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Hundreds feared drowned in deadly Mediterranean boat capsize

June 17, 2023
3 mins read
An 18-year-old Mohammad, who was among the survivors of a capsized boat in Greece, has tearfully reunited with his brother.

An overcrowded boat packed with migrants tragically capsized off the coast of Greece, leaving hundreds presumed dead and many more unaccounted for. The devastating incident is being called the “worst ever tragedy” in the Mediterranean Sea.

Eyewitness testimonies indicate that an estimated 400 to 750 individuals were crammed aboard the ill-fated fishing boat, which tragically sank roughly 80 kilometers off the coast of Pylos, a southern Greek town. The boat was traveling from the coastal city of Tobruk in Libya to Italy and reportedly sank after apparently rebuffing offers of help.

According to reports, 79 bodies have been recovered and 104 people have been rescued. It was unclear how many are missing, but some initial reports suggested hundreds may have been aboard many from Pakistan & Afghanistan. The scale of loss makes it the second deadliest incident in the Mediterranean Sea since April 2015 when a vessel capsized off the coast of Libya en route to Italy, killing an estimated 1100 migrants.

In Greece, desperate families have been arriving, looking for loved ones who boarded the doomed trawler which set sail from eastern Libya last week. There are still conflicting reports of what happened in the hours before the boat sank, with one relative alleging that a Greek coastguard vessel attached a line to it before the tragedy unfolded.

The EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson deemed the sinking of the migrant boat may be “the worst tragedy ever” in the Mediterranean Sea. She also condemned the role of “smugglers” who put people on the boats. “They are not sending them to Europe, they are sending them to death. This is what they’re doing and it’s absolutely necessary to prevent it,” she told a press conference in Brussels.

Activists, migration experts, and opposition politicians have criticized Greek authorities for not acting earlier to rescue the migrants, even though a coast guard vessel escorted the trawler for hours and watched helplessly as it sank.

Greek Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou said that both coast guard and private ships repeatedly offered by radio and loudspeaker to help the vessel while it was in international waters, also heading from Libya to Italy, but they were rejected.

However, Alarm Phone – a network of activists who run a hotline for migrant boats in distress, said they had been in contact with people they believe were on the same vessel and who were desperate for help. The passengers reported that the captain had abandoned the ship on a small boat before it capsized, Alarm Phone said.

The UN’s migration and refugee agencies also issued a joint statement calling timely maritime search and rescue “a legal and humanitarian imperative” and calling for “urgent and decisive action to prevent further deaths at sea”.

“The Greek government had specific responsibilities toward every passenger on the vessel, which was clearly in distress,” Adriana Tidona of Amnesty International said. “This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, all the more so because it was entirely preventable.”

A judicial investigation is also underway into the causes of the sinking. Greek officials say the vessel capsized minutes after it lost power, speculating that panic among the passengers may have caused the boat to list and rollover.

The June 14th incident has ignited widespread outrage over the persistent failure to develop a comprehensive framework for addressing migration to Europe as foreign nationals continue to take extremely dangerous voyages to the continent. According to the UN’s International Organization of Migration (IOM), the trip from Libya or Tunisia through the Central Mediterranean and north to Europe is the deadliest migratory route in the world.

Many migrants look to bypass Greece and reach Italy, where they can more easily continue their journeys north to family and other migrant communities elsewhere. Had the migrants been rescued by Greek authorities, they would have had to trek through the often hostile Balkans to reach Western or Northern Europe. The route north from Italy is closer and often more accessible.

Italy has recorded the vast majority of “irregular” arrivals in Europe so far this year, 55,160. That is more than double the 21,884 who arrived in the same period in 2022, and 16,737 in 2021. UN refugee officials note that overall numbers of migrants seeking to come to Europe this way have been on the decline, to an average of around 120,000 annually.

Before June 14 incident, at least 1,039 people were known to be missing from Central Mediterranean crossings this year. Overall, the IOM has tallied more than 27,000 missing migrants in the Mediterranean since 2014.

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