Greece shipwreck explained: The claims and counterclaims

Government denies survivors’ claims that it tried to tie a rope to the trawler that led to its sinking, as hundreds are feared dead

*First Published on Middle East Eye

Survivors of a shipwreck off Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula sit inside a warehouse at the port in Kalamata town, on 15 June 2023 (AFP)

By Areeb Ullah

Three days on and more questions than answers are emerging on how a rusty trawler carrying “hundreds” of people sank off the Greek coast in the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea. 

On Friday, the United Nations called for an urgent investigation into the incident as hundreds were feared missing – including 100 children onboard the vessel.

Greek officials said it recovered the dead bodies of 78 men, women and children in the immediate aftermath of the shipwreck on Wednesday. Since then, no bodies have been found. 

Around 104 survivors – all men and primarily SyrianEgyptian and Pakistani – were rescued after the incident, though as many as 500 more people are missing and feared dead.

But as Greek officials wrap up its search operation, many are asking if the Hellenic coastguard and its European partners could have done more to rescue people onboard the ship.

Middle East Eye takes a look at what we know so far. 

Where did the boat come from?

On 9 June, a boat set sail from eastern Libya carrying approximately 750 people hoping to reach Europe. Greek authorities and NGOs believe the boat was headed for Italy, where those onboard had hoped to claim asylum.

Many of the people onboard left their homelands for a better future and to reach their relatives in Europe.

On Tuesday, surveillance aircraft, belonging to European border and Coast Guard agency Frontex, spotted the overcrowded trawler at 12.47pm local time (0947 GMT) and said it had notified Greek authorities. 

Greek authorities said it had monitored the boat’s progress as it continued onto Italy after being informed by Frontex. 

The boat sank off Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula on Wednesday night, five days after setting off. 

How did the boat sink?

The reasons why the boat sank remain unclear, but Greek officials, survivors and NGOs say that overcrowding was a contributing factor.

Experts believe the trawler may have run out of fuel or experienced engine problems, leading the movement of people to capsize the vessel.

Alarm Phone, which runs a hotline for people in distress at sea, said people onboard the trawler called on Tuesday at 1520 GMT and said the boat was not moving and that the captain had fled on a small boat.

Fourteen minutes later, the NGO said people onboard called again and said the “boat was overcrowded and moving from side to side”.

Surveillance photos taken by the Greek coastguard and Frontex confirmed that the vessel was overcrowded.

What do survivors say?

Survivors said that the Greek coastguard had attempted to attach a rope to the vessel to tow it to safety. 

Late on Thursday, video footage showed a survivor telling Greece’s former prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, that the coastguard had thrown a rope at people on the boat. 

Speaking through a translator, the survivor told Tsipras that people onboard “didn’t know how to pull the rope [and] the vessel started tilting right and left… the coastguard boat was going too fast, but the vessel was already tilting to the left, and that’s how it sank”.

Alarm Phone said people onboard had pleaded for help on at least two occasions and that it had alerted the Greek authorities and aid agencies hours before the disaster. 

Survivors who spoke to human rights activist Nawal Soufi said people onboard were attempting to catch supplies from merchant vessels and Greek authorities, including bottles of water, which may have contributed to the boat swinging from side to side, and causing a state of panic. 

What does the Greek coastguard say?

Greek authorities said the boat had rejected all forms of assistance until the very last minute before the trawler sank.

The Eastern Mediterranean Maritime Limited, which manages the Maltese flagged Lucky Sailor Merchant tanker that helped people onboard the boat, supported parts of this claim and said people onboard the trawler were “very hesitant” to receive help.

Athens also rejected claims made by survivors that the boat sank because the coastguard had attempted to tie a rope to the vessel and tow it to shore. 

A government spokesperson said the coastguard had “used a rope to steady themselves, to approach, to see if they wanted any help” but insisted it did not attempt to tow the boat or tie the coastguard vessel to it. 

On Friday, Greek coastguard spokesperson Nikos Alexioui said both the coastguard and private ships repeatedly offered by radio and loudspeaker to help the vessel on Wednesday while it was in international waters.

Alexioui said that any attempt to move the overcrowded trawler or hundreds of “unwilling people” to nearby ships would have been dangerous. 

He added that after the trawler accepted food from a merchant ship, passengers onboard the boat rejected a rope bringing more supplies from a second merchant ship as “they thought the whole process was a way for us to take them to Greece”.

Earlier, the Greek coastguard said an English speaker onboard had insisted the vessel was “in no danger” and did not need any assistance.

Why are rights groups criticising Greece?

Despite Greek assurances, UN agencies and rights groups criticised the Hellenic coastguard and said it should have acted earlier to save people onboard the boat.

Vincent Cochetel, special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for the Central and Western Mediterranean, said Greece’s argument for not intervening “does not hold up”.

Alarm Phone said people on the vessel called them hours before the ship sank and said that they “cannot survive the night”.

Legal experts have also criticised the Greek coastguard, stating that maritime law would have required Greek authorities to attempt a rescue if the boat was unsafe, regardless of whether passengers requested it.

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