9 August 2023 - Greece

Aid Worker Account: The ‘small superheroes’ who survived one of the worst Mediterranean Sea disasters in recent history

Sea view

With more than 2,000 people feared dead or missing trying to cross the Mediterranean so far in 2023, this year is on track to become the worst in terms of fatalities since 2016. One of the worst Mediterranean Sea disasters in recent history happened on 14 June when a boat carrying an estimated 750 migrants capsized off the coast of Greece. Only 104 survivors were rescued and 82 bodies were recovered, with hundreds more missing and presumed dead.

Alkistis Agrafioti Chatzigianni is a lawyer and advocacy officer of the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), a Save the Children and Oxfam partner providing free legal assistance, psychosocial and social support to people seeking refuge in Greece.

Alkistis met with seven boys who survived the tragedy, aged between 15 and 17. All seven boys had been travelling on the boat without parents or close family, and they all came from either Egypt or Syria. This is her account.

The boys seemed distressed. Some of them didn’t want to talk about what happened that night. They were clearly extremely tired and looking dazed. And how could it be otherwise - they had had an overwhelming experience which I fear will scar their childhood forever.

The boys told me they started that deadly journey either completely alone, or together with teenage friends or cousins. Some of them survived the disaster by hanging onto a piece of wood. They stayed afloat, clutching this piece of wood, for hours in the water.

It was clear from their eyes that the experience had been terrifying and devastating. They were stressed. I had to be so careful with my references and questions, because, of course, I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

They told me they were anxious about their future and afraid of what would happen to them. They are worried about what would happen if they were forced to return to their countries. Their greatest wish was to leave Greece immediately and join their family members – parents, brothers, uncles and aunts – in other European states.

They seemed very angry that hundreds of people had been allowed to drown. Some of the boys lost their friends and cousins in the shipwreck. They asked me, how could children and women have been left inside the sinking boat and no one did anything to help them? They were in shock about this reality, at what they felt was a callous disrespect for life.

During our meeting, I felt like I was talking to small superheroes. They were tired, horrified, and severely distressed, but at the same time, they were fighters. They had dreams. They wanted accountability. They seemed stronger than us – people with the privilege to live in safety in Europe. I deeply admire these children.

Some of the children asked me whether the coast guard has assumed responsibility for what had happened. I explained to them that this wasn’t the case but that an investigation into the conditions of the shipwreck and the actions of the coast guard was ongoing. The boys weren’t surprised. They were frustrated and they had such a strong sense of injustice. They currently don’t have faith that there will be a transparent investigation and that the people responsible will be held to account. They already feel that the one month has passed and nothing has happened yet.

I cannot reconcile myself to the thought that hundreds of people are estimated to have died, including hundreds of children, that night. While I was talking to the children, I kept wondering about how these children who survived will continue with their lives after this terrifying experience.

I have been feeling overwhelmed. We cannot stand by as spectators. For their sake, every European citizen should be demanding a transparent and effective investigation into the shipwreck and any responsibility for both the sinking of the ship and rescue delays or relevant omissions, to ensure that perpetrators are held to account. Above all, children fleeing violence, persecution or poverty must be offered safe and legal routes to safety – otherwise we will continue to see more tragedies like this unfold. 

Lastly, it is European Commission’s and states’ minimum responsibility to relocate immediately these children, reunite them with their family members and provide them with a safe and proper environment. All these children should be granted international protection in Europe. It’s the least Europe can do for them.

I said I would share their story, and here it is"

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