The sinking of a boat full of migrants off the coast of Greece could be the “worst tragedy” in the Mediterranean, EU Interior Commissioner Ylva Johansson said.
Dozens of people were killed and hundreds are missing after a ferry traveling from the Libyan coastal city of Tobruk to Italy capsized off the coast of Greece earlier this week. The true toll of the disaster is still unclear.
“We don’t have all the information about what happened, but it looks like the worst tragedy we’ve seen in the Mediterranean,” he told a news conference in Brussels on Friday.
Each year, tens of thousands of migrants fleeing war, persecution, climate change and the risk of poverty have drawn a spotlight on the EU’s refugee crisis.
Johansson condemned the role of “smugglers” who ferry people onto boats. “They are not sending them to Europe, they are sending them to death. This is what they are doing and it is absolutely necessary to prevent it,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we saw this coming, because since the beginning of this year, there was a new operating system with these fishing boats leaving from the eastern part of Libya… and this year we saw a 600% increase in these departures,” he said, stressing the need to find different ways to fight smugglers and save lives. .
“When it comes to fighting traffickers, we can’t rely on just one way of doing it. We have to use intelligence — we have to use common police investigations with countries of origin, with countries of transit, with countries of departure,” he said.
Other global organizations such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called for “urgent and decisive action” to prevent further deaths in the Mediterranean, and “stressed the obligation to rescue people in distress at sea without delay . . .”
Greek authorities have faced criticism over how the disaster was handled.
On Friday, they denied claims that the boat capsized as the Coast Guard tried to tow it to shore.
Officials initially said the Coast Guard kept its distance, but after they threw a rope to the vessel to “check if assistance was needed” their assistance was “declined”.
Tarek Aldroobi, who had three relatives on board, told CNN that he saw Greek authorities towing the ship with ropes, but says they were tied in the “wrong places” – and it capsized.
“Their boat was in good condition and the Greek navy tried to tow them to the beach, but the ropes were tied in the wrong places,” Altrubi said. “The boat capsized when the Greek navy tried to tow them away.”
Speaking to Greek national broadcaster ERT, government spokesman Ilias Siakanderis said the coast guard arrived two hours before the boat capsized due to engine failure and there was no connection between the two.
“The engine broke down at 1:40 am and it sank at 2:00 am – so there can be no connection (between the time the Coast Guard approached the boat and the time it sank),” he told ERT.
The Hellenic Coast Guard also defended its response.
“When the boat capsized, we were not even near the boat. How can we pull it off? Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Alexio told CNN.
Alexio said that when the migrants were close to the boat, their patrol boat was able to stabilize itself using only a small rope and they were unable to pull the fishing boat.
“Our patrol boat could not tow the fishing boat,” he said.
According to Alexio, the Coast Guard was keeping a close watch on the boat, but not far from the shore, and they started approaching following a warning that the migrant boat’s engine had stopped.
“Unfortunately there was movement of people and panic caused the boat to overturn due to a shift in weight. As soon as we got there, we started rescue operations,” he explained.
Meanwhile, the NGO Alarm Phone alleged that the Coast Guard knew the boat was in danger hours before it capsized.
This week the Coast Guard said it repeatedly asked the boat if it needed help and was told no. Officials have also previously said that since the boat is in international waters, they cannot intervene without asking for help.