Survivors of a devastating boat disaster near Greece, which likely claimed the lives of hundreds of migrants, have come forward with harrowing accounts of their ordeal. They described being crammed into a dilapidated fishing trawler by traffickers in North Africa, enduring dire conditions with no access to food or water.
In addition to the horrific conditions onboard, some survivors claimed that the actions of the Greek coastguard contributed to the tragic outcome. They recounted a doomed attempt by the coastguard to tow the overloaded trawler, leading to its capsizing in the early hours of June 14.
Evidence seen by Reuters revealed that six out of nine survivor statements submitted to Greek judicial officials mentioned the disastrous towing attempt. According to one Syrian survivor, the Greek coastguard vessel attached a rope to the trawler’s bow and began pulling it while accelerating, despite the migrants’ pleas to stop. As a result, the boat started tilting and eventually overturned.
Three other witnesses were unsure of the cause of the capsizing. The survivors’ accounts contradict the public statements made by the Greek coastguard and government, who asserted that no towing attempt was made and that the boat overturned when the coastguard was at a distance of about 70 meters.
The Greek shipping ministry, responsible for the coastguard, declined to comment, citing an ongoing confidential investigation by prosecutors. Greek prosecutors are legally prohibited from commenting on active inquiries.
The survivors provided their statements between June 17 and 18 as part of the preliminary probe into the disaster. A group of suspected traffickers, arrested on June 15 on charges including manslaughter, migrant smuggling, and causing a shipwreck, are currently in jail pending a comprehensive investigation. They have denied any wrongdoing.
Two additional survivors, interviewed separately by Reuters but requesting anonymity due to fear of reprisals, also recounted the towing episode. One survivor, identified as Mohamed, described the terrifying moments when the trawler overturned after the coastguard started pulling it. He vividly described people falling on top of each other, screaming, and struggling in the dark and rough sea.
Initially, the coastguard spokesperson denied any towing attempt but later amended the statement, acknowledging that a rope was attached to the trawler to facilitate communication. The coastguard maintained that they did not attempt to tow the boat and kept their distance.
According to Nikos Spanos, a retired admiral in the Greek coastguard, attempting to tow the stricken trawler would have been too risky. He suggested that the coastguard’s goal was to establish better contact and assess the situation, rather than engage in a dangerous maneuver.
When the boat capsized and sank in international waters within Greece’s search-and-rescue jurisdiction, it was carrying an estimated 400 to 750 migrants, mostly from Syria, Egypt, and Pakistan, according to the UN refugee agency. So far, 104 survivors have been found, but the chances of recovering any more individuals, alive or deceased, in the deep waters of the Mediterranean are slim.