Survivors of the Pylos shipwreck, which has left an estimated 500 people missing, faced an “unacceptable” reception in Greece and continue to be held in conditions unsuitable for vulnerable people, NGO workers say.
The overloaded fishing trawler carrying an estimated 750 people capsized and sank in front of the Greek coastguard last week, following an allegedly botched attempt by the coastguard to tow the vessel.
The survivors, put at 104 and all men – as no women or children are said to have survived the wreck – were taken to Kalamata, a city on the Peloponnese peninsula, where they were kept in a storage warehouse for two to three days before being transferred to an asylum registration facility at Malakasa, north of Athens.
“We witnessed an unacceptable reception of extremely vulnerable people in Kalamata,” Eleni Spathanaa, a volunteer lawyer for Refugee Support Aegean, an organisation providing legal advice for the survivors of the wreck, told Middle East Eye.
Survivors slept on mattresses on the warehouse floor, and the area around it was ringed with fencing. A video posted on Twitter showed a Syrian teenager attempting to embrace his brother through the bars.
According to Spathanaa, in the first few days no concerted effort was made by authorities to facilitate contact with the survivors’ families, although the Greek Red Cross was providing some access to mobile phones.
A suffocating experience
The survivors were transported to a registration facility in Malakasa on 16 and 17 June.
According to Spathanaa, conditions at Malakasa are not much of an improvement on those at Kalamata. Survivors are housed in shared shipping containers, and, as at Kalamata, the facility is ring-fenced, with access severely restricted.
The prison-like conditions came as a shock.
“We witnessed… people devastated [and in] shock. They could not even understand where they were,” said Spathanaa. “I could not understand why they were put in a closed centre. Of course, these conditions are not suitable for people who have just survived a shipwreck.
“These people were [contained], after such a suffocating experience – all of them have lost friends, some of them close relatives… they cannot even conceive what has happened.”
According to Spathanaa, some of the survivors’ basic needs are not being met at the facility, with some reporting that requests for extra clothing to keep warm at night have been refused. Requests for tea, coffee and cigarettes were also reportedly denied.
‘What we hear mostly… is people [recalling] seeing their friends dying in front of their eyes’
– Sonia Balleron, MSF head of mission
Spathanaa and her colleagues also found that, despite suffering from acute distress, the survivors were being “fast-tracked” through the process of registration for asylum applications.
“This was quite problematic because most of the people [we met] had not even seen a lawyer before passing through this process,” she said.
Emergency psychological and medical aid at the facility is being provided by the NGO Doctors Without Borders (MSF). “We saw a lot of distress,” MSF head of mission Sonia Balleron told MEE. “The medical team is clear that [the survivors] are all potentially at risk of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”
The team have reported treating chemical burns, injuries from exposure to the sun and sea water, as well as hypo-glycaemic shock (the effect of low blood sugar), due to the people aboard the boat being deprived of food for up to six days.
According to Balleron, many of the survivors are suffering from sleep disorders and night terrors in the wake of the disaster.
“What we hear mostly… is people [recalling] seeing their friends dying in front of their eyes,” said Balleron. “They also talk about not knowing who survived and who died, which is causing a lot of stress. Families are calling a lot to try to understand if their relatives are among the survivors or not.”
A political choice
For Spathanaa, the conditions experienced by the survivors of the wreck on arrival in Kalamata and Malakasa are no accident, but a “political choice”.
At the end of 2022, the ESTIA accommodation scheme, an EU funded housing programme for vulnerable asylum seekers, was terminated. The programme, which was started in 2015, was intended to assist families with children, people with disabilities and survivors of torture with suitable housing and medical care.
When it closed on 16 December, vulnerable asylum seekers were transferred from ESTIA accommodation to remote camps with as little as 24 hours’ notice. Human rights groups warned that the curtailment of the scheme could exacerbate isolation of asylum seekers and “re-traumatise” survivors of violence and torture.
“We have these vulnerable survivors, and we don’t have the option of sheltering them in dignified and suitable conditions,” said Spathanaa. “I don’t think if the shipwreck’s passengers were tourists, that they would treat them like that. They wouldn’t put them in a warehouse.”
This is not lost on the international community. Social media posts in the wake of the disaster have highlighted the discrepancy in the efforts by the Greek coastguard to prevent last week’s wreck with the resources expended on recovering the missing Titan submarine in the Atlantic Ocean.
Widespread protests in Greece over the authorities’ inaction to the disaster have also highlighted the inequities that play out in the waters of the Mediterranean: on 18 June, two cruise ships were greeted at Thessaloniki port with a banner reading: “Tourists enjoy your cruise in Europe’s biggest migrants cemetery.”
Source: Middle East Eye