Rescuers are continuing a grim search off the Greek coast as hopes fade of finding survivors from an overcrowded fishing boat that capsized and sank on Wednesday, killing at least 78 people, amid fears that the number of victims could reach 500.
“This could be the worst maritime tragedy in Greece in recent years,” Stella Nanou of the United Nations’ refugee agency told the Greek public broadcaster ERT. Another UNHCR official, Erasmia Roumana, described the disaster as “really horrific”.
Roumana added that the survivors were in a very bad psychological state. “Many are in shock, they are so overwhelmed,” she told reporters in the port of Kalamata. “Many worry about the people they travelled with, families or friends.”
All 104 survivors were men aged between 16 and 40, authorities said. Most spent the night in a warehouse in the port. “They’re from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Egypt,” said Giorgos Farvas, Kalamata’s deputy mayor.
“We’re talking about young men, mostly, who are in a state of huge psychological shock and exhaustion. Some fainted as they walked off the gangplanks from the vessels that brought them here.”
About 30 people were hospitalised with pneumonia and exhaustion but are not in immediate danger, officials said, and several had been discharged.
Reports suggested up to 750 people had packed on to the fishing boat that capsized and sank early on Wednesday about 50 miles (80 km) from the southern coastal town of Pylos while it was being shadowed by the Greek coastguard.
“The fishing boat was 25-30 metres long. Its deck was full of people, and we assume the interior was just as full,” a coastguard spokesman said. A government spokesman, Ilias Siakantaris, smugglers were known to “lock people up to maintain control”.
Greek police and coastguard officials said they were working on the premise that “as many as 500” people were missing. “It worries us that no more [survivors] have been found,” said police inspector Nicolaos Spanoudakis.
“Survivors have been interviewed, procedures typical in any EU country are being followed. Right now everything is guesswork but we are working on the assumption that as many as 500 are missing. Women and children, it seems, were in the hold.”
Greece’s caretaker government has called three days of national mourning, with electoral campaigning ahead of polls on 25 June suspended. Two patrol boats, a helicopter and six other ships in the area continued to search the waters west of the Peloponnese peninsula, one of the deepest areas in the Mediterranean.
Early on Thursday, a coastguard vessel sailed into nearby Kalamata, transporting victims. After an official count, authorities revised the death toll to 78 from 79.
The coastguard said a surveillance plane from Europe’s Frontex agency had spotted the boat on Tuesday, but officials said people on the boat, which had set off from the Libyan port of Tobruk, had repeatedly refused offers of help.
“It was a fishing boat packed with people who refused our assistance because they wanted to go to Italy,” the coastguard spokesperson, Nikos Alexiou, told Skai TV. “We stayed beside it in case it needed our assistance, which they had refused.”
The boat’s engine gave up shortly before midnight UK time on Tuesday and it capsized soon afterwards, with coastguard experts saying the movement of people inside may have caused it to list and overturn. No one on board was thought to be wearing a life jacket.
The survivors were mainly from Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, the coastguard said, and are being housed temporarily in a port warehouse to be identified and interviewed by Greek authorities. Seven people smugglers had reportedly been singled out among survivors and were being questioned.
“Human traffickers are always the first to know when something is going wrong and are usually the first to rush to save themselves,” sources in Athens’ shipping ministry were quoted as telling Greek media outlets.
The acting Greek migration minister, Daniel Esdras, told ERT that survivors would be taken to a migrant camp near Athens later on Thursday or Friday, adding that Greece would examine their asylum claims but those found not to be entitled to protection will be sent home.
The bodies of the dead migrants were moved to a morgue outside Athens, where DNA samples and facial photographs will be taken to start the identification process. The embassies of the countries involved will assist, health officials said
The search operation was due to continue until at least Friday morning, according to government sources. The chances of retrieving the sunken vessel were remote, they said, because the area of international waters where the incident occurred was so deep.
“The chances of finding more people alive are minimal,” a retired Greek coast guard admiral, Nikos Spanos, told ERT. “We have seen old fishing boats like this before from Libya. They are not at all seaworthy. To put it simply, they are floating coffins.”
The worst migrant tragedy in Greece was in June 2016, when at least 320 people were listed as dead or missing in a sinking near Crete.
Alarm Phone, which operates a trans-European network supporting sea rescues, said it had received alerts from people on a ship in distress off Greece late on Tuesday. It said it had alerted Greek authorities and spoken to people on the vessel.
Greece is one of the main routes into the EU for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Under a conservative government, in power until last month, authorities have taken a harder stance on migration, building walled camps and boosting border controls.
Libya, which has had little stability or security since a Nato-backed uprising in 2011, is a major launching point for those seeking to reach Europe by sea. People-smuggling networks are mainly run by military factions that control coastal areas.
The UN has registered more than 20,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014, making it the most dangerous migrant and refugee crossing point in the world.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report
Helena Smith in Kalamata and Jon Henley
Published: 2023-06-15 11:52:31