A year after Greece migrant boat tragedy, answers and justice still out of reach

A year after Greece migrant boat tragedy, answers and justice still out of reach

Egyptian survivor Mahmoud Shalabi, 22, one of the 104 survivors of a deadly migrant shipwreck off southwestern Greece, stands inside a warehouse, used as shelter, at the port of Kalamata, Greece, June 15, 2023. [Angelos Tzortzinis/Pool via Reuters]

By Karolina TagarisRenee Maltezou and Maya Gebeily

*First Published on Reuters

Egyptian electrician Mahmoud Shalabi was the only person from his hometown to survive when a fishing trawler crammed with migrants capsized off Greece a year ago, killing hundreds in one of the deadliest recorded boat disasters in the Mediterranean.

Sixteen friends from Shalabi’s neighborhood outside Cairo were never found. Today, their relatives call him daily to see if the missing have turned up alive, or if there is any news about what caused the boat to sink that day last June.

“No one is accepting that they might be dead,” said Shalabi in an interview in Athens, where the 23-year-old is doing odd jobs while his asylum application is processed.

“Families are being tortured every day, not knowing anything about their son or their brother or their father.”

The disaster on June 14 off southwestern Greece sent shockwaves across Europe and beyond and raised questions about the European Union’s tactics to stem the flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East. The boat had set off from Libya.

But a year on, no independent investigation has been completed into the coast guard’s role, no one has been held accountable, and relatives await news of the fate of loved ones, according to interviews with a dozen survivors, relatives and lawyers.

The coast guard declined to comment. Shipping minister Christos Stylianides said the courts will find out what happened, in time. “We have to be patient,” he told Reuters.

The cause of the shipwreck is disputed. Survivors say the authorities caused the boat to capsize when they tried to tow it. Authorities say the boat refused assistance.

In a report compiled one week after the incident, two experts appointed by the coast guard concluded that the movement of migrants onboard likely made it tip over.

Definitive answers will help ensure such disasters don’t happen again, witnesses say.

Unanswered questions

Greece’s coastguard was aware of the migrant ship on the morning of June 13, and monitored it from the air. The ship sent out distress calls, but a coast guard boat did not arrive until 11 pm. The vessel sank three hours later.

The situation on board was desperate. Supplies had run out. Shalabi was asleep below deck and woken by screams as the boat began to take on water. He swam to the surface, which was crowded with floating corpses.

Up to 700 people were estimated to be on board. Some 104 survived and 82 corpses were recovered. The rest are missing. The search for survivors proved fruitless.

Greek authorities for months blamed nine Egyptians on board, but they were released last month when a Greek court dismissed the case. The focus of investigations is now likely to fall on the coast guard, legal experts said.

A local naval court opened an investigation last year, but it is still at a preliminary stage, lawyers and government sources told Reuters.

In November, Greece’s ombudsman Andreas Pottakis launched a probe after the coast guard twice rejected his calls for an internal investigation, he said. The probe continues.

Eleni Spathana, a lawyer representing dozens of survivors who sued Greek authorities in September alleging the coast guard caused the disaster, said basic questions remain unanswered about “the criminal omissions and actions” of Greek authorities.

Dim hopes

Fatima Al-Rahil lives in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan with her five children. Her husband Ihsaan set off for Europe last year to try to get asylum and his family, who fled war in Syria, could join him later.

Fatima last heard from him on June 9 as the boat left Libya.

Ihsaan couldn’t swim, so took a car tire for buoyancy. But armed smugglers discarded his belongings as he boarded, said his brother-in-law Khaled Al-Rahil, who was with him.

Ihsaan and Khaled were separated in the disaster. “I don’t know what happened,” Khaled told Fatima in a call the next day.

Fatima pushed for answers. In November, she sent a sample of her son’s DNA to Greece via the Red Cross. Three months later, authorities said there was no match with any of the dead.

Without a body to bury, Fatima is left hoping. Maybe a fisherman found Ihsaan and is taking care of him, she wonders. His children miss him: he appears in their dreams, proffering gifts – ear warmers, or candy.

“We’re still living on hope, even if it’s just a 1% one,” she said. “Maybe he went to heaven. But we’re still here. We are the victims.” Unmute

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