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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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