20th of January 2014: A fishing boat carrying 27 refugees from Afghanistan and Syria sank while being towed by the Greek Coast Guard. Foto: Greek Forum of Refugees

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.

The sur­vi­vors

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.’