‘These deaths are on Europe’ activists say after another Mediterranean refugee boat tragedy

Thousands turn out to protests in Athens, Greece, after a refugee boat sunk off the country's coast due to Europe's border policies Europe
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A boat carrying hundreds of people capsized and sank near Greece early on the morning of 14 June. The people on board were refugees. Greek authorities have tried shifting blame for the disaster onto the boat, but activists said it was a disaster created by ‘Fortress Europe’.

Hundreds of refugees still missing

By 16 June, the Greek government said it had rescued 104 people and confirmed it found 74 dead. However, survivors said there may have been as many as 750 people on the vessel, including 100 children below deck. Hundreds, therefore, remain missing. The boat had reportedly left Libya and was trying to reach Italy.

Alarm Phone, an activist group that supports people in distress at sea, wrote that it had made Greece aware of the boat’s plight before 5pm on 13 June. However, it was aware that others had already alerted Greek, Italian, and Maltese authorities earlier in the day. Despite this, none of the countries launched a rescue operation.

Statements made by the Greek coastguard and reported by BBC News, the Guardian, and other news organisations, emphasised that those onboard had repeatedly refused ‘assistance’. The statements also tried to highlight how overcrowded the boat was and the apparent lack of life jackets. Greek police have also since arrested nine people on suspicion of people smuggling in connection with the incident.

However, while these are the circumstances in which the boat sank, activists have made it clear these are not the reasons for the disaster.

‘Tear down Europe’s borders!’

Greek authorities blaming smugglers and those on board for the disaster is part and parcel of Fortress Europe, a critical term for Europe’s anti-refugee policies and actions. Nikos Spanos, an international expert on maritime incidents, highlighted how a Fortress Europe mindset led to indifference on the part of authorities. He told Greek national TV news channel ERT that:

You don’t ask people on board a drifting boat if they need help… immediate assistance was necessary.

Read on...

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Meanwhile, Juan Matias Gil of Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) pointed out that existing border policies create a need to take risks:

What happened is the consequence of the absence of safe and legal pathways to come to Europe.

Anarchist migrant rescue boat Louise Michel MV said that the “deaths are on Europe”:

And Alarm Phone explained that it is Europe’s hostile border regime that led to the deaths of hundreds of people. It said that those onboard had good reason to refuse assistance from the Greek coastguard:

People on the move know that thousands have been shot at, beaten, and abandoned at sea by these Greek forces. They know that encountering the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Hellenic Police or the Hellenic Border Guards often means violence and suffering. It is due to systematic pushbacks that boats are trying to avoid Greece, navigating much longer routes, and risking lives at sea.

It concluded that European authorities had the awareness and resources to prevent the tragedy but chose not to, saying:

Stop blaming people on the move for trying to escape your violence!
Stop blaming people on the move for their own death!
Stop pushbacks, end death at sea, tear down Europe’s borders!

Mass protests across Greece

Huge demonstrations took place on 15 June. Police said thousands of people in Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki protested with signs reading “the government and the European Union kill” and “No to fortress Europe, solidarity with refugees”:

The Greek government declared three days of national mourning as a result of the tragedy. However, as several people pointed out, this comes as something of a slap in the face:

The system working as intended

While this is one of the largest disasters to have struck refugees in the Mediterranean, it’s far from unique. In March, a boat carrying refugees from Libya to Italy capsized in bad weather, with authorities believing 30 people drowned as a result. Just a few weeks earlier, more than 70 refugees died in the water after a boat that left Turkey was shipwrecked off the coast of Libya. And in November 2022, the wreck of two boats carrying refugees led to the deaths of at least 21 people.

Thousands die in the Mediterranean every year. Despite this, as the Canary has reported, those attempting to help people in the Mediterranean have also faced state repression. Greece is pursuing charges against 24 people for their roles in saving refugees in distress between 2016 and 2018. And in March, Italy impounded the Louise Michel MV as a result of legislation intent on reducing migration into the country.

None of these are mistakes or aberrations. They are intentional choices designed to protect racist border policies. And the latest tragedy, which could result in hundreds dead, is just another day for Fortress Europe.

Featured image via Siyâvash Shahabi/Facebook screenshot

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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