After an overcrowded fishing vessel carrying hundreds of migrants capsized in the Mediterranean last month, the Greek coast guard claimed that those in control of the ship rejected repeated offers of assistance in the hours leading up to the wreck.
But a joint analysis by media outlets and the Berlin-based research agency Forensis offers a strikingly different account of the catastrophe, suggesting that the Greek coast guard’s efforts to tow the vessel destabilized it, ultimately causing it to capsize and killing at least 78 people.
More than 500 people are still missing and feared dead.
The Guardian, German public broadcaster ARD/NDR/Funk, and Greek investigative outlet Solomon reconstructed the ship’s trajectory on the night it capsized using an interactive 3D model of the vessel. What they found cast serious doubt on the Hellenic Coast Guard’s (HCG) denial of responsibility for one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in recent history.
The analysis found that the migrant vessel known as the Adriana began moving westward — in the direction of Italy, its original target destination, and away from Greece’s Search and Rescue zone — following the arrival of a single Greek coast guard. The HCG claims the Adriana began moving in that direction on its own, but survivors say the coast guard “told the migrants it would lead them to Italy” instead of Greece — the nearest safe port — even though the ship was clearly in distress.
The investigation further found that a Greek coast guard captain logged incorrect data about the speed and trajectory of the Adriana, indicating a possible attempt to cover up the HCG’s actions in the lead-up to the deadly wreck.
“Our analysis shows that between 23:57 and 00:44 the migrant boat traveled 3.88nm, at an average speed of 4.95 knots, higher than the speed of 3 knots indicated in the logs of the HCG,” Forensis reported. “This is the highest recorded speed for the migrant boat that day, which could indicate that it was attempting to follow the faster boat being operated by the HCG.”
Our digital reconstruction of the boat and its trajectory reveals that actions by the Hellenic Coast Guard’s (HCG) led to the drowning of over 600 people, and that the HCG’s account of the incident was misleading. pic.twitter.com/vykPgo5Bm0— Forensis (@counterinv) July 7, 2023
When the Adriana eventually lost engine power, an HCG vessel approached and “a masked man” climbed onto the migrant ship and “tied a rope to their railing off-center, to the right,” Forensis noted, citing survivor accounts.
“They then tried to tow the migrant boat twice,” Forensis continued. “Both attempts lasted, according to the migrants we interviewed, between a few seconds and a few minutes. The first time, the rope snapped. The second time, using the same rope, the HCG pulled away even faster, causing the migrant boat to rock to the right, then to the left, then to the right again, and eventually capsizing to the right (starboard). A group of witnesses who were sitting inside did not see the towing, but testified that they felt themselves being propelled forward ‘like a rocket’ long after their engine had stopped working.”
Speaking to The Guardian, two unnamed sources from the Greek coast guard said that “they believed towing was a likely reason for the boat capsizing.”
“This would not be without precedent,” the newspaper observed. “In 2014, an attempt to tow a refugee boat off the coast of Farmakonisi cost 11 lives. Greek courts cleared the coastguard, but the European court of human rights passed a damning judgment in 2022.”
The investigation found that after the Adriana capsized, the lone Greek vessel on the scene departed, “creating large waves in its wake that made swimming difficult and, according to survivors, further accelerated the sinking of the boat.”
“Survivors recount that the HCG traveled and remained a considerable distance from their boat, directing its lights towards the people adrift in the water,” Forensis noted. “Numerous individuals from the migrant boat attempted to swim to the HCG boat unsuccessfully. After approximately 20-30 minutes, once the boat had completely sunk, the HCG sent a small Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) and started looking for survivors.”
Forensis argued that the facts accumulated over the course of the investigation prove that the Greek coast guard “bears crucial responsibility for the shipwreck” and appears to have taken deliberate steps to “distort and manipulate evidence related to the incident and silence witness accounts.”
As The Guardian reported Monday, survivors gave two rounds of testimony about the wreck — one to the coast guard and one to a civil prosecutor.
“Testimonies to the coast guard by two separate survivors of different nationalities are word for word the same when describing the sinking: ‘We were too many people on the boat, which was old and rusty… this is why it capsized and sank in the end,'” according to The Guardian, which viewed the testimony.
“Under oath to the civil prosecutor, days later, the same survivors describe towing incidents and blame the Greek coast guard for the sinking,” The Guardian continued. “The same Syrian survivor who stated in his coastguard testimony that the trawler capsized due to its age and overcrowding would later testify: ‘When they stepped on it, and I am sorry to mention this, our boat sank. I believe the reason was the towing by the Greek boat.'”
Forensis pledged to ensure that the findings of the probe are “made available to all independent bodies seeking accountability for this deadly incident — an event which demonstrates once again the inhumane and lethal nature of the European border regime.”