed is 32 knots would have taken seven hours to cover about 275km (170 miles) to known coordinates. It should have taken five and a half hours.

The coastguard pointed out that it has saved tens of thousands of lives at sea in the past few years and, once boats are overfilled and sail from the North African coast, coastguards in the Mediterranean are facing a dangerous situation whatever they do.

Previous tragedy

That any suspicion hovers over the Greek coastguard is because tows have gone wrong before and because of its growing reputation for pushing refugees back to other countries.

The latest tragedy is reminiscent of one in February 2014 when the coastguard caused a sailing boat to capsize off Farmakonisi in the east Aegean Sea by towing it at high speed.

Eleven Afghan women and children were drowned in its hold. The three fathers and husbands, who survived, said the coastguard had been trying to tow them back towards Turkey.

The coastguard said it was towing them to Farmakonisi, but the fathers said: “We knew we were going to Turkey because the lights on the shore there were orange, whereas the lights on Farmakonisi were white.”

Such pushbacks became the norm after March 2020 when Turkey announced it would no longer abide by the terms of an agreement with the European Union in which both sides pledged to hold back and readmit asylum seekers and irregular migrants.

The missing passengers

Relatives of the passengers on the capsized trawler have been arriving in Greece to find their loved ones. A few have been lucky. Many are not.

Ahmad Ayadi Shoaib travelled from Italy to the Malakasa reception camp, 40km (24 miles) north of Athens, looking for his nephew Mohammed.

Malakasa is where survivors were taken to be documented.

“I had invited my nephew officially, but he came on his own,” Shoaib said. “He was one of 33 boys, all 17 years old, who left without their fathers’ consent and went to Libya.”

Once in the smugglers’ clutches, Mohammed had second thoughts.

“When he got to Libya, he asked for money to go back to Egypt,” Shoaib said. “But the smugglers demanded money from the boys’ fathers, or they said they would kill the boys.”

Shoaib did not find Mohammed on the day Al Jazeera spoke to him. His nephew along with dozens of his friends may be at the bottom of the Ionian Sea.

Greece migration
Usman Siddique [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

The human toll of this tragedy led one survivor to return home.

Usman Siddique, a policeman from Gujrat in eastern Pakistan, had originally set out to make a better living in Europe for his wife and son. After talking to his father on the phone, he decided to go home.

“After two months [away], I was talking to my father and mother. He was crying day and night, saying, ‘Come back. Come back home, Come back to home.’ It’s a very tough time for me.”

Source: Al Jazeera