Merchant Marine Minister Militadis Varvitsiotis has denied accusations by migrants who survived the capsizing of a boat full of immigrants that it was being dragged back to Turkey at full speed, not to safety, and that Coast Guard officials let women and children drown and pushed some of them back into the water when they tried to get on board the Greek vessel.
The immigrant boat capsized off the island of Farmakonisi on Jan. 20. The bodies of a woman and a child aged around 5 were found near the Turkish coast, but another 10 people are still missing. Sixteen people were rescued and were transferred to Piraeus.
One of the survivors was reported as saying that members of the Coast Guard pushed people back into water as they tried to climb aboard. The report could not be independently verified.
The incident rompted criticism from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which quoted survivors as saying that several migrants fell off the boat as it was being towed, at high speed, toward the Turkish coast. The UNHCR has called for an inquiry into the circumstances of the tragedy.
Amnesty International also urged the Greek government to conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances which led to deaths in the Aegean Sea.
“Amnesty International calls on the Greek authorities to initiate a thorough, transparent and independent investigation into the incident… bring to light the circumstances which led to loss of life and prosecute those who are responsible,” the organization said in a statement on its website.
It is not at all true that the vessel was being towed at high speed toward Turkey,” Varvitsiotis said. “That is clear from the vessels’ coordinates, which we have at our disposal and that anyone who wants can see.”
The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, said he was “shocked and distressed” and called on Greek authorities to “put an end to the illegal practice of collective expulsions and effectively investigate all such cases.”
Speaking to SKAI TV, Varvitsiotis said panicking migrants caused the boat to capsize themselves. “Muiznieks and several others want to create a political issue in Greece,” he said.
“Such issues should not become the subject of petty (political) exploitation,” said Varvitsiotis adding that neither the PASOK Socialists who are the coalition partner in the government led by Prime Minister and New Democracy Conservative leader Antonis Samaras nor the major opposition SYRIZA party have so far asked to be briefed on the incident.
“No one really wants to open up the gates and grant asylum to every immigrant in this country,” said Varvitisotis adding that Greek Coast Guard officials have so far rescued 3,500 people at sea.
According to a press release published on the Council of Europe website January 14, the commissioner in December sent a letter to Varvitsiotis as well as Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias urging Greece “to radically change its migration policy and practice.”
“The large number of reported collective expulsions by Greece of migrants, including a large number of Syrians fleeing war violence, and allegations of ill-treatment of migrants by members of the coast guard and of the border police raise serious human rights concerns,” Muiznieks wrote.
According to an Amnesty International report published in December, Greek police and coast guard officers are systematically ill-treating would-be refugees from Syria. The report documented firsthand accounts of pushbacks after violent beatings and confiscations of personal belongings without any due process.