100 Children Were Trapped on a Sinking Ship and the Greek Coastguard Did Nothing for Hours. As a Firefighter, I’m Disgusted

How dare they call themselves rescuers.

by Brendan Woodhouse

16 June 2023

A small fishing boat packed with people in the middle of a blue sea
Photo: Hellenic Coast Guard

On Monday the Andrianna, a fishing vessel carrying an estimated 750 people – an official for the Greek shipping ministry told Reuters that most of those on board were from Egypt, Syria and Pakistan – sank in Greek waters just off the Peloponnese coast. 183 people have so far been recovered from the Ionian Sea: 104 alive, 79 dead. There is little hope for the missing, including 100 children thought to have been trapped in the hold.

The Greek coastguard has said that the boat capsized after people aboard moved abruptly to one side of the vessel. It added that “they refused any assistance and said they wanted to continue to Italy”. It would be easy to believe this account if the Greek coastguard hadn’t spent the last three years denying its involvement in illegal pushbacks – operations to send migrants back over the border, usually immediately after they have crossed it – despite extensive evidence to the contrary.

Just last month, the New York Times published footage appearing to show Greek authorities rounding up and dumping a group of Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants – including children as young as six months – on a raft in the Aegean Sea, in violation of Greek, EU and international law. Greece denies the claims.

What’s more, the coastguard’s account of the Adrianna refusing assistance directly contradicts evidence from other organisations. According to Alarm Phone, a support hotline for people crossing the Mediterranean Sea, the Greek authorities had been alerted many hours before the vessel capsized and that the boat was in distress.

According to Alarm Phone’s account of the incident, the first reports of the Adrianna’s distress came at 09:35 on Sunday, from a Twitter user. Five hours later, Alarm Phone received a direct call from the boat; after struggling to retrieve its GPS position for a number of hours, at around 5pm Alarm Phone informed the Greek authorities, as well as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, known as Frontex, and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), about the situation. A nearby merchant vessel gave those aboard the Adrianna water but refused to offer more support, saying it would only act on the authority of the Greek coastguards. Only many hours later, hours after the captain had abandoned the ship on a small boat, did a rescue operation begin, combining Greek army and navy forces, a Frontex drone and a superyacht, as well as other nearby vessels.

As a firefighter for the past 20 years, I find it staggering that for hours, no rescue operation was launched. I have always been taught to save lives first and ask questions later, but this principle of rescue seems to have been forgotten today. In 2015, the Greek coastguard worked tirelessly to rescue thousands of people crossing into the Greek islands, in one case rescuing 242 migrants from a wooden boat stranded in the sea north of Lesbos. Yet over in recent years, Greek coastguards have gone from being protectors of human life to defenders of Fortress Europe: in 2021, the Hellenic coastguard dragged a migrant ship carrying 382 people across the Aegean Sea for three full days, in what reports said “bore all the hallmarks of an illegal pushback”. In 2022, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Greek authorities hadn’t done everything they could to protect the 28 Afghans and Syrians on board a boat that had capsized off the coast of Farmakonisi in 2014, killing 11 women and children.

Indeed, the coastguard’s response to the Adrianna shipwreck may have been far worse than negligent. Kriton Arsenis, MP for Greece’s leftwing party MeRA25, spoke to some of the survivors of the Adrianna, who claimed that the boat capsized while they were being pulled along by the Greek coastguard – suggesting that not only might the coastguard have allowed the shipwreck to happen, it may actively have caused it.

By the time the boat had capsized, the people had not even been given lifejackets by the Greek authorities. To think that no rescue equipment was used goes against every instinct a rescue worker should have.

I cannot imagine a world where firefighters would look at a burning building and refuse to rescue the people inside purely because of their migration status – but that is the world we are living in. A deadly border regime is being maintained by people whose first priority should be to save lives. I feel sick to my stomach.

Brendan Woodhouse has been a firefighter for 20 years. He is also a volunteer refugee rescue activist for Sea-Watch, an NGO which operates rescue ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

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