Geopolitics

Did The Greek Coast Guard Let 11 Immigrants Drown?

A boat filled with mostly Afghan immigrants was stopped and towed away by the Greece's Coast Guard. But when the boat eventually sank, 11 people ended up dead. Survivors recount.

A Greek Coast Guard patrol boat
A Greek Coast Guard patrol boat
Adéa Guillot

ATHENS — Wiggling in the warmth of his mother’s arms and wearing a beaming smile, 15-month-old Youssef laughs as his father makes funny faces. He is a child like any other. Except for the fact that Youssef is the only child who survived the terrible Jan. 19 shipwreck near the Greek island of Farmakonisi.

That night, 11 migrants, most of them women and children died, and precisely who is to blame has become the latest international case swirling around the issue of immigration.

Twenty-four Afghans and three Syrians had squeezed onto a small fishing boat in the harbor of Didim, in Turkey. “I paid $6,000 to the smuggler for my wife, my son and me,” Youssef's father Khaiber Rahemi, 25, explains. Two hours later, they reached the Greek territorial waters and with it, Europe. “Our engine had stopped working, but we soon saw a Greek boat coming towards us. I told myself, ‘finally, our long journey is coming to an end.’”

Five months ago, the family left Kabul, where Khaiber was a taxi driver. They first had to walk for weeks in the snow-covered mountains of Pakistan, before staying four months in a shabby Istanbul hotel room, waiting for the smuggler’s green light. “The glimmer of that Greek boat was the materialization of our hope of a new life, away from danger and violence, that my wife and I wanted for our son,” Khaiber says. “But nothing turned out the way we expected.”

He says that Greek police officers tied a rope to their boat and began to tow it back towards Turkey. “I am certain of what I say. I could see the lights,” Khaiber insists. Such a practice is illegal under European law, and the Greek authorities deny the allegations, showing radar transcriptions as proof.

And yet the NGOs that are working on this issue believe Greece does push migrants and refugees back. A 2013 report from Amnesty International denounced such practices and reminded people that since August 2012 at least 136 refugees had lost their lives trying to travel from Turkey to Greece. “The tragedy took place as the boat was already under the control of the Greek coastguard, and there are survivors to tell us so,” says George Tsarbopoulos, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Athens.

Investigation underway

Except for Youssef and his mother Zoura, the rest of the survivors were men. “When the Greek boat was pulling us faster and faster in zigzags, water was filling up the boat from everywhere,” says Abdul Sabur Azizi, one of the 16 survivors. “So the women and children took shelter in the small cabin. They found themselves trapped when the boat sank. Us men, we managed to haul ourselves into the Greek boat, although they tried to prevent us. One of them cut the rope between the two boats,” he claims.

The Greek Coast Guard says it was the migrants who caused the boat to capsize after two of them fell in the water. And they deny allegations that they refused to take some of them on board or that they mistreated them. But pressured by NGOs, the Naval Court of Piraeus launched a preliminary investigation.

The whole affair is becoming politically explosive. Nils Muiznieks, human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, denounced the “case of a failed collective expulsion.”

That led an irritated Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, Greek Minister of Mercantile Marine, to claim that “Muiznieks and some others want to create a political scandal in Greece.” The minister said the coastguard had done its best to save as many people as possible, given the difficult sailing conditions. “I don't believe that anybody wants to open the gates to all migrants who present themselves in our country and grant them all asylum,” he added.

According to figures from the UN Refugee Agency, 39,759 migrants were apprehended as they entered Greece in 2013. In 2012, that number was 73,976. The 16 survivors of the Farmakonisi shipwreck are housed in Athens, but they have been told to leave the territory within the next 30 days. The UN Refugee Agency has asked the Greek government to grant them a residence permit so as to allow them to be witnesses in the inquiry.

Abdul Sabur Azizi refuses to leave until the authorities hand over the bodies of his wife Elaha and their 10-year-old son Bezad, both of whom are probably still trapped in the sunken boat’s cabin. “I was so proud of him,” Azizi says crying, his eyes haunted. “I wanted for him to have a life far away from the tribal wars that wiped out my family. I wish I had died with them. Look how beautiful she was, and him, so serious,” he adds, holding two tiny pictures of his wife and son in the palm of his hand.

“That’s all I have left of them.”

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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