A ship apart: The making of a wreck

*First Puplished on MadaMasr

An Egyptian fishing trawler, navigated by inexperienced migrants departing from the shores of eastern Libya for a new life in Italy, got lost in the sea within a day of setting sail.

A hundred people were on the deck. But the majority of the over 700 migrants were locked downstairs in the “fridge.” The moment it set sail, the trawler passed into a space of exceptionality, into a bubble isolating it from accountability frameworks and pushing it just beyond the reach of anyone who could stretch out a hand to offer help. The smugglers left it in the hands of a select group of passengers. The Greek authorities did all they could not to be involved. A handful of commercial vessels passed by with little help to offer.

The journey quickly started to run out of supplies. An average person needs around a minimum amount of one liter of drinking water per day to survive. This means four liters per person for a four-day journey, or roughly 3,000 liters of water for the entire trawler. But according to the testimony of a Syrian survivor, everyone was allowed only one liter for the entire journey. No luggage was allowed either. The reason was that “all this could take up space,” he said.

They asked some of the passing commercial vessels for water. Some provided it but a fight over the limited help ensued. Some people started drinking urine. Others started to die. And as if this drama was not enough, the engine of the trawler broke down repeatedly. Hours later, in the dark of night, the ship sank in front of the Greek coast guard. It only took 10 to 15 minutes. The bubble burst and the trawler sank into the sea. In the frenzy, the Greek coast guard attempted to rescue the migrants flailing in the dark waters of the Mediterranean. Hundreds of people died within minutes in one of the worst incidents of its kind in many years.

The bubble that surrounded the migrants, that sealed them off, that forced them to be the arbiters of their own lives and ultimately their own deaths was not of their making. Though it is often presented as a singularity, it is in fact a creation on which multiple actors lay hands: Smuggler celebrities who lure hopeful dreamers into warehouse prisons, immiserated fisherman, a family of cash-strapped Libyan warlords, EU drones gone blind, a coast guard with a stained reputation, money-hungry Egyptian officials, a union of nations determined to remain separate. Mada Masr and OmniaTV have partnered to tell the story of a tragedy in slow construction, accountability for which spans both sides of the Mediterranean and whose effects reach even farther afield.

Out of the shipyard: From catching fish to ferrying people

To the untrained eye, all fishing vessels look the same. But, for those familiar with ship manufacturing in Egypt, there is little doubt that the trawler was manufactured in Rashid, a small coastal town to the east of Alexandria. When shown photos of the vessel that sank in the early hours of the morning off the coast of Pylos, a source who works for the Samboskani Shipyard, one of the biggest ship manufacturers in Egypt, immediately recognizes it. The source, who is based in Damietta, a city further eastward along the coastline known for its production of fishing boats, says the distinctions between trawlers manufactured in Damietta and Rashid are clear.

This is the typical mold of a ship made in Rashid, says a fisherman who also works in ship manufacturing and maintenance business and was shown the photo of the Pylos trawler. “The thickness of the iron, the shape of sheet steel, the model of the trawler, all of these things are recognizable to anyone from Rashid.”

Al-Sayed Ahmed Hemeda, the customary head of fishermen in Rashid, confirmed that the capsized trawler was indeed manufactured there. 

A third source provided photos of two boats, one made in Damietta and one made in Rashid, to illustrate the subtle differences between the two styles. While both boats are usually roughly the same size — a similarity that is not shared with ships made in Suez or Port Said — Rashid trawlers have a more rounded bow compared to those made in Damietta, and their windows sit farther sternward, with smaller apertures. 

This is why the talk of the town in Rashid in the last week revolved around how a ship made in their local shipyard was involved in the tragedy, two fishermen from the coastal city say.

The three sources from the fishing community in Rashid agree that their ships are frequently sold to Libyan counterparts via Egyptian fishermen who live in Libya and act as intermediaries. The official pretext for the sale is for fishing but everyone knows, according to the sources, that the boats will go to Libya and be used to transport people across the Mediterranean. 

Rashid boats have seemingly been involved in other tragic sinkings. A preliminary visual analysis of the ship that sank in Maltese waters in 2015, leaving over 1,000 migrants dead, bears a resemblance in its markings and dimensions to other ships from Rashid.

A migrant boat that sunk off the coast of Malta in April 2015 on display at Venice Biennale

The going rate for trawlers varies depending on their conditions. Newer ones can go for as high as LE3–LE4 million (currently worth around US$97,000–$123,000). The older they are, however, the more they can be had for a bargain. Two sources estimated that the Pylos trawler could be sold for LE1.5–2 million ($49,000–$65,000) in current market conditions.

Many fishermen sell their boats because of the high costs of maintenance and operation as well as bans on fishing in seas and lakes across the country due to fish stock depletion and restrictions imposed to grant the Armed Forces a monopoly in Egypt’s waters.

However, even once the sale is made, trawlers set to make the shift from catching fish to ferrying people should first have to navigate a set of regulatory hurdles.

There are three bodies that supervise and run the licensing of trawlers and their fishing permits. One is the Egyptian Authority For Maritime Safety, which mandates that ships and trawlers have a functioning AIS system, which shares the location of the vessel with other ships and maritime authorities. Licenses are granted for a period of one year and should not be renewed if any violations are recorded. Violations include turning off the AIS system while out at sea or entering international waters without a proper fishing license or permit. The fishing license is issued by the Lakes and Fish Resource Protection and Development Agency. The fishing permit for each fishing trip is issued separately by the Egyptian Coast Guard. Each permit is valid for only three months.

In reality, though, there is a lot of laxity around trawlers’ movements from small coastal towns like Rashid, says the customary head of fishermen working in a city in the Suez Canal. Security is tight around Suez Canal cities, he explains, making it virtually impossible for trawlers to sail without proper licensing and permits. But no one cares about places like Rashid.

This laxity makes it much easier for ships to set out to sea without much scrutiny. Licensed trawlers with a working permit can easily go out to “fish.” Decommissioned boats, the ones often used to smuggle people across the sea, are frequently allowed to drift out of sight without so much as a second glance. And for the ones that are noticed, one smuggler explains, bribes paid to security personnel can get them off the hook.

With little to stand in their way, trawlers depart from the Egyptian coast and head toward Libya. They usually are operated by two persons, according to two Rashid fishermen: one responsible for navigation and the other for tending to the engine. Finally, they make it to the Libyan side. There, they hand the trawler to an intermediary.

This is clear for the trawler of last week’s tragedy. What is not clear though is when it left Egypt for Tobruk. According to a source based in eastern Libya who is close to Libyan intelligence, the Pylos boat arrived from Egypt “some time” before it set sail for its tragic voyage. 

“Boats intended for smuggling are operated for sea fishing for a period of one, two or three months at most. Then they are used to transport migrants,” the source says.

Once it had done its time at sea, the Pylos boat returned to the small port of Wadi al-Daliyah, 15 kilometers east of the city of Tobruk.

The Pylos boat was present in the port as much as four days before the ship set sail, says the cousin of a Syrian migrant who was on board the trawler and was in touch with his relative before setting sail. The following days were spent boarding the passengers. Then, at dawn on June 9, over 700 people, more than twice the trawler’s load, boarded the ship, according to the Libyan source, and what would be their fatal attempt at crossing the Mediterranean to reach the coast of Italy, their dream, set off.

Ticket sales — 700 passengers at almost $5,000 a head

The passengers came mainly from Egypt, Syria and Pakistan, with some Palestinians on board as well.

The EU’s moves to “tackle irregular migration” by externalizing its borders — for example through the EU-Turkey migration deal — thereby closing down safer and shorter routes to Europe, has pushed migrants to resort to ever increasingly dangerous routes, risking their lives and those of their relatives, in the uncharted waters off the shores of North Africa. 

One Pakistani survivor and a father of a second describe the same route to Libya via Dubai and Egypt. The survivor, who lost his entire family in the tragedy, said in his official deposition that they were taken by car from Egypt to a series of refuges in a journey lasting almost a month, ending up at Tobruk, as the Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported. The second, as recounted by his father to Reuters, arrived in Libya on a plane.

Cham Wings, a Syrian airline, which runs flights to Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city under the control of Khalifa Haftar, his sons, and their so-called Libyan National Army, offers another route. This route is used by Syrians and others, typically Bengalis, as reported by the Maltese press in April citing European and Maltese intelligence reports. But Syrians and Bengalis use separate flights. Eventually, they arrive. Their names are recorded by hand in a notebook. They make their way out of the airport, and the preparations for the journey across the sea begin. Cham Wings was blacklisted in December 2021 for its alleged role in ferrying migrants. But the sanctions were lifted last July, a move that was questioned by some European officials.

For all those, Egypt might, or might not, be one step on the way. For Egyptians, it’s a different ordeal.

While Egypt was once a major hub for migrants, Egyptians and others, looking to make their way to Europe, the tragic sinking of a migrant boat off the coast of Rashid in 2016 saw lawmakers and security officials crack down on departures from Egyptian shores. 

With the traffic now rerouted to Libyan shores, Egyptians with their eyes set on Europe must also find a way to Libya.

Dozens of sources, migrants and their families as well as different actors with a role in smuggling networks, illustrated to us over the past week how it usually works.

The journey between Egypt and Libya is typically handled by two different networks, one on each side. Social media is brimming with brokers for each step of the way.

It’s surprisingly easy to get to Libya. You find a broker who tells you where and when to catch the next microbus leaving for Libya. They can take you for as little as LE1,000 (around $32). Some can even get you all the way to Libya, and they’ll do it for free. You can pay them later, no problem.

Families of several migrants, who usually come from small villages, share almost the same story. Their children or siblings suddenly disappear. Some might say they are going to Cairo to look for a job. A few days later, they, or someone from the smuggling networks, call to inform their families that they are in Libya. 

Mohamed, the brother of Ayman Abdel Aziz, one of the migrants still missing from the boat, says his brother “traveled with no warning.” The same is true for 14-year-old Mohamed Khaled Abdel Shafiya Dessouky, whose father says his son suddenly disappeared on a Thursday night and is still missing.

The travel first, pay later pattern suggests a deliberate strategy — to make it much easier for people to go to Libya — according to Amira Abu Gamil, one of the administrators of a Facebook group for Egyptians in Italy who has been active in communication with migrants and their families. 

The road from Egypt to Libya usually starts on a microbus. Two sources who facilitate travel for migrants from different Upper Egypt governorates emphasize the central role of microbuses drivers and their networks.

An Egyptian government official explains that most of those drivers used to work in transportation legally before 2006. Since the 1990s, millions of Egyptians have traveled to Libya looking for work. But in 2004, Libya started gradually tightening restrictions to stem the flow of workers entering their borders. By 2006, it was much more difficult to get a Libyan visa.

Since then, one of the smugglers notes, the drivers of microbuses started playing a role in facilitating the movement of migrants from Egypt to Libya. They use their existing connections at the border point in Salloum or more south along the extended Great Sand Sea.

The drivers hand over the migrants to smugglers from various Libyan tribes. The smugglers then lead the migrants on foot across the Salloum plateau, usually at night, to avoid alerting Egyptian security officials stationed at checkpoints. Sometimes bribes are paid to security personnel to make things easier.

Once they are in Libya, a different story begins. Migrants who are looking for a way to cross the sea are led to big warehouses, known as “makhazen,” in which they stay waiting for the next boat. They could wait several months, or a matter of days.

According to all migrants and their families, everyone is ill-treated inside those warehouses. It is almost a prison, a terrible one. There is little to no food or water. No one is allowed out.

Now it’s time to pay up. And the smugglers have all the leverage, as they have the migrants in what could fairly be described as “captivity.” Smugglers start reaching out to the migrants’ families asking for money to allow them to board the boats. All families mentioned the same amount of money: LE140,000 (around $4,500). If a family shows any hesitation, the smugglers threaten to kill their relative. 

“Now the payment is not only for his trip but for his life,” says the father of the 14-year-old Mohamed Desouky.

The extortion is facilitated by a network across eastern Libya that spans all the way up to Haftar’s sons, as indicated in a recent investigation by Mada Masr. One immediate reason is the bounty of money to be made. A boat carrying 750 migrants can make close to $3.5 million. The other motive is political. As is the case for Egypt, different political players in Libya use the issue of migration as a bargaining chip with European officials who usually care about nothing but controlling the flow of migrants into Europe.

The Butnan district, where the trawler set sail from, has also been the site of competition between the notorious LNA-affiliated Tariq Ben Zayed Brigade and other tribal actors who have a stake in the migrant trade. As the LNA has looked to secure its own profits and weaken other tribal groups in recent weeks, it deployed a new unit in Butnan to try to gain control over migration, according to the Libyan source close to intelligence. 

Eventually, often after rushing to sell off a piece of farming land or borrow money from acquaintances, the families of the migrants pay the demanded sum to a representative of the smuggler. Sometimes the families negotiate a lower price to allow the release of their relatives and have them sent back to Egypt.

This is what happened to Mostafa Mohamed, who traveled beside his cousin, Mahmoud al-Sherif and other friends from their village in Sharqiya to Marsa Matrouh, the coastal city close to the Egypt-Libya border in Salloum. They were coordinating with the Libyan smuggler known as Abu Sultan via WhatsApp, Mostafa says. Abu Sultan guided them to a brick factory and instructed them to wait there. Various groups of migrants started arriving at the designated point. They spent a night beside the factory. Then, a microbus picked them up and handed them over to a group from the Awlad Ali tribe, whose members straddle the Egyptian-Libyan border. Then, on foot, a young man, no older than 16, guided them across the border.

Eventually, they arrived at one of the infamous warehouses. Their families were contacted to pay the money. His cousin’s family managed to scrape together the money and paid. Mostafa’s family couldn’t. In correspondence over Facebook messenger with Abu Sultan, Mostafa’s family tried to negotiate a price for him to be released and sent back to Egypt instead. Initially, Abu Sultan insisted on LE50,000 ($1,617). But when the family couldn’t pay, he conceded to LE30,000 ($971). 

“OK,” Abu Sultan wrote back, “two days and we will send him back to Egypt.”

A conversation between Mostafa’s family and Abu Sultan negotiating a price for his release

Abu Sultan’s name keeps popping up in different testimonies. The name has become so famous in the world of smuggling migrants it is a franchise tag. Other smugglers have started to call themselves Abu Sultan. And Abu Sultan began calling himself “the original” Abu Sultan to protect his brand.

A Facebook post by “the original” Abu Sultan advertising the number of a new intermediary

On Thursday night, June 8, Abu Sultan announced the names of those who had paid and would be traveling the following day, Mostafa recalls. His cousin was among those to embark, and the migrants were moved to the boat.

Three days later, after his family paid, he was transferred to the Egypt-Libya border. He crossed to the Egyptian side and was detained. After a week and a series of interrogations, he was released. Mostafa arrived at his house on Monday to find out that the trawler that had carried away his cousin, Mahmoud, sank. Mahmoud is still missing.

Manning the decks

Paying the thousands of dollars demanded by smugglers is not the only way to board the trawler. Another, exceptional way is to help manage the journey. Two smugglers on the Egyptian and Libyan sides explain that no one jeopardizes their own crews in undertaking such risky journeys. Instead, they choose some of the migrants who can’t pay and train them in the basics of marine navigation.

Several smugglers confirm this is the norm. Contacted to inquire about the safety of the journey, Hajj Mokhtar Abu Omar, the Libyan smuggler and owner of several trawlers, confirms that “one of the travelers like you will do navigation.” But “all safety requirements are there,” he reassures. “You will see them being trained with your own eyes.” 

Both Ibrahim Heggi, an activist and researcher in migration issues who lives in Italy, and Alaa Eraky, who works in a rescue group that responded to the capsized Pylos trawler last week, confirmed the pattern.

And based on the pattern, some migrants might end up charged with being complicit in smuggling. The facts around their exact roles might be irrelevant to authorities eager to react in the aftermath of such a tragedy.

This might explain the discrepancy between arresting and charging of nine Egyptians by Greek authorities and their families’ accounts of their relatives’ alleged complicity.

Families of three of the nine insist that they were merely migrants trying to make it to Europe.

Abu Eyad, a relative of Ahmed Abdel Khaleq, one of the nine Egyptians accused, denied any complicity, saying that his relative arrived in Libya with others only 10 days before the ship set sail. Ashraf Gamal, the brother of Ahmed Gamal, one of the accused, insisted that they paid money for his journey after he traveled to Libya a few months ago. The brother of Ahmed Ezzat Khodary offered a similar story.

What is clear is that the trawler started sailing, navigated by inexperienced migrants. And less than a day later, according to a testimony of one of the Syrian survivors corroborated by Mada Masr and OmniaTV, the trawler begins to wander off course. Another Syrian survivor mentioned in his official deposition that he and other passengers believed “the captain had lost his way.”

Eventually, the ship runs out of water. Panic ensues. Some Egyptians call on a passing commercial vessel to send them water and supplies, as stated in the official deposition of a Pakistani survivor. “Egyptians took it all and a fight broke out with other passengers, who finally got to share the water,” he said. One Egyptian survivor guessed this might be the reason behind the arrest of another Egyptian survivor they know, Abdel Salam. “They were selling water to people,” he recalls.

And on top of all that, on Tuesday, June 13, the engine, which was already malfunctioning, started breaking down.

A whole day of drowning

The publicly available timeline of the events that led to the sinking of the trawler starts in the morning of June 13. 

Activists and search and rescue NGOs spoke publicly about informing the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Greek shipping ministry and the Italian, Maltese and Greek search and rescue authorities of the boat’s whereabouts and that 750 people were on board. Yet the authorities only engaged with the boat later that day, and once the vessel was already immobilized.

Greek officials continue to deny that the trawler requested assistance from them.

At 9:30 am CEST on June 13, a distress call was received by Italy-based activist Nawal Soufi from a boat carrying over 750 passengers. In the call, the passengers said that they were without water after four days of sailing. Between 10 and 11 am Greek local time, a European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) drone, EAGLE1, located the trawler, which, according to a video published later by the agency itself, was still moving facing north toward the Greek coastline. 

By 11 am, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre informed Greek authorities that a boat carrying a large number of migrants was in international waters to the southwest of the Peloponnese, and by 2 pm, the Hellenic Coast Guard was in contact with the distressed boat, according to official records cited in the Greek press. However, no immediate rescue was made.

By 4 pm the same day, Alarm Phone, an activist hotline for migrants in distress in the Mediterranean, was informed of the boat’s situation and had established the location of the trawler after speaking with passengers on board. The self-organized hotline then sent an email to Greek authorities, as well as to the Frontex and the Greece office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at 4:53 pm.

Within an hour, Soufi published a recorded phone conversation in which people on board can be heard informing her that six individuals on the trawler had already died, with the sounds of screams and panic clear in the background of the call. “Some people had died due to the lack of water,” said an Egyptian national who survived the incident recalling the events of Tuesday night in a video published on Facebook.

Between the hours of 6 and 9 pm, according to records from the operations room at the Greek shipping ministry published Wednesday, two trade vessels, one Maltese and one Greek, offered the trawler food and water supplies.

The Greek ministry also said that further assistance was offered until 9 pm on June 13 to the 750 people on board by one of the trade vessels, the Hellenic Coast Guard and the ministry, but that people on the boat who spoke English “refused” help and said they wished to continue to Italy. 

The Greek shipping ministry’s operations center, however, recounts that at 1:40 am on June 14, someone onboard the trawler informed the Greek shipping ministry’s operations center that the engine had malfunctioned and was “no longer turning.” According to the ministry, the Hellenic Coast Guard approached the trawler to try and determine the problem. At 2:04 am, an officer onboard the coast guard boat informed the ministry that the fishing vessel “took a right, then a sharp left and another right, so great that it resulted in the fishing vessel capsizing”. 

It’s not clear what exactly caused the ship to overturn in the early hours of Wednesday morning. What is clear is that the vessel was no longer able to move at this point, and hadn’t been for many hours already. Survivors stated that a Greek vessel attempted to tow the boat, a narrative that was denied by the official Greek account.

“Then 10 to 15 minutes later the boat completely sank,” the operations center’s records read. “A number of passengers on the outer decks fell into the sea.” A broad-scale rescue operation was later initiated, the records conclude, which involved among others private vessels that were in the vicinity of the shipwreck, such as the Mayan Queen IV yacht. 

Further questions were also raised after the shipwreck, on why the relevant authorities in Greece did not ask the private, specialized rescue vessel Aigaion Pelagos, which was on port in Gytheio, in the southern Peloponnese, to assist the trawler. As the commanding officer of Aigaion Pelagos also confirmed while interviewed, they could have reached the trawler in three or four hours and provided assistance, but nobody asked them to.

Through retrospect, darkly 

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Not unlike other incidents, there is little to no audiovisual material of the journey taken by the trawler to its eventual sinking. In the absence of data, assessing the actions of officials that night is rendered a guessing game.

Initially, a set of two aerial photographs was leaked to the media, followed by a night view of the vessel taken by someone onboard the Hellenic Coast Guard boat involved in the scene, the PPLS 920 HCG. 

Authorities have backtracked and shifted the narrative about what happened, raising doubts about their credibility. While the Hellenic Coast Guard claimed that there was no video recording of their operation, subsequent leaks from the ongoing court case indicate that there was indeed some sort of recording taking place.

The capacity of monitoring and surveillance apparatus used in the Aegean and Ionian seas has expanded significantly in recent years, with aerial assets belonging both to Frontex and to individual countries able to patrol coastal areas all the way to the shores of North Africa.

As the trawler made its way north toward Greek waters, with the migrant crew veering off their intended course, it is possible that three aerial assets could have monitored the vessel prior to June 13.

Without being able to plot the trawler’s course, it’s impossible to tell if the three drones actually saw the doomed ship. However, their consistent presence in the vicinity raises questions about whether Greek authorities knew about the ship prior to the publicly stated timeline.

The first drone which could in theory have monitored the vessel earlier is Frontex-operated EAGLE1 — which was later confirmed to have spotted the fishing vessel between 10 and 11 am on June 13. The drone regularly monitors the area between Syracuse and the Ionian Sea. 

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On June 10, a day after the trawler set sail, another asset, SEGUL21, was monitoring the area, reaching far south toward the Libyan coast.

Last but not least, an IAI Heron drone, UC01, supporting the Hellenic Coast Guard and other authorities but directly controlled by Frontex, is seen frequently monitoring the Ionian Sea.

Both EAGLE1 and UC01 monitor the triangle formed between Crete, Sicily and Corfu on a daily basis, while EAGLE1 also reached the Greek search and rescue zone during the 48 hours prior to the boat sinking in a location slightly north of where the shipwreck would later take place.

On a flight on June 12, SEGUL21 is partially recorded in the ADSBExchange platform, the largest source of flight data in the world, missing a key part of location data. Yet, based on the available locations, it is safe to assume that it moved in positions between the recorded data points, in an area proximal to the site of the trawler at the time, as geolocation data points from the asset form a trajectory spanning from international waters toward the south Peloponnese. 

In order to trace the trajectories of UC01, we combined data from both the ADSBExchange and FlightRadar24 platforms.

Albeit fragmented, the available data show that the drone was indeed patrolling the sector where the shipwreck happened for at least three days prior to the incident, and while the fishing boat was already moving toward Greek waters.

Meanwhile, on June 14, when the shipwreck took place, the drone was ordered to patrol a different area, south of Crete, due to another incident, according to the Hellenic Coast Guard. Explaining the change in deployment, Frontex issued a statement: “as a Frontex drone was to patrol the Aegean on the same day, the agency offered to provide additional assistance ahead of the planned and scheduled flight. The Greek authorities asked the agency to send the drone to another search and rescue incident south of Crete with 80 people in danger.” 

In the past, Greek authorities have refused the support of Frontex surveillance assets. In the infamous 2021 European Anti-Fraud Office report on the agency’s investigation of Frontex activities and operations, it was stated that a Frontex aerial asset was “relocated” potentially “as an attempt to avoid witnessing incidents in the Aegean Sea” that might have a potential fundamental rights component.

While the intentions of the Hellenic Coast Guard remain shrouded in a shapeshifting narrative of denial, Greece has a troubled history of migration management centering around pushback operations. In these operations, ostensibly undertaken to secure sovereign borders, states forcibly displace individuals to outside of their borders to ensure they are outside procedural and legal frameworks. In the case of the Hellenic Coast Guard, they have let individuals drift on either inflatable dinghies or even life rafts, not only denying them due process and the chance to register claims of asylum but also actively endangering them.

Many pushback operations have been documented in the past decade in the territorial waters or in the search and rescue zone of Greece, with the practice akin to an unofficial policy of the Hellenic Coast Guard since 2020.

One of those operations, bearing striking similarities with the emerging descriptions of the Pylos shipwreck, is the Farmakonisi case. It is also one of the few cases to have been through the full judicial course available to the victims of such operations.

In 2014, a fishing boat with 27 Afghan, Syrian and Palestinian nationals on board sank off the Aegean Sea island of Farmakonisi while being towed by the Greek coastguard. Eleven people were killed. The Greek government immediately denied any wrongdoing on the part of the Hellenic Coast Guard. The coast guard was both a suspect and the investigating authority during phase one of the investigation. Initial testimonies were therefore taken down by coast guard officers, in some cases without professional translators being present, producing a set of accounts that were almost carbon copies of one another and substantially different from testimonies given to a court official during phase two. The court case was twice dismissed within the same year by judiciary councils in Greece, on the basis that “Greece does not perform pushbacks.”

But Greece does. The European Court of Human Rights recognized this in relation to the Farmakonisi case, issuing a judgment in 2022 finding Greece in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to the incident.

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Despite the landmark ruling, Greek authorities remained committed to staying the course of avoiding accountability. 

With the tragedy of the shipwreck still fresh, the Hellenic Coast Guard and judicial authorities moved swiftly to arrest nine of the survivors, all from Egypt, announcing that they were to be charged with smuggling and multiple counts of endangerment.

Hellenic Coast Guard and Hellenic Police officers outside of the Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy & Frontex local coordination center in Piraeus, June 18, 2023 during a demonstration in response to the capsizing – Courtesy: OmniaTV

The initial testimonies, collected by officers of the Hellenic Coast Guard who were in charge of the investigation, were – again – carbon copies of each other, according to documents leaked to the newspaper EFSYN, in which survivors didn’t accuse the Hellenic Coast Guard of any wrongdoing. 

But the detailed descriptions made by the witnesses in the office of the court investigator paint a different picture, more in line with multiple accounts of survivors that have been published in various press outlets and posted online, stating that the boat capsized after being towed by a coast guard vessel.

Anonymous coast guard sources have already started to speak to the domestic media, circling around the question of “why did they not say that in their initial testimonies” in a seeming attempt to impugn the validity of the testimonies. 

But with the continued lack of information and the coast guard’s defensive stance, it remains difficult to discern what exactly happened in the early hours of June 14.

EU officials have evaded attributing blame for the loss of life in Pylos, and so do Greek and Egyptian officials, in an attempt to sidestep any and all responsibility for complicity in the structures that render such journeys both deadly and necessary. Officials in Pakistan have arrested 14 people – as of the time of publishing – allegedly connected with the smuggling networks that organized the trip. Officials in Butnan have arrested the newly appointed head of the LNA-affiliated branch, in a rejoinder to the Haftars’ reach into their own area of smuggling influence, according to the Libyan source close to the intelligence. The security authorities in Tobruk also arrested two Libyan owners of the boat, Mohamed Saeed Abu Sultan and Ashraf al-Sunaini, says the same source.

Behind closed doors, according to one European diplomat, Egyptian and Greek authorities have had tense exchanges regarding the shipwreck, with officials in Athens suggesting that Cairo did not do enough to stop the ship from venturing into Libyan waters, while Cairo has denied that the ship came from Egypt.

Nonetheless, in a visit to Cairo earlier this week, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrel pledged 20 million euros to Egypt to assist Cairo in its management of the surge of refugees from the war in Sudan. Borrel met with Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki — whose ministry the EU pledged 80 million euros in 2022 to apply “rights-based, protection-oriented and gender-sensitive approaches” in border management” — to discuss “the need for immediate action to fight traffickers and smugglers, who take advantage of people‘s despair.”

But the despair of those who have survived the tragic capsizing remains with little hope to realize the dreams that buoyed them as they set out on their journeys.

Immediately after they were brought ashore, the Hellenic Coast Guard used a warehouse in Kalamata to place the survivors in a temporary detention facility from the early hours of June 14. 

On June 16, most of the survivors were transferred to the reception and identification center in Malakasa, an isolated location about 30 km north of Athens. There, relatives of people that were on the boat have been visiting for days to find out whether their own are among the survivors.

Communication is mostly informal, as there’s no procedure for formal access to the camp except for accredited organizations that work under state supervision. Asylum seekers in these camps will be in legal limbo for an arbitrary amount of time. During this time they are under protracted de facto detention.

A relative of a missing refugee traveled from Italy to the camp of Malakasa, after the shipwreck in Pylos, searching for his cousin, Saber Sah – Courtesy: OmniaTV

Even those people who finally get asylum are trapped in a system of constant revalidation of documents, where it is common for them to receive their renewed identifications after they have already expired.

The nine Egyptians who stand accused of smuggling will almost certainly face indictment and pre-trial detention for up to 18 months. If other, similar trials that have taken place in Greece in the past 10 years are any indication, a first-instance court will find them guilty on multiple counts of felonies, even with no evidence. The convicted will then return to jail for a period of up to two years. Then, they have another chance to try and have their case heard in an appeals court, in an attempt to cut short their sentences that can last decades. Some defendants could have the luck to be represented by lawyers from legal aid organizations. But as of now, the nine Egyptians who set out to call Italy home in search of a better life, are to eventually stand trial before the Greek state with a Greek-appointed lawyer.

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