The shipwreck that took place in the early hours of Wednesday off the Peloponnese coast, some 40 nautical miles southwest of Pylos, might be one of the biggest such tragedies in history. At press date, 79 bodies had been recovered and 104 people rescued. The number of the missing is not known with certainty, but it’s estimated to be in the hundreds – and there’s no hope of finding any of these people alive. Greek authorities initially spoke of 400 migrants on board. Later, the regional governor Panagiotis Nikas, citing testimony from survivors, said about 750 migrants were traveling on the boat.
This higher number matched the one reported by activist Nawal Soufi and the Alarm Phone (AP) dispatch, which had received calls from aboard the vessel on Tuesday. “There were too many people on the outer deck,” said Athens Coast Guard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou, adding that while they couldn’t give a number of the missing, it was likely to be very high. “The outer deck was full of people, and we presume that the interior [of the vessel] would also have been full.”
If the current information is confirmed, one would have to go back seven or eight years to find tragedies of this magnitude. On April 18, 2015, there was the worst migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea: between 800 and 1,000 dead in the Strait of Sicily. Another 500 died off the coast of Zuwara four months later. Between 200 and 400 people coming from Egypt died in April 2016.
According to the available information, the vessel had left from Tobruk, a city in eastern Libya. There has been a sharp increase in crossings from the Cyrenaica region: more than half of the 22,000-23,000 landings coming from Libya, out of the total of 55,000 in 2023, came from the Haftar-controlled region. “Frontex surveillance aircraft detected the boat on Tuesday, 13 June at 09:47 and immediately informed the competent authorities,” the European agency tweeted on Wednesday afternoon – without, however, specifying which authorities in particular.
The Greek Ministry of Shipping said it received the news at 11 a.m. (Greek time) from the operations center in Rome. At 1:50 p.m. it scrambled a helicopter that located the boat two hours later. Merchant vessels in the area were diverted to provide food and water. Authorities stressed that the vessel was “sailing with a steady course and speed” and that it refused offers of assistance after being contacted, as the migrants said they wanted to continue their journey to Italy. At 10:40 p.m., a coast guard vessel departed from Crete, which reached the vessel and kept a course to observe it from a distance. At 1:40 a.m. the engine died. At 2:04 a.m. the ship began to list and capsize. The sea conditions were not impracticable: the wind was blowing at 7 knots and the waves were 3 feet high. It’s likely that, once the engine thrust stopped, the condition of overload was fatal to the stability of the boat. Nevertheless, it was well understood by the authorities in Athens that there were hundreds of people on board and that this was an extremely dangerous situation.
Article 9 of the 2014 Frontex Regulations states that when a vessel in a situation of uncertainty, alarm or danger – the three phases of a SAR (search and rescue) case – refuses assistance, the rescue unit must “continue to fulfil a duty of care by surveying the vessel and by taking any measure necessary for the safety of the persons concerned.” The Greek patrol boat did continue to follow the vessel, but investigations will have to establish whether it did so while preparing for a possible accident or only in order to monitor its transit to the Italian area of responsibility.
The route the migrants appear to have taken looks unusual, as it’s clearly not the shortest route to Italy. “It is due to systematic pushbacks that boats are trying to avoid Greece, navigating much longer routes, and risking lives at sea,” Alarm Phone wrote. In this case, however, fear of being returned to Libya from the Maltese zone of responsibility may have been the main factor: on May 23, 500 people were taken back to Cyrenaica from there.
“Every person in search of a better life deserves safety and dignity,” tweeted UN Secretary António Guterres. EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said that the shipwreck “is a sign that our migration policy is not working well at the moment. We will change it with the new pact.” However, the European strategy, instead of being focused on preventing shipwrecks, is all about preventing departures by supporting the Libyan authorities from which migrants are fleeing. After all, there is ample evidence that every new obstacle to the movement of people only increases the risks, at sea and on land, and that no law can stop such a far-reaching phenomenon. European Commission Chairwoman Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter that she was “deeply saddened by the news of the shipwreck off the Greek coast” and “very concerned by the number of missing people.” But in March 2020, the same von der Leyen praised Greece as “Europe’s shield” as Premier Kiryakos Mitsotakis’ police fired tear gas on refugees attempting to cross the land border with Turkey. And it’s just as undeniable that nothing has been done about the many documented mass rejections in the Aegean.
“Europe continues to protect its borders and defend itself from those who are the victims of an unjust world. It is a massacre foretold,” denounced the Astalli Center. There was also harsh criticism from NGOs active along the central route: “This tragedy shows two things,” said International Organization for Migration (IOM) Mediterranean spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo. “Patrols on the high seas are needed more than ever and we must stop delaying action: all boats loaded with migrants must be rescued immediately.”