Updated: Aug 13
On June 14th, the world witnessed a boat sinking in Greek territorial waters, carrying approximately 700 migrants from Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. They had embarked on a journey from Libya to Italy, but tragically, the boat sank off the southwestern coast of Greece, resulting in the loss of many lives. Only 104 passengers survived.
Greece has faced significant criticism regarding its handling of the disaster, with accusations of potential responsibility for the sinking of the boat that was under its coastal surveillance for several hours. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published an investigative report revealing inconsistencies in the Greek coast guard's account of the incident.
According to maritime traffic data, other ships in the area indicate that the boat remained stationary for seven hours before capsizing or sinking, and it did not receive any assistance from the Greek coast guard. However, Greek officials claim that the boat was en route to Italy and did not request assistance.
The United Nations has called for an investigation into Greece's handling of the disaster.
Evidence suggests that a distress call was made at 12:17 GMT through the alarm phone used by migrants at sea, indicating the boat's need for assistance. Maritime data also shows the arrival of two ships near the distressed boat, seemingly intending to provide aid to those on board. While Greece maintains that the boat did not require assistance, the owner of the ship that arrived to supply food reported that Greek authorities specifically instructed him to approach the boat.
The BBC's evidence revealed that the sinking boat remained motionless between 19:40 and 22:40, contradicting Greek officials' initial claim that the boat maintained a steady course and speed.
At 22:40, the Greek coast guard's involvement began when the Greek warship named 'Hellenic Navy Orkos' rapidly approached the migrant boat, followed by other ships. The survivors were transported to the Malakasa migrant camp near Athens, where some were able to reunite with their surviving relatives, while others continued searching for their missing loved ones.
Nine individuals suspected of involvement in smuggling, all from Egypt and aged between 20 and 40, appeared before the Greek public prosecutor's office to face charges including involuntary manslaughter, establishing a criminal organization, and migrant smuggling.
If a court were to be established to prosecute those responsible, headed by refugee judges, who would be held accountable? As someone who has experienced asylum in two different countries, I will attempt to answer this question on behalf of the victims, disregarding the investigations of Greek authorities and statements from European leaders.
Considering the location of the incident, blame cannot be absolved from the Greek coast guard, not only based on the events of that day but also due to a pattern of documented crimes committed by Greek authorities against asylum seekers and refugees over the years. Numerous survivors recount the tragedies they experienced during the horrifying journeys they were forced to undertake, and how Greek authorities would attempt to sink refugee boats heading towards their shores and send them back, disregarding the presence of the sick, elderly, women, and children.
Furthermore, Amnesty International published a report exposing the unlawful and violent detention of refugee and migrant groups by Greek border forces before forcibly returning them to Turkey, thus violating their obligations under EU and international law. The report focuses on the illegal operations in the Evros region on the Greek-Turkish border, highlighting habitual human rights violations rather than sporadic incidents. It confirms that Frontex was aware of these violations occurring in areas where their forces are stationed.
I can personally describe my own experiences when attempting to cross the border via land. Greek border guards did not hesitate to beat us, steal our belongings, and subject us to demeaning strip searches. We were then left at the mercy of groups of asylum seekers who were recruited to serve the border guards, continuing the cycle of beatings, humiliation, and theft, leaving us without clothes to return to Turkey. These procedures are considered routine at the Greek-Turkish border.
In this context, it is not surprising to discover that Greek forces have employed excessive and disproportionate force, including tear gas, against men, women, and children from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries. Greek authorities claim that force is only used in response to organized attacks by asylum seekers and other migrants attempting to cross into Greece.
The situation on the Greek islands has worsened due to a significant increase in arrivals since 2019, resulting in severe overcrowding in refugee hotspots. This is compounded by the containment policy implemented by authorities as part of the EU-Turkey agreement, which aims to return rejected asylum seekers. It has led to constant overcrowding on the islands, with inadequate conditions for shelter, sanitation, food, and basic healthcare.
Human Rights Watch has called on the EU Commission and EU member states to cooperate with Greece and develop an emergency plan to address the overcrowding on the Greek islands. Currently, over 40,000 asylum seekers and migrants are trapped in inhumane and degrading living conditions.
Similarly, the agency Frontex cannot be absolved of the violations occurring in both Greek waters and at land borders. In July 2020, a report by the European Anti-Fraud Office revealed that the former management of the border monitoring agency Frontex was aware of illegal pushback operations and occasional abusive treatment of migrants. The report also exposed Frontex's violation of international laws and the Geneva Convention, which obliges European countries to provide asylum seekers with an opportunity to have their cases reviewed.
The report by the European Anti-Fraud Office also accused Frontex of collaborating with the Libyan coast guard in committing violations against migrants in the central Mediterranean. It revealed that the former head of the agency, Fabrice Leggeri, and his deputies covered up deportation operations, lied to the European Parliament, and concealed the fact that the agency supported some deportation operations with funds from European taxpayers.
Greece is not the only country guilty of such operations. Italy, under an extreme right-wing government, refuses to allow asylum seekers to enter its shores, leaving them stranded at sea. In early February 2023, Italy enacted a law restricting the work of humanitarian rescue ships assisting migrant boats in the Mediterranean. These measures faced extensive criticism, with the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commissioner and human rights organizations rejecting such practices.
Another investigation conducted by IrpiMedia indicates an increase in interception, return, and detention operations by Libyan naval forces. In 2022 alone, approximately 23,600 individuals were intercepted by the Libyan coast guard, funded by the European Union, and forcibly returned to Libya. This would not have been possible without Italy's assistance, which provided boats, special equipment to the Libyan coast guard, and training for their crews.
To comprehend the reality of Europe's borders, it is crucial to acknowledge the alarming percentage of individuals reporting physical assault, reaching 62% at the Hungarian-Serbian border and 54% at the Greek-Turkish border. At the latter, 54% also reported inhumane and degrading treatment, which was also experienced by 64% of those deported from Croatia to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The European Union does not shy away from these practices. In March 2020, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, thanked Greece for its role as the "shield" of the European Union and pledged solidarity with the country in ensuring "the preservation of order" at its borders, which are also the EU's borders.
The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, stated on June 19, 2023: "I have been shocked by the disturbing level of tolerance towards serious human rights violations against refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants that has developed all across Europe." She added: "Governments of member states of the Council of Europe, instead of holding each other accountable based on jointly agreed standards, have often silently tolerated or openly supported the adoption of laws and policies that have gradually stripped the protection of human rights from individuals. Their collective focus on deterrence and shifting responsibility to third countries has created fertile ground for practices that routinely violate the rights of refugees and migrants."
In reality, the EU systematically undermines the asylum system and fails to provide meaningful protection to individuals seeking safety. Member states continue to enact strict migration policies, from the Central Mediterranean to the Western Balkans while funding violent border practices in countries like Libya.
Recently, on June 9, 2023, the EU announced an agreement on a new European Pact for comprehensive reform of asylum procedures and migration issues. The new border procedures entail the deportation of asylum seekers who have little chance of receiving protection, as they arrived from relatively safe countries. During a meeting in Stockholm on January 26, 2023, EU interior ministers expressed their desire to intensify the return of migrants to their countries of origin.
The EU also strives to establish asylum standards in non-EU countries to minimize the number of asylum seekers and refugees within the EU itself. Member states can reject asylum applications based on non-acceptability, relying on the existence of "safe third countries" where refugees can seek asylum. Turkey serves as a prominent example.
Speaking of which, Turkey is not innocent in all of this. Over the years, the number of refugees in Turkey, which recently faced the worst natural disaster in its modern history, has significantly increased. The financial crisis, inflation, economic recession, earthquake aftermath, and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated political divisions in the country, with the opposition blaming refugees, particularly Syrians, for the deteriorating conditions. This has led to racially motivated verbal and physical attacks, including instances of murder.
The Turkish authorities recently initiated an operation to repatriate Syrian refugees to their homeland under the guise of a "voluntary return to safe areas" in northern Syria. According to the Ministry of Interior's statements in October last year, over half a million Syrians returned voluntarily, while the authorities forcibly deported nearly 20,000 individuals due to "security issues."
Humanitarian and rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, considered these operations violations of international law. They reported a series of violations, including the "forcible deportation" of hundreds of Syrians in 2022.
Similarly, in Lebanon, the situation for Syrian refugees is grim, with the army conducting campaigns to arrest Syrians deemed in violation of residence laws. These campaigns coincide with a resurgence of hate speech against Syrians, with many in Lebanon calling for their expulsion from the country, holding them responsible for the recent economic deterioration.
Lebanese and Syrian human rights organizations emphasize the wide-ranging pressures on Syrian refugees, including curfews, arrests, raids, arbitrary deportations, and residency restrictions. The Lebanese army and the General Security Directorate have conducted raids, targeting dozens of vulnerable Syrians and subsequently handing them over to forces affiliated with the Syrian regime's fourth division, led by Maher Al-Assad, at the Syrian-Lebanese border. Many of these individuals face immediate arrest upon their arrival in Syria. Numerous Syrians are wanted by the regime for their participation in the revolution, including those who defected and refused to be part of the Syrian regime's killing machine. Consequently, handing them over to the regime is nothing short of a death sentence.
Since the Syrian regime regained control over most of the country, some governments have called for the deportation of refugees from their territories, claiming that the intensity of the conflict has decreased. However, the cessation of conflict does not guarantee the safe return of refugees, considering the dire economic conditions and the ongoing practices of the regime, involving arbitrary arrests, detainment, and torture of citizens.
The reality for refugees in neighbouring countries is bleak, compelling many to undertake dangerous means of escape. Human traffickers take advantage of this ongoing suffering. None of this will end as long as the underlying reasons for seeking refuge persist.
The presence of Afghans on the Greek boat is not surprising, as the United Nations estimates that 28.3 million people, or two-thirds of Afghanistan's population, will require urgent humanitarian assistance this year. People resort to desperate and perilous means of escape in the face of the Afghan government's control since 2021, leading to increased restrictions on women's rights, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression. Human rights institutions have been severely constrained or entirely shut down, and peaceful protesters face arbitrary arrests, torture, and enforced disappearance. The Taliban has carried out extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and unlawful detention of dissidents with impunity.
Extreme poverty has worsened due to drought and other natural disasters. Public executions and floggings are used as punishments for crimes such as murder, theft, "illicit" relationships, or violations of social norms. Women's rights remain vulnerable, and women's participation in public life is severely restricted. Afghanistan was the only country in the world where girls were denied access to secondary education. The Taliban has all but shut down institutions established to address gender-based violence under the previous government.
In Pakistan, the majority of the population suffers from high prices and declining living standards, amidst the government's implementation of painful conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for loans to alleviate the country's financial distress. Meanwhile, the government and the opposition engage in a heated debate about the reasons behind the economic collapse, which has pushed approximately one-third of the total population, around 231.4 million people, below or near the poverty line.
Pakistan also experiences recurring floods, with the most recent occurring last year. Despite their long history, successive governments have been unable to implement adequate solutions, either due to the politicisation of dam construction projects between regions or the alleged interests of leaders and parties in the current circumstances.
Returning to the trajectory of the Greek boat, it is worth mentioning that the ship, which set sail from Egypt, was initially empty before being boarded by migrants in the coastal city of Tobruk in eastern Libya.
Speaking of Egypt, we cannot absolve the Sisi regime and its policies that compel many Egyptians to migrate from the country. After almost ten years under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's rule following his military coup in 2013, the human rights situation remains marred by ongoing violations, with news of killings, torture, and arrests dominating the landscape.
On March 20, 2023, the US State Department issued its report on the human rights situation in Egypt in 2022, sharply criticizing the Sisi regime and confirming the absence of prospects for change in its practices. The report highlighted the continuation of forced disappearances by the National Security Agency, inhumane treatment of citizens, arbitrary arrests, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, as well as coercive and unlawful invasions of privacy.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian economy faced severe pressures over the past year, with the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, scarcity of foreign currencies, and rising inflation. Analysts believe that political missteps have contributed to this bleak economic situation.
Official data indicates that the poverty rate was around 30% before the COVID-19 pandemic, and since then, estimates suggest that 60% of Egypt's population, totalling 104 million people, live below or near the poverty line.
It is not surprising that the majority of passengers on the Greek boat were from Palestine and Syria.
Palestinians, who have experienced displacement on multiple occasions, consider themselves stateless. Many were forced to leave their homeland under Zionist occupation, while others do not find hope in the remaining Palestinian territories or in their first countries of refuge, such as Syria. Palestinian refugees in Syria face the same conditions as their Syrian counterparts, living under the rule of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. They have no choice but to hope for a better life, even if it means risking their lives.
The Syrian regime is responsible not only for the deaths of Syrians who have drowned in perilous journeys to escape its brutality. An investigation titled "Profits of the Assad Clan from Human Trafficking," published by the German newspaper Badische Zeitung, revealed the involvement of the Assad family in the transportation of migrants from Pakistan to Libya, with the intention of smuggling them to Europe with dangerous boats.
According to the report, 300 Pakistanis drowned in the latest boat off the Greek coast, all of whom had travelled to Libya via Cham Wings Airlines. Each Pakistani victim paid $10,000 to smuggling networks for their transportation to Europe, of which $1,500 went to the Assad family. This implies that the family may have received approximately $450,000 for transporting these victims.
The report further states that Cham Wings Airlines, which initiated flights between Damascus and Karachi in the spring of 2022, now operates two weekly flights from Karachi to Benghazi, passing through Damascus.
Refugees find themselves in precarious situations in neighbouring countries, which drives many to seek refuge in Europe, where they hope to find safety and better living conditions.
The tragedy of the Greek boat and the broader refugee crisis result from the international community's complicity with dictatorships, policies that exacerbate poverty in countries, and a failure to protect refugees. The international community as a whole share the responsibility for what has happened.
May the victims of the boat rest in power, and may the international community, the European Union, the Greek and Italian authorities, Frontex, and dictatorships bear the shame they deserve.