Stop Blaming Migrants for Deaths at Sea

*First Published on Jacobin


After over 600 people died in a shipwreck last June, Greek police sought to incriminate the survivors. Last week they were finally acquitted, after a case that illustrated a worrying trend to cast ordinary migrants as members of human-smuggling networks.

On May 21, nine men stood in a courtroom in Kalamata Greece, charged with criminal responsibility for the deaths of over six hundred people in the shipwreck of the Adriana off the coast of Pylos last summer. Almost a year before, the nine men had been taken directly from the waters of the Mediterranean to a police interrogation — and then to prison. They were held for eleven months in pretrial detention. Several told the court they were bewildered as to why they were there.

“I don’t know why I am imprisoned,” said one of the defendants on the stand. “I want my justice, to see my family, and to be acquitted. A relative of mine who was on the ship died. I would have liked [to travel in] better conditions, but this was the only way to go to another country.”

“I don’t know why I’m here, they took me from the hospital and took me to prison,” said another. “I have not done what I’m accused of.”

The nine were charged with facilitating illegal entry into Greece, illegal entry into Greece, being members of a criminal organization, and causing the deadly shipwreck.

These nine, like thousands of others trying to reach Europe, were set up to take the blame for smuggling networks moving desperate people over increasingly more treacherous routes. They were charged to obfuscate the fact that these routes are dangerous because European governments have decided and designed them to be so. They were arrested in an attempt to shift the blame for six hundred deaths from the Greek government to a handful of traumatized people.

In Kalamata, Greece, after the trial, the solidarity activists ended their demonstration in the town’s central square. (Moira Lavelle and Vedat Yeler)

Dubious Official Story

In interviews with the press, the Pylos nine have maintained they were simply passengers on the doomed fishing trawler, refugees trying to reach Europe to seek a better life. They insist that they had no part in smuggling the 750 some passengers from Libya, and that they had no part in overturning the ship. Rather, they have all stated that the Greek coast guard arrived and tugged the boat, causing it to capsize.

The dozens of other survivors of the shipwreck who have spoken to journalists or researchers also tell the same story — that the Greek coast guard tugged the overpacked vessel, causing it to heave right, left, and then right again before flipping completely. The coastguard then retreated and made no moves to rescue any of the hundreds of people in the water for about twenty minutes as they drowned.

Greek authorities have rejected responsibility for the fatal capsizing and sinking of the Adriana from the day of the shipwreck, instead blaming the nine Egyptians, who were among the 104 survivors. Regarding the towing of the overloaded fishing trawler with a rope that allegedly caused its capsizing, the Greek coast guard denied it had attached a rope to the vessel but later admitted that it had done so at one point to evaluate the condition of the vessel and the people on board.

A naval court investigation into the role of the coast guard has thus far made little progress.

Lawyers and advocates say the nine were scapegoated for the coast guard’s crimes, and that the case file was based on scanty and dubious evidence.

On May 21, after a series of objections from the defense, all the charges were dropped for all nine, as the fishing trawler had never entered Greek waters, and the Greek court had no jurisdiction. Some of the nine broke out in tears as they went to hug family members who had come to see the trial.

“One day these people had survived a shipwreck, the next they were imprisoned for very serious criminal offenses. Today all of them are going to be released and they’re going to enjoy their freedom for the first time,” said Alexandros Georgoulis, a lawyer on the defense team, outside the Kalamata courthouse.

“These people, like thousands of people in Greece, have been criminalized,” said Georgoulis. “Under the current law it doesn’t matter if you had any intent, it doesn’t matter if you profit from the activity, if you touch the helm of the boat then you are considered a smuggler. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s an absurd law.”

Thousands Criminalized in Europe

Often when a boat of refugees arrives in Greece, one or a few people are detained and interrogated by police. These interrogations of often-traumatized and disoriented people are unrecorded and, in several reports, include mistreatment, intimidation, and torture. The statements taken under these conditions are then used as evidence in the “smuggling” trials.

study by watchdog Borderline Europe found that in February 2023 there were over 2,100 people detained in Greek prisons on smuggling charges, nearly 90 percent of which were third-country nationals. They stated: “Arresting boat / car drivers or other individuals on board for the offence of smuggling is a routine practice by law enforcement, with little regard for the actual involvement or intention of the accused.” People have been charged with “facilitating illegal entry” for acts such as steering a boat, looking at a GPS, or filming rescue operations.

In Greece, prison sentences for those charged with smuggling can reach several lifetimes over. The Borderline Europe report put the average sentence for such convictions at forty-six years, but the Human Rights Legal Project based on the Greek island of Samos has had clients facing sentences of 150 or 250 years.

The practice is also common elsewhere in Europe. A report by human rights groups found Italy arrested over 2,500 migrants for smuggling or aiding illegal immigration between 2013 and 2021, often bringing charges under antimafia laws. The Italian minister of the interior has claimed that the country arrested “550 boat drivers” over 2022 and 2023. Italian lawyers, prosecutors, and judges have admitted that these “scafisti,” or boat drivers, are often forced to take the wheel at gunpoint from traffickers who never themselves board the ships.

The focus on arresting smugglers is not only misplaced on those trying to make the journey themselves, but is also a distraction from the facts of why so many people want to make these journeys, and why they are so dangerous. It is a distraction from the fact that Europe has spent years tightening regulations, pouring millions into border control agreements, and illegally pushing back as many people as possible.

This criminalization expands from those on the move, to those aiding in search and rescue or support for migrants arriving in Europe. An Amnesty International report found that people have been charged for such benevolent actions as giving people tea, alerting the coast guard about people drowning at sea, or informing people about their rights.

“Across Europe, hundreds of people are being punished just for helping or showing solidarity with people on the move,” stated Amnesty International. “Dozens of prosecutions have been launched against NGOs and individuals in Italy, Greece, France and Switzerland.”

Between 2017 and 2023, Germany, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, and Spain initiated over sixty administrative or criminal proceedings regarding NGO search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean.

Sascha Girke was one of the crew of the Iuventa search and rescue ship, charged in Italy with facilitating the irregular entry of migrants in regards to three rescue operations they conducted in 2016 and 2017. The crew estimated they had saved around fourteen thousand lives from 2016 to 2017. Like many other NGO rescue ships that once operated on the Mediterranean, the Iuventa ship was seized, and search and rescue operations had to cease. The Italian court claimed the rescue ship had colluded with smugglers to pick up migrants at sea and returned dinghies to the smugglers. Independent investigations showed no evidence of these illegal acts. The charges were eventually all dropped this April, but the ship has not resumed search and rescue operations. “Coming from the criminalization of solidarity, criminalization efforts against groups, or normal people providing first aid or a lift to the hospital or whatsoever, this is one part of the overall strategy of ‘fortress Europe.’ In the end it targets people on the move themselves,” Girke told Jacobin. He sees these arrests as part of a scare tactic: “This border regime has been created to prevent people from traveling to Europe, by any means necessary.”

Iasonas Apostolopoulos, an activist who has done several search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean, had been called as an expert witness for the defense in the Pylos. “Today a huge injustice has been rectified, against nine people who spent a year in jail without having done absolutely anything,” he said after the trial.

“It’s a shame for humanity that in such a shipwreck instead of judging the perpetrators they judge the victims. This was the first battle for justice for the crime of Pylos, and we continue until the final vindication which is to punish the real criminals, the Greek authorities.”

This fall several survivors of the Pylos shipwreck filed a lawsuit against the Greek authorities, accusing them of violating their duty to protect the lives of the people on board the Adriana. But like the investigation in the Greek naval court, this attempt to hold the state to account, rather than migrants, has thus far made little progress.

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