26 June 2023 - Greece

AID WORKER ACCOUNT: What I learned from survivors of the Greek Migrant Boat Disaster

The Mediterranean Sea

On Wednesday 14 June 2023, a boat carrying migrants capsized off the coast of Greece. It is likely hundreds of people have died, in one of the worst Mediterranean Sea disasters in recent history.

Maria Papamina is a lawyer and Legal Unit Coordinator of the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), a Save the Children partner providing free legal assistance, psychosocial and social aid to people seeking refuge in Greece. Maria is providing legal assistance to survivors at Malakasa refugee camp in southern Greece. This is her account of survivors’ stories.


Maria’s story:

We have been visiting and talking to survivors since Sunday and have spoken with approximately 35 to 40 of them, all young men, most in their early twenties. Half of them are Syrians, there are a few Palestinians, and the rest are from Egypt and Pakistan.

A lot have families in the EU, and most of them were talking about trying to reunite with aunts, uncles and cousins – some have even closer relatives in Europe, like brothers, sisters or parents.

These survivors don't trust Greek authorities. Actually, they don't trust anything Greek, even us - Greek lawyers trying to help them. But little by little, they started trusting us and talking about their experiences. They’ve experienced extreme trauma, so we talk with them according to what they want to share.

And of course, most of our conversation and our interviews with the survivors concentrated on the circumstances of the shipwreck. They described the very difficult situation on board.

Even before embarkation, the smugglers didn’t allow them to bring baggage, food or water. After the first day, they ran out of water and had to drink sea water. According to the testimonies we heard, at least two people died from thirst.

They were not allowed to go to another level of the boat unless they paid €50. The smugglers were controlling them, and not allowing them to stand up or walk around.

People from Pakistan were in the most difficult situation because they were forced to stay in the lower level of the ship with the refrigerators. And on the lower level there weren’t many windows so there wasn't any clean air.

Some of the survivors we spoke to said there were a lot of very young men from Pakistan on this lower level of the ship. In the middle, second level, there were around 20-25 women and young children, even babies.

They told us the Greek Coast Guard initially went near to the boat and they were told to follow the coast guard vessel. After a while, they reported that the coast guard threw a rope, it was tied on to the boat and was cut after a few seconds.

Then there was a second attempt with another, new rope, and after it was tied on the boat the coast guard started towing the boat. Most of the survivors we’ve spoken to mentioned this. Some said that the towing lasted from 3 to 10 minutes. 

During the towing, the coast guard changed direction, first to the right and then to the left. And so the boat started losing balance, and then the boat started sinking.

The survivors had difficulty talking about this. Some didn’t want to talk at all. They're in shock; some were crying. Many have lost family members on board – mostly cousins.

One story stood out. We spoke to someone from Pakistan who tried to save his best friend as the ship was sinking but he didn’t manage. He’s devastated, and he’s the only survivor we spoke to who wants to return home.

I was informed there were seven unaccompanied children among the survivors, five from Syria and two from Pakistan. They were immediately transferred to a facility for minors. We haven’t heard of any women who survived.

It’s a great tragedy. We’re talking about a huge number of people missing.  The survivors should be able to be with their relatives in other European countries, through family reunification or relocation mechanisms. European countries must address this tragedy, not only Greece.

This tragedy must make Greece and Europe respond at last to the needs of people seeking protection and safety, protect human lives and dignity and stop endangering people with deterrent policies and refoulement operations.

We can’t go on like this. Europe must ensure that legal and safe passages are in place for refugees and migrants to access EU territory.

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