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Worst shipwreck in the Mediterranean takes the lives of more than 600 people

Shirwan arrives at Malakasa camp early in the morning. He comes from Düsseldorf, Germany, to look for his brother Azad, who does not know if he is alive or if he died in the shipwreck that happened on the 14th of June, in the waters of the Mediterranean that bathe Greece. He hasn't seen his brother since 2015, when he fled Syria as a teenager. Outside the camp's fences, there are dozens of people waiting to see their loved ones again or trying to find out what happened to them. Shirwan opens the way and, after a few minutes, manages to recognize his brother's face, which is now much bigger than he remembered. The three meter bars are unable to prevent a strong and long hug that hides tears and muffles sobs. They are finally together after 8 years and their younger brother is one of the few survivors of the biggest shipwreck in Greece in many years.

In the early hours of the 14th, the trawler Adriana sank about 80 km from the Peloponnese region. The overcrowded boat left Libya for Italy, carrying between 400 and 750 people on board, the majority believed to be from Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Palestine. Reports confirm that the smugglers forced women and children - about 100 - to stay on the bottom of the vessel, as well as most of the Pakistani passengers, leaving the men, namely Arabs, on the upper part of the deck, being the safest part. Only 104 people were rescued alive. About 100 corpses were recovered, and it is estimated that more than 600 people are missing.

Criticism and protests against the actions of the Greek coastguard intensified, with survivors and reporters claiming that the sinking was intentionally caused. The Greek authorities deny the accusations and, although investigations are ongoing to find out what really happened, the reports of survivors, organizations operating on the spot and witnesses are not consistent with the version of the Greek authorities.

We know that the Greek authorities were alerted by activists on the morning of the 13th, as well as by Frontex. The Greek coastguard says a helicopter spotted the trawler at 3:35 pm, prompting them to advise nearby boats to change course so they could check the vessel's condition.

Alarm Phone - a maritime rescue NGO - says it received an urgent alert from the trawler at 17:13, saying that they were in trouble and that they had about 750 people on board. They were in the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea, at 5,200 meters, where the Greek coast guard is responsible for rescues. This, in turn, claims that at 18:30 a person on board refused the rescue and that when they arrived at the scene at 22:40, they did not identify any problem with the vessel. They declare, then, that at 02:00 am the trawler, for no apparent reason, began to rock intensely to the right side and then to the left side, which caused it to capsize and sink.

Ship photographed by the Hellenic Coast Guard. EPA

It's a different story for the shipwreck survivors. Azad's journey began in May, when he fled Syria towards Libya, where he spent two weeks. On the morning of June 9, he boarded the trawler to escape torture by the Libyan militias. Despite the family's warnings not to board, the fear was stronger, leading him to pay 5,000 dollars to traffickers to be able to reach Italy and then meet his brother, who is a nurse in Germany.

When he boarded the trawler, Azad was placed in a very cold storage room. He could only go on deck if he paid more money. Very few passengers had a life jacket – apparently the smugglers forbade them to be used in order to have more space and sold them only on board the boat. Water and food were also only available if he paid extra. Azad says that a few days after setting sail, the situation began to get more complicated: food and water ran out and many passengers began to drink urine and sea water in despair. There were only a few dates left, and food fights began to escalate. Many people fainted and six died. Inside the boat, passengers called for help several times over the radio and from passing boats. A small relief came when two freighters - Lucky Sailor and Faithful Warrior - passed in the late afternoon of the 13th and dropped food and water, but the passengers became more agitated in their eagerness to save themselves, causing the boat to give way on one side with the weight of the passengers desperately trying to grab the water bottles thrown at them.

During the crossing, the trawler's engine failed several times, but on that 13th the Greek coastguard arrived who tried several times to tie a rope to tow it. On the third attempt, reports confirm that, after tying the rope, the Greek boat took off very quickly and the trawler turned left and then right and then capsized completely. “All the people started screaming, people fell overboard and when the boat capsized we never saw anyone again”. Panic spread and most of the people at the bottom of the boat, who were women and children, had very little chance of escaping. Those who fell overboard had to struggle to swim away from the sinking suction power of the boat. Azad thought his time had come, but then he thought of his family and swam with all his might. He managed to grab hold of one of the inflatable boats launched by the coast guard and was pulled aboard. “I don't know how many dead people I've been through…”.

About half an hour after the sinking, several vessels began to arrive, the first being a super yacht – Mayan Queen – to rescue those who remained at sea. From there, a massive rescue operation began.

Only 104 people managed to survive while approximately 600 women, children and men drowned without any life jackets or help.

Hellenic Coast Guard carries body bags found in the sea. Stelios Misinas/Reuters

Investigations carried out by Forensis indicate that the Greek coastguard had a crucial responsibility in towing an overcrowded vessel of that size, leading to its sinking, and then withdrawing at great speed, causing waves that blocked the chances of rescue, with the survivors still waiting until half an hour before the boat returned to help them.

Evidence demonstrates that there were a number of efforts by the Greek authorities to distort and manipulate evidence, as well as to silence witnesses. It was discovered that boats in the vicinity were initially asked to help with the rescue, and were later ordered to leave the site after the coast guard arrived on the scene. Also, that Frontex's various offers to send air aid were turned down and that neither the surveillance cameras nor the tracking system were activated that night. Regarding the survivors, the Greek authorities confiscated their cell phones, not having returned them, also suspecting pressure to tell the same story, with clear signs of manipulation.

The few survivors were taken to the port of Kalamata and then to the Malakasa camp, north of Athens. Their mobility and communications have been limited, especially communication with journalists which is being impeded by the Greek authorities. Contact with family members, who desperately arrive from all over the world, to confirm whether their children, wives, siblings and loved ones are alive or dead, can only be done through bars. Every few minutes taxis and rental cars arrive at the small square in front of the field, from which men and women emerge, heading towards the thick fence to try to find a familiar face or find out any information. They don't know anything and the bodies found are not being identified. Hundreds of family members remain in the dark, without information and unable to pay due respect to their dead loved ones.

For UNHCR Special Envoy for the Mediterranean Vincent Cochetel, “it is quite clear that the boat was overcrowded, was not seaworthy and that it should have been rescued and people taken to safety. Greek authorities had the responsibility to coordinate a rescue and bring people ashore safely.”

The disaster once again brings migration, asylum, border control and human rights to the center of the European debate and places the EU in a fragile position with regard to the management of migratory movements and the externalization and securitization of its borders. Many Member States have been accused of carrying out violent and illegal practices that violate human rights and the right to asylum. For the newspaper Der Spiegle, two questions remain about its performance: are shipwrecks in the Mediterranean tolerated, leaving rescue missions to the last minute? Or are the shipwrecks provoked, in a desperate attempt to keep refugees and economic migrants away from European shores? We know that the Mediterranean Sea is the deadliest route with more than 27,500 people dead or missing since 2014. The actions of Mediterranean countries and the European Union seem to forget the human part and the duty to help those most in need.

The few survivors and the many family members lost children, wives, husbands, brothers and cousins, with hundreds of people dying in one of the greatest tragedies in a sea that is almost like a cemetery for people who, so afraid of losing their lives, clung to desperately to the hope of a new life in peace and security. Fortunately this is not the scenario for Shirwan and Azad who can enjoy more time together. The two brothers are now reunited, exhausted but very happy. “We hugged each other repeatedly. It's like being thirsty, you never have enough water”.

Brothers hug each other between bars in Malakasa camp. Stelios Misinas / Reuters

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