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Inquiry Into Mass-Fatality Migrant Wreck Begins

Overloaded migrant vessel
Courtesy Hellenic Coast Guard

Published Jun 25, 2023 8:32 PM by The Maritime Executive

EU border agency Frontex is launching a human rights inquiry into a migrant boat sinking that claimed hundreds of lives in the Mediterranean on June 14. About 80 bodies have been recovered to date, and as many as 500 remain missing. 

Frontex lacks the authority to conduct a full investigation and will confine its examination of the event to a "serious incident report," the organization told media. 

A portion of the inquiry will focus on the Hellenic Coast Guard, which had assets on scene but declined to conduct a rescue in the hours leading up to the casualty. The agency maintains that the boat's crew did not want to be rescued. 

Four media investigations (by CNN, the BBC, Politico and the New York Times) have found inconsistencies in the timeline provided by the Hellenic Coast Guard. 

First, some survivors have accused the coast guard response boat crew of attempting to conduct a tow before the boat sank, a charge the agency firmly denies. 

“The third time they towed us, the boat swayed to [starboard] and everyone was screaming, people began falling into the sea, and the boat capsized and no one saw anyone anymore,” one survivor told CNN. “If they had left us be, we wouldn’t have drowned.”

A second man asserted that "the Greek captain pulled us too fast, it was extremely fast, this caused our boat to sink."

A spokesman for the Hellenic Coast Guard asserted that a shift in passenger weight distribution - caused by panic - was the cause of the capsizing, and that a tow never occurred. At least one migrant account confirms that agitated passengers were rocking the overloaded boat from side to side in a scuffle over food and water. 

“It looks like what the Greeks have been doing since March 2020 as a matter of policy, which is . . . trying to tow a boat to another country’s water in order to avoid the legal responsibility to rescue,” Omer Shatz, legal director of NGO Front-LEX, told CNN. “Because rescue means disembarkation and disembarkation means processing of asylum requests.”

Meanwhile, an examination of AIS data suggests that the migrant boat had ceased making way at least seven hours before the casualty, according to the BBC - contrary to Hellenic Coast Guard claims that the vessel had been navigating continuously towards Italy. The boat was not broadcasting AIS, but it was attended by several good samaritan merchant ships, and these ships ceased moving northwards seven hours before the time of the casualty. 

Politico has also confirmed with EU border agency Frontex that the Hellenic Coast Guard did not reply to an offer for a SAR patrol plane overflight to monitor the migrant vessel. As a result, there was no airborne presence at the time of the sinking, and no video evidence of the incident. 

Human smugglers arrested

After the dramatic sinking, authorities in multiple nations moved quickly to arrest alleged human smugglers, including some who may not have definitive ties to the most recent incident. 

In the immediate aftermath, nine Egyptian nationals from the vessel's crew were arrested in Kalamata, Greece, including the captain.

Last week, police in Pakistan arrested seven men who allegedly played a role in a human trafficking gang operating in the Mediterranean. About 30 others have also been detained and questioned in recent days. Many of the victims of the recent sinking were Pakistani nationals; they had attempted to join a common economic migration route running from the Mideast to Libya to Italy. (All of the survivors were from Middle Eastern nations.)

On Saturday, police in the UK confirmed that an Egyptian national has been detained and charged in connection with maritime migration in the Mediterranean. He stands accused of arranging for "death trap" vessels to carry out for-profit crossings. The arrest was not specifically linked to the sinking on the 14th.