The Migrant Shipwreck Near Greece Is a Horrible Tragedy. But It Wasn’t an Accident.

Hundreds are missing, presumed drowned after a shipwreck off Greece, which European officials have called the “worst ever tragedy” in the Mediterranean. Far from a chance event, it’s the latest result of an EU border regime built on thousands of deaths at sea.

A migrant is transferred by rescuers after a boat carrying migrants sank off the coast of Greece on June 14, 2023. (Menelaos Myrillas / SOOC / AFP via Getty Images)

Early last Wednesday, a fishing boat sank off the coast of Pílos, Greece. The vessel was overpacked with people trying to reach Europe — reports say there were up to 750 people on board. Greek authorities have stated that the coast guard rescued 104 survivors and that 78 people are confirmed to have died. Around 560 are still missing. Days after the wreck it is clear that these hundreds of people likely drowned.

EU officials have deemed this “the worst ever tragedy” in the Mediterranean. But this shipwreck is not an aberration or an inevitable accident. It is the direct result of Greek and EU practices and regulations that have made entering Europe and seeking asylum increasingly impossible, forcing people to take more and more dangerous routes. It is the product of years of political decisions that have turned the Mediterranean into a graveyard.

The Shipwreck

According to Greek state broadcaster ERT, the fishing trawler set out from Tobruk, Libya, directly south of Crete. Authorities said most of those onboard were from Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, and Palestine.

Alarm Phone — an NGO that supports sea rescues and communicates with people traveling on such ships — has stated that it was first contacted by people on board the ship early on Tuesday afternoon. Throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, Alarm Phone received various distress calls from those on board — saying that it was overcrowded, that by 5 p.m. the boat was not moving, that the captain had abandoned them, and that the boat was shuttering from side to side. They communicated these distress calls to the relevant authorities, including the Greek coast guard. They were unable to maintain consistent contact with the boat and had their last contact shortly before 1 a.m. last Wednesday.

The Greek coast guard’s conflicting account states that the vessel was first spotted by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, at midday on Tuesday, June 13. It claims that once it achieved contact, those on board repeatedly stated that “the boat was not in danger, they wanted no help other than food and water, and that they wished to continue on to Italy.” The coast guard states that at 1:40 a.m., the boat ceased moving, and at 2:04 a.m., a coast guard floating vessel reported that the trawler had capsized.

International legal experts have noted that even if those on board the trawler said they did not want to be rescued, the coast guard had the obligation to independently evaluate if it was seaworthy and intervene if it was not. Photos of the trawler show that it was clearly overpacked, those on board did not appear to be wearing life vests, and the vessel was not flying any flag.

Moreover, evidence from the Greek investigative outlet Solomon proves that the authorities had been notified that the ship was in distress by 6 p.m. Video and animated tracking data verified by the BBC shows that the boat was not moving for at least seven hours before it capsized.

The Greek state has, however, chosen to blame others — supposed smugglers. In the days following the tragedy, it arrested nine men, said to be from Egypt, and charged them with forming a criminal organization for the purpose of illegal migrant trafficking, causing a shipwreck, and endangering human life. They will give their full testimonies in the town of Kalamata on Tuesday, June 20. According to ERT, eight of the accused have said they were simply passengers. Meanwhile the prosecutor of Greece’s supreme court has ordered an investigation into the shipwreck.

For years, the Greek government has focused on the criminalization of smuggling — offering this as a solution to deaths along the borders and at sea. “We have to eradicate all the smuggling rings, the NGOs, anyone who exploits and makes €5 million to bring a boat to Greece. Five million was the income of whoever owned the boat!” said Greece’s former minister of migration in the days after the tragedy.

The scourge of smugglers is something he and other officials speak about often and a focus of court cases brought on the Greek Aegean islands. Those accused of steering rickety boats across the border are frequently prosecuted for smuggling and hit with decades-long prison sentences. In reality, often these are people who were themselves hoping to reach Europe and were left at sea with a rudder in hand.

This focus on smugglers ignores the larger context that has led people to follow traffickers and pay thousands of euros for this deadly route. “While an investigation is urgently needed to clarify the circumstances of the incident, this tragedy is the latest in a long chain of shipwrecks in Greece and across Europe that were entirely preventable,” commented Adriana Tidona, Amnesty International’s researcher on migration. “Today, families are mourning loved ones, and more are searching for those they cannot reach. European politicians could have prevented this from happening by establishing safe and legal routes for people to arrive in Europe. These are the only way to avoid such frequently occurring tragedies.”

Impossible by Design

Indeed, these tragedies are no accident, but a product of political choices. Over the past decade, the EU has reduced access to asylum and made arriving on the continent ever more difficult — increasing policing and surveillance along its borders, erecting and expanding walls, and illegally pushing back thousands of people.

In 2016, the bloc signed a deal with Turkey exchanging billions of euros for the promise that asylum seekers could be more easily returned to this non-EU country. It specified that Turkey would take all measures to stop people traveling from there to the Greek islands. In 2017, Italy signed a similar EU-sponsored deal with Libya, bartering millions of euros worth of financial and technical support to the Libyan Coast Guard in exchange for increased interception of boats attempting to reach Italy. Earlier this month, the EU suggested it may loan over €1 billion to Tunisia — much of it aimed at aiding the country’s development, but with €100 million allocated for border management, migrant returns, and search and rescue.

Additionally, according to the EU’s so-called Dublin III Regulation from 2013, migrants are mandated to apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, with the theoretical chance of relocation to other EU states. In practice this has forced many thousands to apply for asylum in increasingly anti-migrant Greece and Italy, lands which also offer fewer economic opportunities.

The EU has made some recent steps to address these problems. Earlier this month, governments around the bloc signed an agreement that will create a new system that aims to redistribute people more widely across the EU, with steep fines for countries who do not accept relocated migrants.

In Greece (as in Giorgia Meloni’s Italy), there is open hostility toward migrants. During his election campaign last month, Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis promised a wall that would expand across almost the entire land border with Turkey, arguing it was needed to prevent an “organized invasion of illegal migrants into Greek, that means European, territory.” In the recent past, Greece also contemplated plans to build a wall in the sea.

Additionally, there are years of evidence that Greece and Frontex regularly engage in and cooperate on illegal pushbacks — pushing migrants back over the border despite their right to seek asylum. In recent years, these pushbacks have been stepped up, both on the country’s northern land border and at sea. Those caught on the northern border are usually beaten, robbed of their phones and all their valuables, often stripped naked, and put in boats on the river Évros. People who arrive on Greek islands are usually gathered up, put on rubber boats, and abandoned at sea. Boats intercepted in the Aegean Sea are often damaged or have their engines removed, or else the Hellenic Coast Guard will simply tow them back to Turkish waters.

Some survivor accounts allege that the fishing trawler outside Pílos flipped shortly after the Greek coast guard threw a rope to tow them. The Greek coast guard has denied any attempt to tug the boat.

“When you see a dead body and next to it a serial killer, you know what happened. When you see a shipwreck and next to it the Hellenic Coast Guard you should know too.” Wrote lawyer Dimitris Choulis on Twitter. He has spent years representing asylum seekers on the Aegean islands who have made the journey by boat.

In a statement, Alarm Phone similarly pointed the blame to Greece’s practices on the border: “People on the move know that thousands have been shot at, beaten, and abandoned at sea by these Greek forces. They know that encountering the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Hellenic Police or the Hellenic Border Guards often means violence and suffering,” they said. “It is due to systematic pushbacks that boats are trying to avoid Greece, navigating much longer routes, and risking lives at sea.”

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Missing Migrants Project, the central Mediterranean is the deadliest migration route in the world, with more than seventeen thousand deaths and disappearances recorded since 2014. They state that delays in or the complete absence of state-led rescues on the central Mediterranean route were a recorded factor in the deaths of two hundred people this year. And this year even more people have lost their lives — they have recorded 441 deaths in the central Mediterranean in the first quarter of this year, the deadliest first quarter on record since 2017.

Currently the survivors of the shipwreck are being held in a refugee camp in Greece and have not been permitted to speak to the media. Family members and loved ones continue to search desperately for news of those who are missing. Despite outcry from the IOM and United Nations members, the practices or regulations that led to this catastrophe remain almost entirely unchanged, and more people soon will try to make similar journeys.