Geneva - The Hellenic Coast Guard may have been involved in the drowning of hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers off the Greek coast last Wednesday, 14 June, said Euro-Med Monitor in a statement.

Strong evidence suggests that the boat, which was carrying about 750 migrants and asylum seekers, capsized after a Hellenic Coast Guard boat intercepted and towed it away from Greek shores. In testimonies reviewed by Euro-Med Monitor, survivors of the incident report that a Hellenic Coast Guard boat approached their boat and tied a rope to it, preventing it from sailing to its intended destination and leading to its capsizing. Survivors state that after the boat capsized, multiple Hellenic Coast Guard boats moved away from the scene, leaving drowning people in the water for at least two hours before starting rescue operations and providing any aid.

As the shipwrecked boat was allegedly monitored and tracked by the Hellenic Coast Guard and drones owned by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) hours before it capsized, the Hellenic Coast Guard was likely aware of its condition and could have responded faster and more effectively as it capsized, potentially saving hundreds of lives.

   If the survivors’ allegations about the Hellenic Coast Guard’s involvement in the shipwreck are true, we are dealing with a full-fledged crime that requires strong international action   

Ramy Abdu, Chairman of Euro-Med Monitor

“If the survivors’ allegations about the Hellenic Coast Guard’s involvement in the shipwreck are true, we are dealing with a full-fledged crime that requires strong international action to identify perpetrators, hold them accountable, prevent impunity, and bring about a radical change in how European countries deal with migration,” said Ramy Abdu, Chairman of Euro-Med Monitor.

“Given the Hellenic Coast Guard’s long history of violent infringements during operations to push back migrants and asylum seekers at sea and on land borders, we cannot rule out that the shipwreck was the result of the Hellenic Coast Guard’s reckless and undisciplined actions,” Abdu added.

According to information gathered by Euro-Med Monitor, the migrant boat set sail from the coast of Tobruk in eastern Libya last week, heading towards the Italian coast. Prior to boarding the boat and throughout the journey, the migrants and asylum seekers lived in deplorable humanitarian conditions, with smugglers giving them only a loaf of bread and a small amount of water approximately every two days; smugglers also frequently assaulted the migrants with sticks and batons.

The victims include Palestinian and Syrian refugees along with migrants and asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Egypt and other African countries. Many of the migrants were women and children.

As claimed by a Greek government spokesperson in a recent statement, the Coast Guard boat tied itself to the migrant boat with the intent to approach and assist its passengers. The statement, however, appears to disregard the survivors’ testimonies, particularly their assertion that the boat capsized after being towed by the Coast Guard. The Hellenic Coast Guard has issued several statements and updates since the incident, each failing to mention that one of its own boats had attached itself to the migrants’ boat and begun towing it, raising concerns about the motivations for withholding this critical information.

Greece’s request to the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation for assistance in its investigation into the gang of smugglers involved in the incident is insufficient and does not ensure complete justice. Investigating the circumstances and causes of the boat capsizing, including the potential involvement of the Hellenic Coast Guard, is as important as tracking and dismantling human smuggling networks; it may even be the top priority at the moment.

Euro-Med Monitor criticised the Greek authorities for detaining a large number of incident survivors in the Malakasa Reception Facility, north-east of Athens, and imposing severe restrictions on their movement and communication with people outside the facility. The organisation emphasised the importance of treating survivors in a manner commensurate with the degree of trauma they have experienced, expediting their treatment and providing them with the psychological support needed to safeguard their mental health.

According to official Greek data, the Hellenic Coast Guard discovered the bodies of 78 drowned migrants and rescued 104 migrants and asylum seekers after the boat capsized. However, more than 560 other individuals are still missing, owing to the failure of search operations to locate more survivors or even bodies of victims.

Greek authorities, the European Union, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees must launch a transparent and independent investigation into the incident off the Greek coast, covering all circumstances surrounding the incident and ensuring that those responsible for the disaster are identified and held accountable. The Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex must release all data and visual materials related to the shipwreck, particularly aerial photography of the wrecked boat, and plainly deal with the case to reveal the truth and achieve justice for the victims.

Euro-Med Monitor calls on the EU and its Member States—particularly destination countries—to conduct a thorough review of their strict immigration policies and to end the policy of pushing back migrants and asylum seekers, which forces vulnerable people to put their lives in the hands of criminal smuggling gangs and take perilous routes to Europe.