Migrant shipwreck highlights crisis in Mediterranean
Hundreds remain missing at sea
The Greek coast guard this week found more bodies off the country’s southern coast from last week’s deadly shipwreck in the Mediterranean, bringing the number of migrant deaths to 82. A large-scale operation that included drones and helicopters helped rescue more than 100 people, but an estimated 500 migrants are still missing at sea. Authorities said many of the migrants were young men from Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, and Palestinian territories.
The shipwreck is considered one of the deadliest yet along the migration route through the central Mediterranean. It sparked an intercountry response and turned attention back to Europe’s long-lasting crisis.
The fishing vessel departed from eastern Libya and was heading for Italy. After five days it went into distress. Survivors said the captain fled on a smaller boat after the engine broke down. Authorities and responders believe more than 700 people were on board, with women and children trapped in the hold as the ship capsized.
Some survivors told Greek authorities they paid $4,500 each to smugglers for a slot on the vessel. The Greek coast guard said none of those rescued had life jackets or other life-saving equipment.
Mohammed Hussein, an Egyptian survivor who is now at a migrant camp in Athens, told the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw he was in the water for more than three hours.
“Some of [the passengers] managed to stay for an hour or so, but they eventually became too tired and let go of their lives, and drowned,” he said. “We had been stuffed on one another in the boat. We were not even able to stretch out our legs.”
The details of why the boat sank still remain unclear. The Greek coast guard faced protests and criticisms over accusations that responders could have given help sooner.
Nikos Alexiou, a spokesman for the Greek coast guard, said the migrants refused their assistance, insisting they wanted to get to Italy. “We chose to mind the vessel from a distance, and that is why we reacted so fast,” Alexiou told The Guardian.
Pakistan observed a day of national mourning for the victims on Monday and detained 12 suspected traffickers. A Greek court in the southern city of Kalamata also ordered nine Egyptian suspects to remain in partial custody.
More than 1,800 migrants have died or gone missing this year while traveling across the Mediterranean Sea toward Europe. On Wednesday, nearly 40 migrants drowned after their boat sank about 100 miles southeast of the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, an island in the Canary Islands. Aid groups have said a Spanish rescue ship was nearby but did not respond to the vessel that was within its search and rescue zone. Moroccan authorities coordinated the rescue response.
The president of the Canary Islands, Angel Victor Torres, urgently called for a more “coordinated and united” response from the European Union.
Alarm Phone, a distress hotline for refugees in the Mediterranean, said migrants face pushback from Greek authorities. “People on the move know that thousands have been shot at, beaten, and abandoned at sea by these Greek forces,” Alarm Phone said in a statement. “It is due to systematic pushbacks that boats are trying to avoid Greece, navigating much longer routes, and risking lives at sea.” Last year, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Greek authorities’ tactics against migrants trying to reach the country’s border.
The persistent deaths at sea have left European leaders scrambling for long-lasting solutions. Earlier in June, after years of debate, EU leaders agreed to share responsibility for migrants who enter the bloc illegally.
Libya’s insecurity and Tunisia’s worsening economy have spurred more migrants to leave from Tunisia, often taking the central Mediterranean route to Italy. Frontex, the European Union’s border and coast guard agency, said this month that traffic along the central route rose this year by nearly 160 percent compared to the same time last year.
French and German interior ministers on Monday visited Tunisia. The visit marked the third high-level European delegation in Tunisia in three weeks. Last week, the European Commission offered the North African country more than $1 billion to bolster its economy and support border operations.
Tunisian President Kais Saied warned that his country would not act as Europe’s border guard or a resettlement point for migrants deported from Europe. He called instead for more focus on fighting poverty and ending human smuggling networks.
Hanne Beirens, director of the Belgium-based Migration Policy Institute Europe, called the European Commission’s offer a good step forward, since it goes beyond symptomatic responses that stop at border operations. But she noted that third-party partnerships require an implementation plan.
“We have to ask … whether the budget that has been disbursed to a government that’s maybe seen as authoritarian … will be distributed and translate into economic programs, or whether parts of that will disappear into the hands of actors who do not have the well-being of all citizens at the forefront of their actions,” Beirens said.
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