On 20 January 2015 a Greek lawyer’s team on behalf of the survivors filed a complaint against the Greek authorities to the European Court of Human Rights. Three woman and eight children from Afghanistan died one year ago when their vessel sank near the Greek island Farmakonisi while being towed by the Greek Coast Guard. Since 24 January 2014, PRO ASYL supports the survivors with legal and humanitarian aid. There are conflicting accounts of what happened that night. Here is the analysis of PRO ASYL:
During the early hours of 20 January 2014, three women and eight children from Afghanistan died off the coast of the Greek island Farmakonisi. A fishing boat carrying 27 refugees from Afghanistan and Syria sank while being towed by the Greek Coast Guard. The survivors accuse the Greek Coast Guard of towing them at full speed towards Turkey although the sea was rough and stormy. The Coast Guard claims that the boat was pulled slowly towards Farmakonisi. The refugees describe an illegal push-back operation, Greek authorities claim that they attempted a rescue at sea operation.
Members of the Coast Guard also state that this deadly mission took place within the framework of the Frontex operation Poseidon. Until today, Frontex denies any responsibility for the death of these eleven refugees and for human rights violations in the Aegean Sea.
Fatale mistakes while towing, disregard of all principles regarding rescue at sea
Both the files of inquiry of the Prosecutor of Piraeus’ Marine Court as well as the report of an independent shipping expert only allow for one conclusion: there was no rescue at sea operation. All international standards regarding rescue at sea were disregarded. According to the expert’s opinion, the way in which the towing took place caused the destruction of the already disabled boat and led to its sinking.
The Coast Guard had simply ignored the laws of physics: the rope used for towing the fishing boat was only ten meters long and therefore too short. The Coast Guard recklessly took the risk that high waves would drown the fishing boat and that the pulling force would damage the boat causing it to sink.
It is beyond dispute that the little fishing boat was towed by the ship of the coast guard.
It is further beyond dispute that officers of the Coast Guard boarded the disabled boat in order to fasten a rope.
Officers who participated in the operation later stated that the boat was pulled for ten minutes after the rope had been fastened. It was pulled for another five minutes, after the fastening broke and after the rope had been reattached provisionally. Thus, the boat had been pulled for at least 15 minutes by the Greek Coast Guard and therefore was under its full control before it sank.
There had been plenty of opportunities to rescue the protection seekers, but no rescue at sea was initiated. The refugees were not taken on board the Coast Guard vessel and not even handed life vests.
No rescue at sea but border control
The Coast Guard’s claim that there was a rescue at sea operation does not comply with the files of inquiry. It is a fact that the Coast Guard had only informed the Sea Rescue Operation Center in Piraeus at 02:13 o’clock, after the boat had already sunk. Before that, only the border control operation center had been informed. This means: There was no formal rescue at sea operation but an operation to ensure border control. This aspect supports the statements of the survivors indicating that there was a push back operation.
The refugee boat capsized after the Greek Coast Guard – according to their own statement – was forced to cut the rope which connected their ship to the refugee boat. The boat – with women and children under deck – was dragged under water. A mother with her son was found dead by the Turkish Coast Guard the next day. The body of a baby was found days later off the coast of Samos. The remaining eight bodies were recovered weeks later from the body of the boat. 16 people made it to the Coast Guard Vessel.
Cover-ups: chronological sequence was altered, all technical systems out of order
The responsible port authority of Leros reported in the early morning of 20 January 2014 that the refugee boat was seized by the Coast Guard at 01:25. Hours later on the same day, this report was corrected, stating the seizure at 02:00 – 35 minutes later. This difference of 35 minutes is of critical importance. A seizure at 02:00 and a sinking at 02:13 would mean that within 13 minutes two officers had boarded the boat, it had been towed twice and then 16 survivors managed to get onto the coast guard vessel. This account seems impossible from a purely calculative point of view.
A part from the diverging time specifications, there are no technical recordings of the deadly operation: no GPS- or radar recordings, no documentation of telephone or radio communication, no photos or videos. According to a statement of the border agency Frontex, no data was inserted into the new border surveillance system EUROSUR.
Five of the survivors have relatives in Germany. After months of negotiations, they were able to legally travel to Hamburg and Berlin on 21 and 22 November 2015.
Humanitarian visa, which would enable them to safely get to their relatives in other European countries, were not granted to another ten survivors. Just like any other protection seeker in Greece, they were forced to leave the country on irregular, perilous routes.
The sixteenth survivor of the Farmakonisi catastrophe, a young refugee from Syria, is being held in investigative custody in Greece. Within the next weeks his trial will take place. Greek authorities claim that he was the captain of the boat and want to imprison him for decades for being a smuggler. The other survivors emphasize however: ‘He is just like us. A refugee. There was no smuggler on board.’