“It was already too late”: Frontex blames the Hellenic Coast Guard for the Pylos shipwreck

*First Published in Solomon

Frontex’s internal report on the deadliest shipwreck in recent years, confirms the investigative reports by Solomon and our media partners. The Hellenic Coast Guard was slow to launch the rescue operation and later refused to answer specific questions.

The findings of the journalistic investigation into the circumstances that led to the fatal shipwreck of Pylos have been confirmed by an internal report (Serious Incident Report) issued by Frontex regarding the incident.

The European Border and Coast Guard Agency’s internal report is dated December 1, 2023, almost six months after the June 14, 2023 shipwreck, which claimed the lives of up to 650 people. The report was posted on X (formerly Twitter) by journalist Eleonora Vasques, who received it through a Request for Access to Public Information (FOIA).

The recording of the preceding events, but also of the events that followed the capsizing of the fishing vessel, confirms the findings of Solomon’s joint investigation with the research group Forensis, the British newspaper The Guardian, German public broadcaster ARD as well as the reports of other media groups.

The Frontex document presents other aspects of the incident, unknown until now. Specifically, in the 17-page internal report, Frontex:

  • attributes the Hellenic Coast Guard with inaccuracies in its presentation of the facts, (e.g. for the Coast Guard’s claim that the overcrowded fishing vessel Adriana remained stationary only for a short time)
  • underlines that the Coast Guard ignored Frontex’s repeated offers of assistance
  • notes that the Coast Guard launched a rescue operation only when “it was already too late to save all the migrants” and that the Coast Guard sent the first request for assistance 25 minutes after the fishing vessel had sunk
  • states that Frontex staff conducted interviews with survivors, and characterized the survivors’ accounts of the towing of the fishing vessel that led to its sinking “consistent
  • records the Coast Guard’s refusal to answer specific questions sent by Frontex after the wreck.

The report states that the traffickers directed Pakistani passengers to the lowest deck on the ship, using a ladder, which was then removed. In this way, the report notes, Pakistani passengers could not reach the exit as it was too high. Only 12 of the 104 survivors are of Pakistani origin.

In relation to the number of migrants on board the fishing vessel, the figures cited by Frontex in the report match those of the journalistic investigation. Specifically, Frontex estimates the number of passengers on the fishing vessel between 685 and 755, of which 125-150 were of Syrian origin (five women and six children), 400-425 of Pakistani origin (less than thirty women and children in total), 150-170 were Egyptian and about 10 people Palestinian.

Rescue began when it was already too late

The Frontex report presents a timeline based on their records.

The chronology confirms that, progressively from the morning of June 13, the Greek Authorities were informed by various sources (Italian Authorities, Frontex, Alarm Phone organization) about the condition of the fishing vessel, and the confirmation that there were dead passengers on board.

In the days following the wreck, the Hellenic Coast Guard maintained that the Adriana was seaworthy and had been drifting (without speed) for only a short time.

In addition to the conflicting testimonies of the survivors, Frontex points out that from the analysis of the traffic records of a nearby tanker that was in transit and arrived on the scene to help, it appears that the fishing vessel’s engine had not been working for long periods of time.

The Frontex report points out that the assets mobilized by the Coast Guard (including the tankers that were asked to provide supplies and the Coast Guard helicopters) were not sufficient to rescue the refugees.

“Judging from the resources actually deployed, as well as based on some migrant testimonies, it appears that the authorities’ immediate focus prior to the shipwreck was not rescue.”

“On the other hand, it appears clear, including from the statements released by the Greek authorities themselves, that the authorities declared the SAR operation only when the Adriana capsized – i.e. when it was too late to rescue all the migrants”.

Frontex points out that the luxury yacht Mayan Queen was ordered to rush to the scene about 25 minutes after the wreck. To this day, the Greek authorities have not explained why it took so long for them to request assistance in the rescue operation, in which, until then, only the Coast Guard vessel PPLS-920 participated.

No reply to Frontex

The internal report confirms that Frontex had offered aerial assistance to the Greek authorities, but its successive requests remained unanswered.

The Coast Guard asked Frontex to send a drone to another incident located south of Crete. When the situation there was under control, Frontex offered to send the drone to the location of the Adriana. The Coast Guard did not respond to the offer.

The report reveals two aspects that, until now, were not widely known.

First, that after successive requests to which Frontex did not receive a response, its coordinator decided on his own to redirect the drone to the last known point of the fishing vessel before it capsized. Second, the report underlines that, acting beyond its obligations in the context of its operation in Greece, Frontex sent staff to the Malakasa camp, who interviewed survivors.

There is no visual evidence of the capsizing of the Adriana, since Frontex’s resources were absent and the state-of-the-art cameras on the Coast Guard vessel PPLS-920 were out of order. But Frontex’s internal report points out that the Greek authorities’ position, that they did not in any way attempt to tow the fishing vessel, “is contradictory to some of the consistent testimonies of the migrants.”

No accountability from the Coast Guard

The Ombudsman is an independent Authority in Greece, which has the right to investigate incidents of abuse by uniformed officers. On November 8, 2023, the Ombudsman announced that it was launching an independent investigation, in order to shed light on the circumstances surrounding the fatal shipwreck.

The Ombudsman stated that they had previously contacted the leadership of the Hellenic Coast Guard, but met with their “express refusal” to an internal disciplinary investigation and to replying to specific information about the wreck which was requested.

In its internal report on the wreck, Frontex states that it sent the Greek authorities a detailed list of questions on July 19, 2023.

Among other things, Frontex asked about the recording systems of the vessel PPLS-920, why the aerial means offered by Frontex were not used, as well as about the complaints made by survivors that their mobile phones were confiscated immediately after the shipwreck.

The Greek National Contact Point with Frontex responded on August 25, 2023. The report states that Frontex, “regrets that most questions remain unanswered.”

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