Death Trap At Sea — An Exclusive Investigation Of The Migrant Tragedy In Greek Waters
Hundreds of people died when a boat carrying migrants capsized on its way to Europe. Eyewitnesses raise serious accusations: were Greek officials to blame for the disaster? And what role does the "smuggling mafia" play? Die Welt reconstructs the events of the tragedy.
PYLOS — The drama began on the morning of Friday, June 9, 2023. From the Libyan port of Tobruk, Muhammad Nadeem called his nephew, Zohaib Shamraiz, who answered the phone from Barcelona. Shamraiz, 21, has been living there since he left his homeland of Pakistan six years ago.
The uncle wanted to go to Europe, too. But now, about to board a blue-hulled fishing boat that should take him to Italy in the next few hours, he has doubts. Muhammad Nadeem tells his nephew that far too many people wanted to get on the boat. He also tells him about a mafia that will probably force him to board anyway. These men had knives and guns, they threatened him.
Shamraiz from Barcelona begged his uncle not to board the ship, warning him about the dangers. This is the last thing the young man heard from his relative. Now he stands in front of a high barbed wire fence in the midday heat. Zohaib Shamraiz has travelled to Greece to look for his uncle. He has made it to the entrance of the Malakasa refugee camp in northern Athens, where the survivors of the shipwreck are currently being housed.
A few minutes after the phone call with his uncle, the fishing boat set sail from Libya, with Muhammad Nadeem on board. Five days later, it capsized about 80 kilometers from the town of Pylos on the Greek Peloponnese peninsula. It remains unknown how many people were on board. According to estimates, up to 750 people were on the ship.
The figures, confirmed by Die Welt, indicate that only 104 people survived. 82 bodied were recovered, and hundreds more are currently considered missing, including women and children. Hardly anyone believes that the migrants, who came from Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan, will be found alive.
A preventable disaster?
"I already have 30 crossings full and ready to go for August".
Tragedies occur regularly, sometimes weekly, in the Mediterranean Sea off the coasts of Spain, Italy or Greece where the external borders of the EU are located. In this case, the number of suspected victims is particularly high. Politicians, authorities, human rights activists and advocates continue to argue over what caused the tragedy. Some blame the cruelty of Europe's policy of sealing off refugees. Others blame the ruthlessness of smuggling gangs who sell the futile dream of life in Europe at the cost of human lives.
At the Malakasa camp entrance, Zohaib Shamraiz says he has not yet given up hope of finding his uncle. But his search is extremely complicated. That's because the Greek authorities are shielding the survivors almost hermetically from the outside world. Not even relatives are allowed access to the camp. The coast guard is only giving the public tidbits of information about the accident. The information it relays has been inconsistent, and has had to correct its own statements several times.
This, along with Welt's own investigations, reinforce a suspicion that now hangs over Pylos: that this catastrophe could have been avoided. And more. Victims' relatives, their lawyers, journalists and politicians are asking questions. For one: Did the Greek coast guard deliberately cause the ship to capsize?
Lanterns lit in memory of the migrant ship victims during a protest in Athens
The Greek version
One of the first officials in Greece to comment on the sensitive issues was Secretary of State Manos Logothetis. Die Welt's reporters were able to reach him on the phone a few days after the incident occurred.
"Of course we help people who are in distress at sea", said Logothetis. For him, this includes even those whom the Greek government actually does not want to let into the country.
The cabinet of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been taking a strict approach to illegal migration since 2019. Most recently, the government in Athens declared Turkey a safe country of origin in order to be able to send back all migrants who enter via the common border on an expedited basis. On several occasions, Greek prosecutors initiated criminal proceedings against refugee workers. In addition to this, human rights organizations have documented cases of alleged pushback by the Greek coast guard, leaving migrants without the ability to apply for asylum.
On the phone, Logothetis says that the Greek Coast Guard routinely escorts migrant ships in international waters before they enter Greece's own. This is what happened before the accident off Pylos. So there was no pushback. He could be trusted.
Did the Greek coast guard deliberately cause the ship to capsize?
A Coast Guard press release said the migrant boat had been moving "at a steady pace" before sinking. The guard had contacted the boat by satellite phone and offered help. This, however, was repeatedly refused by a person on this line. A fight broke out onboard among the migrants of different nationalities.
"People of Syrian origin wanted to land in Greece. Because they knew they would be granted asylum," Logothetis says. "Others, however, wanted to continue on to Italy at all costs." For, unlike in Greece, migrants there would not have to go through the hassle of registration. They could make it from there to Northern Europe on trains fairly easily. This quarrel, Logothetis says, was the reason why the overloaded ship began to wobble, and eventually sank. It all happened so quickly that no rescue attempt would have been in time. A tragic accident, provoked by ruthless smugglers. According to Logothetis, nine Egyptians have already been identified as responsible for the smuggling. Case closed.
So goes the version presented by the Secretary of State.
However, investigations by Die Welt raise doubts as to whether this is indeed true. Its reporters spoke to numerous survivors, relatives and rescuers on the ground. They also analyzed photos, videos and movement data from the boat. The results reveal that the Greek coast guard watched the ship, which was already in distress, for hours. Probably in the hopes that it would continue to drift toward Italy, meaning that no one would have to take action. When things turned out differently, members of the coast guard attached ropes to the fishing boat, according to consistent statements by eyewitnesses, which caused the ship to capsize.
Shortly afterward, according to those involved, Greek officials began to conceal what had actually happened. They report attempts at intimidation, bans on speaking, and arbitrary proceedings against alleged smugglers.
Shortly before the disaster happened, the Hellenistic Coast Guard take this photo of the ship
Reuters/ Hellenistic Coast Guard
The camp is surrounded by a high fence with barbed wire, the entrance is locked. In front of it, security guards sit in a sectioned-off area. There are security cameras everywhere. The guards let specific people and vehicles in and out through a gate.
Even relatives of the migrants onboard were not given access to the camp in Malakasa.
These strict precautions are new. Until very recently, everyone had always been able to move freely here, but since the ship sank, things have changed. So says a man who himself arrived in Greece in 2016 by boat across the Mediterranean. He knows the authorities and the camp well. Now he stands outside and tries to make himself useful for relatives of the victims and to provide reporters with information from the camp.
Last weekend, the state secretary Logothetis promised Welt reporters that they could "of course" talk to survivors in the Malakasa camp. But when a reporter from the editorial office arrived there, the camp's staff refused, saying it was impossible. They claimed that the migrants were traumatized, and that they needed to rest, rather than being hounded by the press.
A tragic accident, provoked by ruthless smugglers
During a brief conversation through the fence, a Syrian man who made it off the fishing boat alive claims that he and the other survivors had no access to telephones, and had no other contact with the outside world either. He had not even been able to tell his family at home that he had survived, he says. In addition, a camp manager had forbidden him and the others to speak to the press. Fear is omnipresent.
Survivors fear whether they will be granted asylum. If Greece denies them this protection, their treacherous journey was in vain. This helps explain why few dare to speak to journalists at all, and why no one wants to see their full names published. Then on Wednesday of this week, two of them agreed to talk anyway. Their names are Mohammed H. and Hamza T., both Syrians. Hamza is 24 years old, Mohammed 30. Their identities are known to the editorial office, so their names have been changed to protect them from possible reprisals.
The journalists from several medias, including a reporter from this newspaper, smuggled the two men a cell phone with a prepaid card. It made its way into the refugee camp in a plastic bag, handed through the fence, hidden between drinks and chips. This enables the Syrians to get information out without attracting attention.
Mohammed H. says he had actually managed to get by with work in Libya, but at some point he was threatened by criminals there. So he and Hamza T. contacted those men, whom they call a "smuggling mafia," via a Facebook group.
Hamza T. says he paid $4,000, i.e. about 3,700 euro, Mohammed H. $4,500. Then they were taken from the port city of Tobruk in Libya in a small boat to the vicinity of Kambut, a coastal village. There they boarded an aging fishing boat painted blue: the "Andriana," which would capsize days later. The smugglers had said that the ship would set off on its journey to Europe with around 300 people on board. Suddenly, many more people arrived on deck. The two men say a total of perhaps 700 people were on board, which matches the reports of other eyewitnesses.
By the third day, panic had gradually set in on the ship, according to both Hamza T. and Mohammed H. The engine broke down again and again, the drinking water ran out. The toilets had stopped working and there was hardly any food left. People had already died. Other eyewitnesses also reported deaths. On Tuesday of last week, the engine of the "Andriana" finally gave out. And the situation on the ship got out of control in such a way that one asked again and again by satellite and cell phone for assistance. By then, the blue fishing boat was already off the Greek coast. Container ships had passed by several times. Some had dropped off water and food.
"When we sank, they cut the rope and left."
"We showed the body of a Pakistani to a ship to say, we need help urgently, get us out of here," the two Syrians report. But no one was ready to take the group of refugees onto their ship. In the evening, around 10 p.m., a Greek Coast Guard patrol ship approached their fishing boat, at a distance of about 15 meters.
Some of the crew wore civilian clothes, some military uniforms. Many members were wearing masks, their faces unrecognizable. The Greek officials were holding weapons. This was clearly visible, despite the darkness, because the coast guard had pointed a bright light at the boat. The coast guard then moved even closer to the migrant boat and attached at least two ropes to the front and middle of the boat. In order to pull those in distress into Italian waters. At least, Hamza says, that's what the men from the coast guard shouted to them.
Then the Greek ship sailed off. To the right, on starboard. The migrant boat began to wobble dangerously. They quickly ran to the other side of the deck to regain their equilibrium. A few moments later, the Coast Guard pulled again. As a result, the fishing boat was definitely out of balance.
"When we sank, they cut the rope and left," says Mohammed H. From about a kilometer away, the Coast Guard watched from their boat how many of the migrants drowned. For about 20 minutes.
All this was described similarly by other eyewitnesses. They say the Greek Coast Guard crew deliberately wanted to capsize their boat." Any person who has a little notion of boats should have known that the boat would capsize by the position the ropes were attached to," says one of the witnesses. Moreover, the first tug on the ropes already showed how dangerously the blue fishing boat was leaning, he said. Nevertheless, the Coast Guard pulled a second time.
20 June 2023, Egypt: The Mother of Muhammad Ahmed Al-Sayed, who is among the missing after the Greek boat sank on June 14, holds her son's photo in front of their home.
The data tracks and the Danish sailor
So far, it has been difficult or even impossible for journalists to independently verify the course of events. The boat capsized at night. Even though several ships were in the area at the time of the accident, it is unlikely that any crew had a clear view of what was happening. The Greek Coast Guard says the camera on its patrol vessel was turned off at the time. And aerial footage taken by the European border agency Frontex last showed the blue fishing boat on Tuesday morning. At that point in time, it was still sailing.
Still, there are clues that can be used to reconstruct the fatal journey, at least partially. For example, there is the evidence of several emergency calls.
The first one was received by a refugee aid worker based in Italy shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Her number is well-known among migrants coming across the Mediterranean. The media calls her "Lady SOS." This is because she is the one who receives calls when migrants are in distress at sea. She informs the relevant authorities or rescue organizations, which is what happened in this case as well. The woman also published details of the ship's coordinates on Twitter. According to this, the blue ship was still about 110 kilometers from the Greek coast at 10:13 a.m. on Tuesday. Why this is important is still to be discussed.
Over the next few hours, the Alarm Phone volunteer initiative received multiple distress calls coming from the ship's deck. In both cases, the migrants themselves managed to communicate their coordinates.
The organization thus confirms what the two Syrians story. Data shows that the boat's progress was very slow. In the hours between 10 a.m. and 5:43 p.m., it traveled only 40 kilometers. From around 7 p.m., it stopped moving at all. This can be tracked with the help of the MarineTraffic portal, which records ship movements around the globe. There was no AIS tag on board that could be used to locate the migrant ship. But the location data of several ships whose crews supplied the migrants with water and food suggest that the blue ship, with hundreds of desperate people on board, barely moved in the last seven hours before it sank.
The information provided by the Greek coast guard cannot be correct. The coast guard had claimed that its ship escorted the migrant boat "at a distance" as late as 10:40 pm. The ill-fated ship had been moving at a constant speed.
The Coast Guard's claim that the migrants never asked for help is also barely believable. Private refugee helpers not only report several calls for help, they have published at least one recording on the Internet. The Coast Guard, they say, deliberately ignored these calls for help.
Is that conceivable?
Besides tankers and cargo ships, an amateur sailor was also underway in the remote region of the disaster. Henrik Flørnæs, 45, a company director from Copenhagen, had set course for Malta from the island of Poros in his 14-meter sailing yacht Gefion. On board were his wife, his two children and a family friend.
On Tuesday evening, the skipper heard alarm calls on the distress frequency channel 16, as Flørnæs later told this newspaper. "They were so-called mayday relay radio calls, asking other ships to help. We heard the first one at 8 p.m. local time. At least one of them came from a Greek Coast Guard boat." His sailing yacht, Flørnæs said, was too far away from the migrant ship for a rescue operation. But not too far to be able to watch part of what was happening.
Was it a miscalculation with catastrophic consequences? Or something more?
"We were surprised," said Flørnæs, "that there were only one or two helicopters operating over the area. Here in Denmark, there would have been at least ten in such a situation." In the darkness, he and other sailors then saw the sky lit up by flares and lights. But still no other helicopters could be heard. So the possibilities of saving lives were much slimmer.
Since Flørnæs had known what was happening within sight of his sailboat, the experienced sailor is puzzled over why the refugee boat ultimately sank. "The sea was calm, there was practically no wind and no waves."
In the meantime, the European border agency Frontex has also stated in rare clarity what it thinks of the Greek helpers' mission. In a statement on June 16, the agency said that one of its aircraft had spotted the boat in the morning before it capsized. At that time, it was in the Greek rescue zone. Athens had been informed, including photos. The Frontex crew has to fly back to its base in Italy when fuel ran out.
A spokesperson for the border agency now explains, when asked by Welt, that Frontex offered to deploy the aircraft based in Italy and a Frontex drone based in the Aegean Sea twice. "Both times there was no response" from the Greek authorities. Instead, Athens had asked to send the offered drone to an emergency near Crete.
Was it a miscalculation with catastrophic consequences? Or something more?
"The nation state has sole decision-making authority over where Frontex aircraft and drones are deployed," says the Frontex spokesperson.
20 June 2023, Egypt: The family of Abdullah Mahmoud Al-Sayed and Muhammad Ahmed Al-Sayed stand in front of their home.
The Attorney's doubts
Kalamata, Tuesday morning this week.
Greek police officers escort nine men, handcuffed together, into a courtroom in the center of the port city. They are nine Egyptians who were themselves on the boat. The prosecution holds them responsible for the disaster. They are to be charged in just a few days for manslaughter; charged with causing a shipwreck and being membership in a criminal organization.
This version of the Greek authorities is also in doubt. Mohammed H. and Hamza T., the Syrians from the camp in Malakasa, say that none of the smugglers they met in Libya were on board. And the nine suspects were themselves on the run, they say.
Dimitris Choulis says this pattern looks familiar to him. The lawyer has been defending migrants in Greek asylum and criminal cases for three years. "We have been able to prove time and again that smugglers almost never travel on these boats. And if they do, they have a life jacket and a gun. That's how you recognize them immediately," he says.
Choulis accuses the Greek authorities of manipulation. He observed time and again that Greek authorities separated and isolated the survivors of such shipwrecks. In this way, they try to control the story. That is why they make the traumatized people testify that they were rescued by the coast guard. This fits with what Hamza, the Syrian, said in the refugee camp. He says that his statements about the coast guard's behavior were not recorded in the interrogation protocol.
In the Malakasa camp, Hamza T. hopes to be allowed to stay in Europe. But he does not believe that Greece will ever clarify why the "Andriana" became a dead ship.
And Zohaib Shamraiz knows that he might not see his uncle alive again.
Hamza T. nodded briefly when shown a photo of the missing man. Yes, he had seen Shamraiz's uncle on the boat. And never again after that.
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