Ursula von der Leyen on Pylos: “Saving lives at sea is a moral duty”

In a letter obtained by Solomon, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calls for an investigation into the causes of the fatal shipwreck in a “transparent, thorough and swift manner.”

*First Published on Solomon

Iliana Papangeli
Stavros Malichudis

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her response to a letter from Members of European Parliament stated, “It is of utmost importance to ensure that facts are established in a transparent, thorough and swift manner.”

The letter is dated November 28, 2023 and it is in response to a letter addressed to her on June 22, 2023, from MEPs representing four Eurogroups regarding the Mediterranean’s deadliest shipwreck in recent years, which claimed the lives of over 650 migrants. 

Underlining the “urgent need” to combat trafficking rings and create safe migration routes, Ursula von der Leyen notes: “Commission stands by the conviction that saving life at sea is a moral duty, as well as a legal obligation for Member States under international law, regardless of the circumstances that have led people to be in distress at sea.”

In addition: “We repeatedly call on all actors involved in search and rescue events to comply with the relevant legal framework.”

The grey areas around the Coast Guard

In her reply letter, five and a half months after the shipwreck, von der Leyen states that she is aware of the opening of the judicial inquiry, including the investigation by the General Prosecutor’s Office in Greece.

But, referring to the Coast Guard, the president of the Commission makes a statement that raises questions about the actual level of information of European institutions. Her letter states: “The Hellenic Coast Guard reported to have shared all available audio-visual material with the General Prosecutor’s office to support the ongoing investigation.”

As it has emerged from the journalistic investigation, the state-of-the-art cameras of the Coast Guard vessel PPLS-920, the only vessel allegedly present at the time of the shipwreck, were not working despite the relevant orders from Frontex.

Therefore, they have not visually recorded what preceded and followed the capsizing of the fishing vessel.

The audio conversations with the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre

are also said to have been made via mobile phone, and were not recorded internally. 

The Ombudsman recently announced that an independent investigation will be conducted, and stated that they had encountered the “express refusal” of the Hellenic Coast Guard regarding an internal disciplinary investigation and to replying to specific information which was requested. 

As for the mobile phones of the PPLS-920 crew, they were seized in early October, three and a half months after the incident.

Search and rescue: a national affair

In her letter, the Commissioner refers to the resolution of the European Parliament, adopted on July 13, 2023, “which calls for more action on the part of the EU to save human lives at sea.”

She clarifies, however, that for the Commission, Search and Rescue operations are national responsibilities and are coordinated by the national lifesaving and rescue coordination centers.

In the wake of the shipwreck, Solomon reflected on the European hypocrisy around rescuing people on the move: of the €819 million in EU funding available to Greece for border management for the period 2021-2017, only €600,000 is slated for the improvement of Search and Rescue capacity.

This is 0.07% of the total amount of funding.

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