The loss of hundreds of lives in a shipwreck off the coast of Greece last week has been met with sorrowful words from European leaders. But as Niamh Keady-Tabbal and Amanda Danson Brown explain, this disaster happened by design – it was created by the EU’s Fortress Europe policies.
In a section of a Greek cemetery dedicated to the shipwrecked of the Aegean Sea, there is a gravestone for a 6-year-old boy who drowned off the island of Samos. The inscription reads:
“He died in a shipwreck, it was not the sea, it was not the wind, it is the policies and fear.”
The same policies are behind one of the deadliest shipwrecks recorded in Greece’s modern history, which took the lives of hundreds on June 13, off the coast of Peloponnese near Pylos. A fishing boat, the Andriana, had set sail from Libya on the 8th of June and was heading towards Italy carrying around 750 passengers. The boat was roughly 87 kilometers from the Greek coast when it capsized and sank. Hours earlier, it had been sighted in visible distress conditions by Greek and European authorities. Only 104 survivors were rescued; 82 bodies have been recovered so far and it is estimated that around 500 men, women and children remain missing.
Had the vessel been a passenger ferry heading to the islands, or a cruise ship of tourists making its way to the Corinth Canal, one would imagine that an immediate rescue operation would have been swiftly deployed once Frontex detected and informed the Greek authorities of the ship and its conditions. Instead, the fishing trawler, carrying migrants from mostly Syria, Pakistan and Egypt, was left in distress at sea for hours until hundreds died.
The incident took place in a heavily surveilled maritime region, monitored by the Hellenic Coast Guard (which received an additional €18.5 million of EU funding this spring, part of which is designated to contribute to “the protection of human life” at the sea borders) and the additional presence of the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex. Questions arise as to how the Greek authorities failed to avert a disaster of this scale.
The story remains partially unclear, but facts continue to roll in.
At first, the shipwreck appeared to be caused by a fatal case of non-assistance: Greek and Frontex authorities knew the life-threatening situation of the boat but did not initiate a rescue operation. Such an event would continue a pattern we have seen at European border zones for years.
As more details arise, it appears that Greece was not only at fault for the shipwreck due to failure to assist – Greek authorities may have actually caused the boat to capsize, by attempting to tow it—presumably away from Greece. The latter scenario tracks with Greece’s well-established pattern of conducting pushbacks of migrants’ boats at sea, often towing them until reaching the border of another state’s territorial waters and leaving them to drift.
In both scenarios, Greek authorities remain at fault for these hundreds of fatalities, and in both scenarios, the situation is grimly familiar, though this time the scale is even greater.
Ignored in Distress? Greece’s Systematic Practice of Non-Assistance
When the ship was spotted in distress, it was in Greece’s Search and Rescue (SAR) zone, the area of the Mediterranean in which the state is responsible for coordinating rescues of persons in distress. Under the international law of the sea, when a national coast guard receives information about boats in distress in their country’s SAR zone, it must initiate rescue operations and coordinate the rescue.
The Greek Coast Guard received multiple signals about the ship’s condition more than 12 hours before it capsized and sank. In an official statement, it said it had received information about “a fishing boat with a large number of migrants”, on the morning of June 13th, including a notice from the Maritime Coordination Center in Rome at 11:00am, and another notice from Frontex at 12:47pm. Alarm Phone, an NGO that operates a helpline for migrants in distress at sea, also alerted the Greek authorities.
Despite both the Greek Coast Guard and Frontex’s awareness of the presence of the overcrowded ship — and, according to some reports, Greek authorities monitoring it for hours before it sank — rescue was not initiated until it was too late. The ship sank around 11:30pm, with hundreds on board.
The Greek Coast Guard provided several justifications. Official statements claim that the passengers themselves had “refused assistance”, preferring to travel onward to Italy, although footage captured by Greek helicopters of individuals waving from the ship’s deck indicates that passengers were clearly seeking assistance. The Coast Guard also claimed that the boat had continued to travel “at a steady course” before it capsized. As a report by the BBC shows, available ship tracking data suggests that the vessel had not been moving for hours—some claim as many as 15.
Towed out to Sea? Greece’s Systematic Practice of Pushbacks
Multiple testimonies from survivors say that a Greek vessel had attempted to tow the passenger ship, causing the boat to capsize. The Greek Coast Guard has so far denied this but provided no evidence to the contrary.
The Greek Coast Guard has stated that they have no video footage of the incident, as their vessel’s cameras were switched off.
The context here is important: the Greek Coast Guard, with the support of Frontex, has been systematically persecuting asylum seekers through a covert, yet highly coordinated, policy of violent, illegal deportations (‘pushbacks’) for years.
The Greek government’s approach has been to categorically deny its involvement in all pushbacks, often dismissing allegations by calling them “Turkish-driven propaganda” and “fake news”. Prime Minister Mitsotakis and other government officials have taken the opportunity to advance blatant lies when pressed to respond to evidence of systematic ‘pushbacks’ and other human rights violations perpetrated by state agents.
These systematic pushbacks have led irregularised migrants, like those who drowned this week, to take the Calabrian route to Europe, trying to bypass the risks of being intercepted in Greece and seek protection in Italy instead. It’s a much longer, and more dangerous, journey.
The word “pushback” has become a popular euphemism used to summarize the forced expulsion of a foreign national, which may take place during or directly following an attempted border crossing, or later on involving the abduction of a person from the territory. Pushbacks are also described in legal terms as summary expulsions, and where they take place in groups, collective expulsions. They are unregistered removals of individuals without any due process.
Pushbacks generally involve blocking access to apply for asylum, and otherwise violate international, European and domestic legal commitments in myriad ways. Pushbacks are both illegal by definition, and in practice they involve various other illegal acts, including violent human rights abuses which can amount to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment and expose victims to grave risk to life.
The Coast Guard has been actively constructing situations of distress at sea through such pushbacks for years, as evidenced by numerous organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Pro Asyl. Over time, however, trends and the operational methods employed have varied.
At the peak of the so-called refugee crisis, in 2015, the Greek Coast Guard rescued thousands of people at sea. Under the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal, the task of keeping asylum seekers out was outsourced to the Turkish Coast Guard, who would intercept and “pull-back” boats of asylum seekers before they could cross to Greece. Many people sought to avoid pullbacks by taking the land route from Turkey to Greece rather than crossing by sea, but found in turn that pushbacks increased across the Evros River. The Deal all but collapsed, in 2020, when Turkish President Erdoğan announced that Turkey would no longer contain migrants who attempted to leave or pull them back from reaching Greece. Since then, Greek pushbacks both on land and by sea have been increasingly reported. Still, the incidents which do make the news cycle are anomalies, and headlines are seemingly reserved for fatal operations of the greatest scale.
Pushbacks are designed to be clandestine, often taking place in the dark of night, and almost always involve the confiscation of victims’ mobile phones, which prevents evidence of the operation from reaching the public. Despite authorities’ best attempts to restrict coverage, some individuals have managed to capture videos of Aegean pushbacks. In 2020, survivors of a pushback filmed short clips from a Greek Coast Guard video which were later verified by the Border Violence Monitoring Network. In 2021, Aegean Boat Report uploaded a video taken by migrants who were unlawfully forced by the Greek Coast Guard to sail their boat back to Turkey. Recently, the New York Times released an activist’s footage taken on Lesvos of a pushback operation underway.
New Horrors: Driftbacks
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Greek Coast Guard began a new practice of maritime pushbacks, using lifesaving equipment – specifically inflatable, non-navigable life rafts – to violently expel asylum seekers from Greek territory. This specific type of pushback operation has been referred to as a “driftback”.
In this type of maritime pushback operation, which continues to be conducted routinely, asylum seekers are intercepted by Hellenic Coast Guard vessels, forcibly taken aboard, often beaten and robbed of their phones and other belongings, and then forced onto inflatable, motorless, non-navigable life rafts and left to drift at sea. Asylum seekers who manage to arrive on Greek islands have been abducted—sometimes from within state facilities—and arbitrarily detained, in inhuman and degrading conditions, then taken back out to sea and abandoned. Forensic Architecture has created an interactive online platform documenting Aegean driftbacks, which includes evidence of 1,018 expulsions involving 27,464 people between February 2020 and February 2022 alone.
Driftbacks most commonly take place in the Eastern Aegean, where asylum seekers are crossing from Turkey to reach Greece. Here, after forcing the apprehended asylum seekers onto a life raft, a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel generally tows the raft to the Turkish maritime border and leaves it to drift at sea.
Usually, survivors are eventually picked up by Turkish Coast Guard and brought back to Turkey, where access to legal protection and support is sparse, and where many face being returned to their country of origin, exposing them to the risk of persecution, torture and other forms of severe harm. In other cases, individuals have died at sea, before being found by Turkish officials.
Such incidents have also been recorded in other parts of Greek waters, including off the coast of the Peloponnese – near where the Pylos shipwreck occurred. In October 2020, a group of 180-200 asylum seekers aboard a fishing boat on route to Italy fell into distress near Crete. Their distress call to Greek authorities did not lead to their rescue but instead, a violent attack by masked men who forced the passengers aboard Coast Guard vessels and beat and robbed them before forcing them into inflatable life rafts and abandoning them. Legal Centre Lesvos filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR] on behalf of 11 survivors of this incident. The complaint is one of many legal challenges to a pushback policy that continues with impunity.
Backed by EU funding and logistic support, Greek authorities continue to forcibly expel refugees and migrants en masse. For years, Frontex has been directly involved in pushbacks in the Aegean, active through operational and logistic support and complicit in hiding the truth about the crimes and abuses perpetrated against migrants.
Forensic Architecture identified Frontex’s direct involvement in 122 of the 1,018 driftback incidents it documented, as well as knowledge of 417 incidents. In attempts to cover of pushbacks, the agency “logged them in its own operational archives, codified and masked as ‘preventions of entry.’”
Criminalization as Cover-up
These state crimes are bolstered by the Greek government’s consistent criminalization of asylum seekers and those working to uphold their rights.
Civil SAR vessels operated by NGOs have saved thousands of lives in the Mediterranean in the last decade, but it has been years since any have been active in Greece. The expulsion of civil rescue from the Aegean has been achieved by the successive Greek governments which have made conducting such operations in Greek waters impossible and even illegal.
The criminalization of rescue in the Aegean has also extended to the criminalization of human rights monitoring. NGOs and activists have been actively prevented from monitoring the HCG’s treatment of migrants at Greek borders, and Greece’s new NGO law explicitly seeks to limit access to border areas. NGO leaders, like lawyer Panayote Dimitras from Greek Helsinki Monitor, and Tommy Olsen of the one-man organisation Aegean Boat Report, have been charged with serious (yet unsupported) crimes in retribution for publishing information on pushbacks. These criminal investigations have been criticized by actors including the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders.
While attempting to exercise their fundamental right to seek protection, asylum seekers have faced the harshest criminal charges in the Aegean. For example, in 2020, an Afghan father was charged with endangering his son’s life after the six-year-old boy died on the journey to Samos (when the asylum seekers’ boat capsized in distress and Greek authorities failed to provide timely assistance). Such criminal charges are used to deter asylum seekers and divert attention from the misconduct and crimes of authorities who, in this case, were accused of delays and negligence.
In the Pylos shipwreck case, 9 of the survivors, all of Egyptian nationality, have already been charged with numerous alleged crimes: illegal entry into Greece, human trafficking of foreigners, forming a criminal organization, causing a shipwreck, manslaughter by negligence, and endangering life. Photos of the suspects taken in the aftermath of the shipwreck were published in the Greek press: some of the accused appear to be in hospital beds. As stated by Alarm Phone, “we know that those who make a profit from organizing such trips will not be on the boat. We repeatedly witness people being wrongly accused and nevertheless getting sentenced to many years of imprisonment.”
Disaster by Design: Fortress Europe’s State Sanctioned Cruelty
The hundreds of lives lost off Pylos join the many thousands of lives lost crossing the Mediterranean in recent years, each death at sea an avoidable tragedy. And with the continued lack of safe legal pathways to seek protection in Europe, countless more tragedies are sure to follow.
The explanation of this shipwreck, and the countless others, can be found summarized on the gravestone of the six-year-old Afghan boy who drowned off Samos. For many of those lost in the Pylos shipwreck, however, there won’t even be gravestones or inscriptions. Their names and bodies will be lost to the mass grave that is the Mediterranean Sea.
In the Pylos shipwreck too, it wasn’t the sea or the wind that led to this disaster, but a strategic EU-wide policy of state-sanctioned cruelty, attempted deterrence, and, ultimately, indifference towards the lives of racialised migrants.
Though EU officials expressed sadness about the incident, the EU continues to increase funding for the same authorities that conduct pushbacks, to further bolster its border walls on land, and to turn a blind eye to the everyday human rights violations of state actors at Europe’s borders. This shipwreck is a tragedy, but it was no accident; it is a disaster, but it was by design. And if the policies don’t change, neither will the catastrophes they create.