Last month’s tragedy of the Adriana that capsized and sank off the coast of Greece, leading to the shocking death of 600 passengers, in large part women and children, finally has an explanation. It can no longer be shelved in the convenient category (convenient for European political leaders) where the only culprits are the crazed smugglers who jam migrants in floating wrecks in order to maximize their returns. We now have evidence beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Greek government is responsible for all those deaths, having failed to rescue them.
Reuters, two days ago, had already raised doubts, reporting that six witnesses had said the Greek Coast Guards contributed to the tragedy, by throwing a rope that capsized the migrants’ boat. Their statements predictably clashed with the public statements given by the Greek coastguard and government, denying that any rope had been thrown.
But today we finally have the whole picture, carefully put together by a New York Times investigation. And it amounts to a devastating case against the Greek authorities, drawing from satellite imagery, sealed court documents, more than 20 interviews with survivors and officials and recordings of radio signals transmitted in the final hours of the tragedy.
The conclusion? In the words of the Times journalists, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Karam Shoumali, “the scale of death was preventable”. Note the term “scale of death”, it is a carefully chosen term that takes into consideration the special circumstances and the overloading of the Adriana.
It is the case, to be sure, that many deaths could have been expected even in a normal rescue operation, given the massive number of passengers carried by the Adriana, compounded by the absolute disregard displayed by the Egyptian smugglers for the safety of women and children assigned in the middle deck and tragically trapped in it when the ship capsized. They reportedly even beat back with belts any Pakistani migrant that tried escaping from the bottom hold to reach the deck – the only place where anyone had a chance to escape.
In the end, only 104 people were reportedly rescued while bodies still keep turning up.
But what comes out very clearly from the New York Times recounting of events is that the Greek government never treated the situation as a rescue: For the Greek authorities, it was a standard law enforcement operation. They never sent a navy hospital ship or rescue specialists; instead, they came with a team that included four masked armed men from a coast guard special operations unit.
For now, the Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs told the New York Times it would not respond to detailed questions because the shipwreck was under criminal investigation, with a number of people, including the smugglers, arrested.
Last week in Brussels, the Greek Prime Minister once again repeated what the Greek authorities have said from the start: namely, that the Adriana was sailing to Italy, and that the migrants did not want to be rescued. But satellite imagery and tracking data obtained by the New York Times show definitively that the Adriana was drifting in a loop for its last six and a half hours and wasn’t headed for Italy.
By Day 4, according to testimonies and interviews, six people in the hold of the ship, including at least one child, had died.
The next day, June 13, the captain sent a distress call to the Italian authorities in the expectation that the Italians would rescue them.
As the New York Times recounts it, the Italians immediately alerted Frontex, the European Union border agency, and a reconnaissance plane was sent out by midday. Reportedly, two German journalists touring the Frontex command center at that time noticed “images of a rusty blue fishing ship” in trouble on the screen. Frontex rushed the Adriana coordinates to the Greek authorities since it was in Greece’s search-and-rescue area. A helicopter was sent within two hours.
All the Greeks did by evening (7 pm) was to ask two nearby commercial tankers to bring the migrants water, food and diesel to continue their journey. As the New York Times points out:
A crucial part of the Greek authorities’ explanation for not rescuing the Adriana is their claim that it was actively sailing toward Italy. When the BBC, using data from neighboring vessels, reported that the Adriana had been practically idle for several hours before it sank, the Greek government noted that the ship had covered 30 nautical miles toward Italy since its detection by Frontex.
But satellite imagery from the European Space Agency and data from the ship-tracking platform MarineTraffic shows the real situation: the Adriana was adrift for its final seven hours or so and by the time the tankers had arrived, the Adriana was drifting backward.
Some of the migrants were placing distress calls. These were picked up by Alarm Phone, a nonprofit group that fields migrant mayday calls; the distress calls were reported to the Greek authorities, Frontex and the United Nations refugee agency. By nightfall, one of the tankers’ captains informed the Greek control center that the Adriana was “rocking dangerously.”
Radio transmission records show that the Greek control center transmitted mayday messages across the Mediterranean over five hours using a channel reserved for safety and distress calls, providing coordinates of the Adriana location. Yet the Greek Coast Guard itself mounted no search-and-rescue mission at that time.
By midnight of June 14, the Greeks had sent only one government ship, the Greek Coast Guard vessel 920, with a team of masked armed men. And it is a well-known fact that in the past, the Greek government has repeatedly used the coast guard to deter migration.
As noted in the New York Times, “The mission of the 920 is unclear, as is what happened after it arrived and floated nearby for three hours.” And exactly what caused the Adriana to capsize is still unknown. The episode reported by Reuters, of throwing a rope to the trawler, is said to have happened hours before it sank. So it could have been caused by a commotion on board or more simply the fact that it was an old fishing ship, overloaded and unfit to sail.
But one fact, however, is crystal clear: There was plenty of time to mount a full rescue operation. And Greece, as a maritime nation, is well-equipped to do exactly that. But it never did it. Not the slightest attempt was made to save lives.
Those lost lives are on the conscience of the Greek Goast Guards to be sure, but also on the government itself and the prime minister.
This is the worst-ever migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean in a year that has already seen the largest number ever of deadly crossings. That loss of lives is criminal because it could have been avoided. And it cannot be forgotten or laid aside and pushed under the rug.
The lesson from this tragedy cannot be overlooked: It is high time to turn around European policies on migration and act responsibly. Since 2014, more than 25,000 people have died or disappeared crossing the Mediterranean. Isn’t there anyone anywhere left with any heart?
Whatever happened to “European values”? How many more deaths does Europe need to wake up?
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Adriana, screenshot from PBS NewsHour video