Greek Coast Guard

Protests as hope fades for survivors of migrant boat disaster off Greece

Thousands of people have protested throughout Greece voicing criticism at both the government’s response to this week’s fatal shipwreck incident and the broader EU migration policies.

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”.

Pro-migrant protesters march in Athens, a day after a fishing boat overloaded with migrants capsized and sank, killing at least 78 people. Desperate families are searching for missed ones.

Greek rescuers on Thursday scoured the Ionian Sea for survivors a day after a fishing boat overloaded with migrants capsized and sank, killing at least 78 people, as police arrested nine suspected people smugglers. More than a 100 people have been rescued.

This comes as hopes are fading to find more survivors are fading and fears are growing that the final toll could eventually run into the hundreds.

“Hopes of finding survivors are fading each minute after this tragic sinking, but the search must continue,” Stella Nanou, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, told AFP.  “According to broadcast images and accounts of some of the survivors, hundreds of people were aboard” she said.

“We are witnessing one of the biggest tragedies in the Mediterranean and the numbers announced by the authorities are devastating,” the UN International Organization for Migration said. 

Survivors of the shipwreck which accused of migrant smuggling are escorted by coast guards outside the Greek Coast Guard Office in Kalamata, Greece, on June 15, 2023. Photo: Costas Baltas.

Police on Thursday arrested nine Egyptians on suspicion of people smuggling — one of them the captain of the boat carrying the migrants. They were detained at the port of Kalamata, where the survivors are being cared for, according to the Greek news agency (ANA).

A survivor told hospital doctors in Kalamata he had seen a hundred children in the boat’s hold, broadcaster ERT reported. “It’s really horrific,” UN refugee agency staffer Erasmia Roumana told AFP. The survivors were “in a very bad psychological situation”.

“Many are under shock, they are so overwhelmed,” she said. “Many of them worry about the people they travelled with, families or friends.” Photographs handed out by the coastguard showed a rusty blue boat with scores of people crammed on deck.

“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.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before.” 

“One young man started to cry and said, I need my mother… This voice is inside my ears. And will always be inside,” Red Cross nurse Ekaterini Tsata told AFP.

Around 30 people were hospitalised with pneumonia, dehydration and exhaustion but are not in immediate danger, officials said. Some of those rescued are under 18.

“The fishing boat was 25-30 metres long. Its deck was full of people, and we assume the interior was just as full,” coastguard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou told ERT. Government spokesman Ilias Siakantaris on Wednesday said there were unconfirmed reports that up to 750 people had been on the boat.

In a telegram, Pope Francis offered “heartfelt prayers for the many migrants who have died, their loved ones and all those traumatised”. But 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.

The coastguard said a surveillance plane with Europe’s Frontex agency had spotted the boat on Tuesday afternoon, but that the passengers had “refused any help”. The boat’s engine gave up shortly before 2300 GMT on Tuesday and the vessel later capsized, Siakantaris said, sinking in around 10 to 15 minutes.

Alexiou, the coastguard spokesman, suggested the boat might have capsized earlier if the coastguard had attempted to intervene. “You cannot divert a boat with so many people on board by force unless there is cooperation,” he said. It was “fortunate” that rescue ships were nearby or more lives would have been lost, he added.

But leftist former prime minister Alexis Tsipras said they had “called for help”. “What sort of protocol does not call for the rescue… of an overloaded boat about to sink?” he asked.

The head of Frontex, Hans Leijtens, arrived in Greece on Thursday “to better understand what happened since Frontex played a part” and show “solidarity and help to Greek colleagues, who did everything possible to save lives”, he said.

Officials say the migrants had departed from Libya towards Italy. The survivors, mainly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, are being housed in a Kalamata warehouse. Syrian media outlets have said a large number of Syrian nationals were among the rescued and those missing.

Rescued immigrants of a shipwreck after a boat carrying dozens of migrants sank in international waters of Ionian Sea, sit inside a warehouse in Kalamata, Greece on June 15, 2023. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis

Nawal Soufi, a well-known Syrian activist who initially sounded the alarm after being contacted from those onboard the distressed vessel, used Facebook to post images of the survivors, seeking public assistance to identify them and aid in recognizing both the survivors and those migrants still missing.

Acting migration minister Daniel Esdras said the survivors would eventually be taken to Malakasa migrant camp near Athens by Friday. Greece would examine their asylum claims, but those not entitled to protection would be sent home, he added.

Greece, Italy and Spain are among the main landing points for tens of thousands of people seeking to reach Europe from Africa and the Middle East. 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.

The sinking of an overloaded migrant boat off Greece adds to the grim toll of migrants killed in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe. 

Since 2014, 26,924 migrants have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The Greek Air Force released footage of its Super Puma helicopter participating in the rescue operation of shipwrecked migrants off the coast of Pylos.

Here are the deadliest incidents since 2010:

Source: IOM

The most deadly route is the Central Mediterranean route, where at least 21,313 people have died since 2014.

– April 2015: up to 900 dead off Libya

On April 19, 2015, up to 900 migrants died when a fishing trawler taking them to Europe rolled over off the coast of Libya after colliding with the cargo ship sent to its rescue.

Just 28 people were rescued.

Most of the victims of the worst disaster in the Mediterranean since World War II were from West African countries of Gambia, Mali and Senegal.

The Tunisian captain of the boat was convicted of manslaughter and human trafficking and sentenced to 18 years in jail by an Italian court.

– May 2011: 600 dead off Libya

In May 2011, refugees arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa said they had witnessed the sinking of another migrant ship in Libyan waters. The ship, which was transporting 600 people, was listed as missing.

– April 2016: 500 dead off Italy

Survivors said that there were around 500 people aboard an overcrowded boat that sank off Italy. Forty-one people were rescued after drifting for three days in another boat.

– September 2014: 500 dead off Malta

A boat travelling from Egypt with 500 people on board sank off southeastern Malta, after having been rammed by traffickers travelling on another ship. 

The tragedy came after the passengers, who were bound for Italy, had refused to transfer into a smaller boat.

Only 10 people survived.

– April 2015: 400 dead off Libya

Nearly 400 migrants died when their rickety boat sank some 150 kilometres (90 miles) off the Libyan coast. A total of 144 people survived.

– October 2013: over 360 dead off Lampedusa

A fishing boat travelling from Libya with over 500 migrants caught fire and sank in the middle of the night, 550 metres (1,800 feet) from the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. 

Only 155 people survived — while 366 people, including children, were trapped in the hold and drowned. 

AFP, NRT English