An independent and impartial investigation is urgently needed to clarify the stark disparities between the accounts of the survivors of the deadly Pylos shipwreck and those of the Greek authorities, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
A delegation representing the two NGOs travelled to Greece between 4 and 13 July as part of ongoing research into the circumstances of the 14 June Adriana shipwreck. Of the 750 people estimated to be travelling on board, only 104 survived.
According to testimonies of the survivors gathered by the two NGOs, the vessel was towed by a Hellenic Coast Guard rescue boat, causing it to sway and capsize -- claims the Greek authorities have strongly denied.
Survivors also said that passengers asked to be rescued, and that they witnessed others on the boat plead to be rescued by satellite phone in the hours before their boat capsized.
But senior officials of the Hellenic Coast Guard refuted this, telling the two NGOs during a meeting that those on board only requested food and water and expressed their intention to proceed to Italy. They said the Coast Guard vessel came close to the Adriana and used ropes to approach the boat to assess whether passengers wanted help, but that passengers threw the rope back and the boat continued its journey.
“The disparities between survivors’ accounts of the Pylos shipwreck and the authorities’ version of the events are extremely concerning," said Judith Sunderland, Associate Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Greek authorities, with support and scrutiny from the international community, should ensure that there is a transparent investigation to provide truth and justice for survivors and families of the victims, and hold those responsible to account.”
Independent investigation critical
The tragedy prompted members of the European Parliament to call last month for a new EU-wide search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean to prevent more loss of life.
Frontex, the EU border agency, has also come under fire for shortcomings in its rescue response. The EU Ombudsman has since launched a formal investigation into Frontex’s response.
Greek authorities have opened two criminal investigations into the alleged smugglers and the coast guard.
The two NGOs today called for these investigations to comply with international human rights standards of impartiality, independence, and effectiveness. They also called for the judicial investigations to be under the supervision of the Supreme Court Prosecutor’s Office and for the Greek Ombudsman’s office to be provided with the necessary resources to carry out its functions.
The NGOs claim the recent disaster adds to Greece’s "longstanding failure to ensure accountability for violent and unlawful pushbacks at the country’s borders" and "raises concerns over their ability and willingness to carry out effective and independent investigations."
Greek response under scrutiny
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson recently said that member states should be trusted with judicial investigations. Speaking in the European Parliament, she said that "there is an urgent need for a thorough, transparent and effective investigation, and I agree that this is important for many reasons, not least for the Greek reputation.”
The NGOs say a full investigation should seek to “clarify any responsibility for both the sinking of the ship and delays or shortcomings in the rescue efforts that may have contributed to the appalling loss of life.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said they will continue their own investigation and urged Brussels to amend its migration policies.
“This preventable tragedy demonstrates the bankruptcy of EU migration policies predicated on the racialized exclusion of people on the move and deadly deterrence,” said Esther Major, Amnesty International’s Senior Research Adviser for Europe.
“To ensure this is the last, and not the latest, in an unconscionably long list of tragedies in the Mediterranean, the EU should reorient its border policies towards rescue at sea and safe and legal routes for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.”