On the 14th of June, the bodies of more than 70 people were retrieved from the open waters of the Ionian sea and taken to shore, to be buried in the Schisto cemetery in east Attica. While at least 78 victims were recovered and 104 survivors of the sunken fish trawler were rescued,several hundred people remain missing. Reports suggest that the number of passengers on board may have exceeded 700.
The shipwreck, which has been deemed the deadliest such incident in the Mediterranean to be recorded in recent years, occurred approximately 80 kilometers southwest of a coastal city located in Peloponnese, and has since gained news media attention with the homonymous #Pylos. Under this hashtag, investigative journalists rapidly began unraveling a sequence of events for the day in question that seems to confirm the worst suspicions against coastguard agencies acting at the EU’s external borders. As the reporters who form the team of “Solomon” uncovered in cooperation with journalists from the Guardian, the German public television channel ARD, and investigators at “Forensis”, an SOS message sent out by passengers had been received and ignored by the Hellenic Coast Guard.
#Pylos: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Hellenic Coast Guard’s Conflicting Statements
The Greek coast guard agency’s initial public statements painted a rather puzzling picture of the shipwreck near Pylos, as official spokespersons alleged that the overloaded fishing trawler refused any assistance. These claims were met with heavy skepticism not only by legal experts, but also by active and former coast guard officials. Finally, “Solomon” announced that its reporters have received proof of communication between “Alarm Phone” and Greek authorities - proof which refutes the coast guards’ narrative. “Alarm Phone”, also known as the “Watch The Med Alarm Phone Project”, was founded in 2014 by activists based in various European countries, Morocco, and Tunisia, and offers an emergency hotline for people who are in distress while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. According to the article published by “Solomon,” the Hellenic Coast Guard’s initial statements described the communication with the people on board the vessel as follows: “Repeatedly the fishing trawler was asked by the merchant ship if it required additional assistance”, to which its passengers allegedly replied that they wanted “nothing more than to continue to Italy”. From a humanitarian perspective, this is a completely inadequate response, to justify and explain the scale of destruction that followed.
Members of the European solidarity community argued that the Hellenic Coast Guard should have begun a rescue operation immediately after detecting the overloaded vessel, even in the unlikely scenario that the passengers were refusing any aid.
Instead, an e-mail sent from “Alarm Phone” staff demonstrates that the Hellenic Coast Guard had been informed on June 13th, by 5:53 p.m. EST, about the coordinates of the vessel in distress, alongside multiple other agencies, including the Hellenic Police Headquarters, UNHCR Greece and Türkiye, the Ministry of Citizen Protection and the local coast guard agency of Peloponnese’s largest port city Kalamata. d. Additionally, according to a press statement released by the EU’s official border agency, a Frontex plane had already spotted the fishing trawler as early as 11:47 a.m. EST.
Frontex claims that both Greek and Italian authorities were then swiftly notified about the sighting of a heavily overcrowded vessel. Moreover, Frontex personnel reportedly continued monitoring the ship and offered assistance to the Hellenic Coast Guard, but were instead asked to relocate their resources to a different search and rescue incident off the southern coast of Crete. Upon return, Frontex states that “a large scale search and rescue operation by Greek authorities was ongoing and there was no sign of the fishing boat” on June 14th, at 7:05 a.m. EST, adding: “No Frontex plane or boat was present at the time of the tragedy”.
Hence, the evidence suggesting that the Greek coast guard should be held responsible for the mass death incident off the coast of Pylos seems mounting. While questions may linger concerning the co-responsibility of Frontex, it has become increasingly undeniable that the Hellenic Coast Guard was the primary culprit in the senseless loss of several hundred people. This, however, is not the first time that a spotlight is shown on the Greek coast guard in the news reports about the death of displaced people. On the contrary, credible reports of innumerable and continuous push-backs by Greek authorities have been circling for years. Their sheer frequency, estimated at more than 1,000 between 2020 and 2022, has led human rights advocates to believe that people crossing the Mediterranean have recently been knowingly undertaking immense risks when planning their journey. In order to avoid being pushed back illegally by both officials and rogue right-wing extremist groups, more and more displaced persons are choosing what “Solomon”’s reporters have coined the “deadly Calabria sea route”, which circumvents Greek territory.
Death in the Mediterranean - A Result of “Fortress Europe”
The tragedy of the June 13th - 14th shipwreck appears inconceivable. This is not only due to the death toll itself, but the realization that the incident was a fatal consequence of the Hellenic Coast Guard’s inaction. This inaction arguably provides the grounds to claim that the border agency committed a serious breach of international law by failing to act while in a position of command. Most importantly, the immense lack of ethical and moral responsibility has permanently shattered the trustworthiness of the Hellenic Coast Guard. As they, and other agencies, have repeatedly failed to act in accord with human rights regulations, the Mediterranean Sea has become a mass graveyard. Every such violation, regardless if it compares in scale to the shipwreck off the coast of Pylos, is a violation too many.