Embassy in Rome claims 78 migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan died in shipwreck

The Afghanistan Republic’s embassy in Rome, Italy, said in a statement on Tuesday that 78 men from Afghanistan and Pakistan had died in last week’s shipwreck off the coast of Greece.

The fishing trawler, carrying between 400 and 750 migrants, sank off Greece last Tuesday and until now Greek authorities have not been able to ascertain exactly how many people were on board the vessel when it sank.

According to the embassy’s statement, 104 survivors had been taken for medical treatment after being rescued. The embassy did not however say if any migrants from Afghanistan were among those rescued, nor did they say how many from the country had died.

The embassy noted that once Greek authorities realized the magnitude of the tragedy, they declared three days of mourning and the prime minister and the opposition leader suspended their electoral campaigns.

The embassy meanwhile appealed to all migrants from Afghanistan not to take risks by “traveling illegally on unsafe water, insecure and overcrowded ships”. The embassy also called on “our compatriots, migrants, and refugees not to trust the international smuggling networks for putting their lives at risk.”

In addition, the embassy warned that an increasing number of migrants are choosing the “illegal open sea pathway”, which is prone to storms.

In their statement, the embassy also called on the EU, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, governmental and non-governmental agencies to work together to create safe pathways through the Humanitarian Corridor for migrants from Afghanistan.

Death toll rises to 81

On Tuesday, Greek authorities reported they had retrieved a further three bodies in open waters near the spot where the fishing trawler sank.

The bodies – all men – were recovered late on Monday, the sixth day of a search and rescue operation in the area, raising the official death toll to 81.

“Three bodies were located in international waters 47 nautical miles south-west of [the Greek town] of Pylos … and transferred to the port of Kalamata,” Greece’s coast guard said. “The investigation continues.”

The Guardian reported that the search operation, involving a naval frigate and three coast guard vessels, had been due to end on Saturday, three days after the trawler, piloted by smugglers who picked up their human cargo in Libya, set sail. The boat capsized with as many as 750 men, women and children on board at about midnight on Tuesday.

Relatives have flocked to Greece desperately seeking news of loved ones. “In our culture, in the worst case scenario, all anything a relative ever wants to do is to be able to bury a loved one,” said Shahid Nawas, a refugee who presides over Greece’s 30,000-strong Pakistani community. “There were over 400 Pakistani nationals on that boat and only 12 are among those who survived.”

Authorities are working on the premise that the hundreds of passengers still missing are dead.

Rising criticism

Greece’s actions regarding the boat have led to rising criticism over the way they handled the situation. Shortly after the boat sank, in front of a Greek Coast Guard vessel, Greek officials were reported to have said they did not intervene because the smugglers didn’t want them to.

The New York Times reported that Greece’s Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Alexiou has said it would have risky to stop the vessel with so many people on board.

He suggested a move to “violently stop its course” without cooperation from the crew or passengers could have provoked a “maritime accident.”

But Markella Io Papadouli, a lawyer specializing in maritime law and human rights at the Advice on Individual Rights in Europe Centre said: “If the Greek Coast Guard recognized the boat as in distress, and this is an objective assessment, they should have tried to rescue them no matter what.”

She told the Times that no SOS call had been required, as the Greeks have insisted. And while there were reports of distress calls being relayed to the Greeks, she said that focusing on the call was besides the point.

“Regardless of what the smugglers wanted,” or where the migrants hoped to go, she said, “you have an obligation to rescue” when a ship is in grave danger. “Negotiating with the smugglers is like negotiation with plane hijackers.”

This comes after the Greek authorities came under pressure on Monday after new accusations of negligence surfaced and survivor accounts began to be reported. Survivors described a hapless captain, engine trouble and even suggestions that the Greek Coast Guard had accidentally caused the sinking.

Nine men have been taken into custody and are suspected of being the smugglers.