Dominating news headlines around the world presently is the huge search and rescue operation underway to retrieve a handful of wealthy tourists, including a British billionaire who went missing in the Atlantic on a submarine adventure to explore the shipwreck of the Titanic. Meanwhile, there is a conspiracy of silence in the international media over the details coming out about the drowning of 700 migrants in the Mediterranean last week – the direct result of a willful, callous neglect of human life.
Whilst such tragic events have become all too common, the magnitude of the tragedy that unfolded last Wednesday in the Mediterranean, not far from the Greek coastal town of Pylos, has shaken millions. A fishing boat overloaded with migrants sank, for reasons that have yet to be fully established. 79 people have already been confirmed dead, but that is only a fraction of the real casualties. Estimates suggest as many as 800 were on board, and yet only 104 survivors have been rescued. According to many of those who survived, many women and up to 100 children were in the hold below deck. None survived.
This is one of the deadliest and most tragic shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in recent years, in a sea that has often been described, not without reason, as a graveyard of souls. According to the International Organisation for Migration, at least 27,000 people have been lost in the Mediterranean since records began in 2014. 2,000 lost their lives in 2021, and 2,400 lost their lives in 2022. These estimates, in fact, refer to the minimum number of dead and missing.
Whilst new information continues to come out about the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, one thing is clear: reports from survivors and activists are starkly at odds with the ‘official’ story being circulated by the Greek Coast Guard. A picture emerges of hundreds of lives lost as a direct result of the disgusting, government-led and deliberate policy of ignoring, harassing and ‘pushing back’ migrants in distress at sea.
Official story unwinds
The doomed vessel reportedly set off from Tobruk, Libya, and was bound for Italy. According to the Greek Coast Guard, they had first spotted the vessel at midday on Tuesday. They claim they then offered assistance, to which they received a negative response, apart from a request for water and food supplies. The vessel – again, according to the Coast Guard's claim – was “seaworthy”, and continued on its course, with the Coast Guard “discreetly” monitoring it until it stopped moving at around 2am, and then capsized, sinking completely within minutes. At that point, the Coast Guard launched a search-and-rescue operation.
Demonstration of thousands of people in #Athens against racism and the ship wreck. Rescuers saved 104 passengers from the boat that sank in deep waters off #Greece’s coast early on Wednesday while they found 79 dead. pic.twitter.com/kdeT9b17MI— Siavash Shahabi (@siashahabi) June 16, 2023
Testimony from an activist who was contacted several times by occupants of the vessel, however, as well as information published by the Alarm Phone group, contradict the Coast Guard’s version of events. They show that the ship had ceased moving and was clearly in distress from as early as 5pm (some 9 hours before it capsized – this was further confirmed by BBC analysis), that shortly thereafter it had been abandoned by the captain, and that the occupants were constantly calling for “any help”.
At the same time, the Coast Guard itself admits that, while it was informed about the ship by Frontex (European Border and Coast Guard Agency) at 11am on Tuesday morning (15 hours before the tragedy unfolded), it only made an effort to confirm its existence three hours later (at 2pm!) when it sent a helicopter(!), which took off from the island of Lesvos, more than 550 km from the location where the vessel sank!
The Greek Coast Guard’s version of events has been further contradicted by survivors, with some of the latter claiming that it was the attempt to tow the boat that led to it capsizing, something the former deny having attempted.
The Greek Coast Guard have quite clearly lied to cover up their role in causing this tragedy. It is becoming ever-clearer that the Coast Guard in the first instance deliberately delayed its response and action (as part of a method that is dubbed ‘weaponising time’), and when it became clear that the boat could not move (becoming, thus, permanently stranded in an area of Greek responsibility) they violently attempted a ‘pushback’, which went terribly wrong. According to one survivor, the Greek Coast Guard explicitly told those on the boat that they were to be pushed back to Italian waters.
This is one of the deadliest tragedies to have resulted from the widespread implementation of the illegal and inhumane policy of the Greek capitalist state and the Mitsotakis government towards migrants, and in particular the policy of ‘pushbacks’ by the Greek Coast Guard, whereby migrants are forcibly returned to international waters and abandoned to their fate.
The Greek government has long attempted to deny that it has a policy of ‘pushbacks’, but just last month it was forced to respond to footage showing the Coast Guard forcibly capturing migrants who had made landfall, putting them on Coast Guard vessels, and then returning them to a flimsy raft, far out at sea. Other footage has shown the Greek Coast Guard ramming vessels, trying to puncture inflatable rafts, and even firing ammunition in the vicinity of migrants.
The sheer callousness of the Greek bourgeoisie was brought out earlier this year with hearings in the trial of 24 migrant rescue workers. These humanitarian workers are being criminalised for saving human lives, and are being perversely presented in their trial as being a migrant smuggling crime ring! This is a clear attempt to prevent lifesaving work.
The result of all this is that smugglers are therefore resorting to longer journeys and choosing riskier routes, multiplying the risks to life.
Racist ‘Fortress Europe’
Of course, the policy of the Greek bourgeois state is an extension of the racist anti-immigration policy of the European Union as a whole. European capitalism, which along with US imperialism is principally responsible for imperialist occupation and military interventions in African and Asian countries, is treating the innocent victims of its foreign policy with vile brutality, turning the continent into a ‘fortress’, and adopting such shameful measures as the EU-Turkey agreement.
Thus, migrants are confronted in their home countries with the most savage manifestation of the inherent contradictions of capitalism, a system in an ongoing and ever-deepening crisis. As a result, they find themselves forced to choose between a life of misery and war at home, and a journey that, at worst they may never complete, and at best, leads on to a life of exploitation as a second-class worker, forever targeted by the most reactionary elements of the country that they attempt to seek ‘refuge’ in.
The fact that the people of Greece took to the streets in Athens, Thessaloniki and many other cities today to demand accountability for the murderers of refugees should be an example for all peoples. As a refugee journalist living in Greece, I am grateful!!! #Greece #Πυλος… pic.twitter.com/Im7rdS6sue— Vedat Yeler (@vedatyeler_) June 15, 2023
Migration is not just an unwanted by-product of the system for the capitalists, but a very useful and welcome tool. But the ruling classes want only as many cheap labourers as they need. As political, socio-economic and environmental conditions displace ever more human beings, closed border policies and the misanthropy of capitalism will constantly threaten to create ever more tragedies.
Since the tragedy, workers and youth in Greece have demonstrated an outpouring of solidarity, with mass protests of thousands on 16 June in Athens and Thessaloniki, raising the slogans “the government and the European Union kill”, and “No to fortress Europe, solidarity with refugees”.
In the wake of this tragedy, it is the duty of every militant of the left, the labour movement and the youth to stand up for migrants and refugees. There is an urgent need for concrete, united initiatives from the Left and from the mass organisations of workers and youth. We say:
- No to pushbacks, no to fences! Dissolve Frontex! Open European borders to migrants and refugees. Asylum for those who request it, and the granting of travel documents for onward travel to the European countries of their choice!
- No to the misanthropic and xenophobic hysteria of the Greek ruling class and government! Down with the racist New Democracy and the misanthropic right and extreme right! Boot out the apologists and perpetrators in the government of the EU’s crimes.
- For internationalist, proletarian solidarity with migrants! They are not invaders, they are victims of imperialism: of war, violence, capitalist exploitation and oppression! They are brothers of the Greek working people and youth, and our allies in the cause of the common struggle against capitalist barbarism!
- Immediate initiatives by mass left parties, youth organisations and unions, in coordination with the European labour movement, to end war operations and withdraw all foreign armies from the countries of Africa and Asia! For the opening of the borders of all European states to receive refugees, offer them care, asylum, and assistance in social integration!