Authorities Need to Learn Lessons to Avert Future Deaths at Sea
- Official investigations into credible allegations that the Hellenic Coast Guard’s actions and omissions contributed to the shipwreck and loss of life off Pylos, Greece six months ago have made little meaningful progress.
- A full accounting of what happened is paramount to securing truth and justice for survivors and families of the victims and to help avoid future deaths.
- Authorities should ensure that the allegations against Hellenic Coast Guard officers and other Greek officials are thoroughly investigated and prosecute any officials for whom there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
(Athens, December 14, 2023) – Official investigations into credible allegations that the Hellenic Coast Guard’s actions and omissions contributed to the catastrophic shipwreck and loss of life off Pylos, Greece six months ago have made little meaningful progress, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today.
The Adriana, a severely overcrowded fishing trawler, capsized in the early morning of June 14, 2023, leading to the death of more than 600 people. It had started its journey from Libya five days earlier with an estimated 750 migrants and asylum seekers, including children, mainly from Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt. Only 104 of those onboard survived, and 82 bodies were recovered.
“The Pylos shipwreck appears to be another tragic example of Greek authorities’ abdication of responsibility for saving lives at sea,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “A full accounting of what happened is paramount to securing truth and justice for survivors and families of the victims and to help avoid future deaths.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 survivors, 5 relatives of 5 people still missing, and representatives of the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Greek police, nongovernmental organizations, United Nations and international agencies and organizations.
They found that in the 15 hours between receiving the first alert that the Adriana was in their search-and-rescue region, and when it capsized, Greek authorities failed to mobilize appropriate resources for a rescue. The authorities were clearly aware of indicators of distress, such as overcrowding and insufficient food and water, on the Adriana, and, survivors said, knew about corpses on board and requests for rescue. Survivors’ testimonies also challenge the authorities’ claim that people on the Adriana did not want to be rescued, which in any event would not have relieved the Hellenic Coast Guard of its obligation to take all measures necessary to ensure safety at sea. Survivors consistently said that they pleaded repeatedly for rescue, including to the Coast Guard itself.
Survivors said that a Coast Guard patrol boat attached a rope to the Adriana and pulled, causing the boat to capsize. They also alleged that, after the boat capsized, the Coast Guard boat was slow to activate rescue operations, failed to maximize the number of people rescued, and engaged in dangerous maneuvers.
Among others, separate investigations by the independent group Solomon, the interdisciplinary investigative platform Forensis, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, El País, Lighthouse Reports, and the Washington Post documented similar allegations.
The nature of ongoing judicial investigations in Greece raises concerns about the prospects for accountability for the shipwreck, the organizations said. Nine survivors, currently under arrest, are facing serious charges before the Criminal Court of Kalamata in Greece, including for causing a shipwreck. In parallel, the Naval Court opened an investigation in June into the potential responsibility of the Coast Guard and in September, 40 survivors filed a complaint with the same court alleging that Greek authorities were responsible for the shipwreck. It is unclear how a finding by one court might affect the other.
Survivors’ testimony points to potential serious procedural shortcomings that might affect both investigations, including the confiscation of survivors’ mobile phones, some of which may contain key evidence of the events. The Naval Court prosecutor only in late September requested Hellenic Coast Guard officers’ phones, which could also contain evidence, and as of early December, only 13 survivors had been summoned to provide statements.
In November, the Greek Ombudsman opened an inquiry into the Coast Guard’s actions, citing its refusal to conduct an internal disciplinary investigation. The European Ombudsman opened an inquiry into the role of the EU border agency Frontex, whose aircraft initially sighted the vessel, while the agency’s Fundamental Rights Officer is pursuing his own investigation. In contributions to the European Ombudsman’s inquiry, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch contend that Frontex should have continued its monitoring of the Adriana and issued a mayday call. Frontex told the organizations that it is the responsibility of national authorities to coordinate search and rescue operations and that it did not issue a mayday alert because it did not assess an “imminent risk to human life.”
The Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy replied to the organizations’ letters, saying that protecting human life at sea constitutes its “highest professional and moral obligation” and that the Coast Guard and the Joint Rescue Coordination Center Piraeus, abide by the legal and operational frameworks in place in search and rescue operations. However, citing ongoing judicial and nonjudicial investigations, the Coast Guard declined to answer the organizations’ questions or respond to their findings.
The historic failures in Greece’s investigations of shipwrecks involving people on the move and the widespread impunity for systemic human rights violations at its borders raise concerns about the adequacy of the ongoing judicial inquiries into the Pylos tragedy, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said. In 2022, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Greece for the shortcomings in its rescue efforts and in its subsequent investigations in the 2014 Farmakonisi shipwreck in which 11 people died.
“Almost 10 years since the deadly Farmakonisi shipwreck, the Greek authorities’ response to the Pylos tragedy is a crucial test of their willingness to investigate human rights violations against racialized people on the move at the country’s border,” said Adriana Tidona, migration researcher at Amnesty International. “Greece must ensure that survivors and families’ of the hundreds who lost their lives can safely and effectively participate in proceedings to the highest degree possible and ensure that investigations are carried out in a timely manner, guaranteeing the completeness and integrity of evidence admitted.”