Shortcuts / 21 June 2023

The Mediterranean migrant boat disaster

More details are emerging about a migrant ship disaster off the coast of Greece, where an estimated 500 passengers are still missing. We take you through what we know about the boat disaster so far, as well as the latest on Europe’s attitudes towards migration.

Where does this story begin?
Last Wednesday, Greek officials became aware of a crowded shipping vessel that was travelling through the Mediterranean Sea. We know that the boat had come from Libya and was attempting to take hundreds of asylum seekers to Italy.

What happened next?
Around 11pm local time, that crowded fishing vessel capsized and sank. About 100 people were rescued but nearly as many bodies were recovered in the immediate aftermath, and the United Nations estimates that up to 500 people are still missing, including children.

That’s a lot of people…
It is. The European Union’s Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, called it “the worst-ever tragedy we’ve seen in the Mediterranean”.

Do we know why the boat sank?
Not exactly. The Greek coast guard says that at the beginning of the day, people on the boat refused assistance and that they were escorting it from a distance as it maintained a steady course towards Italy. 

And what do others say?
Well, maritime tracking data that came out in the last few days appeared to contradict the coast guard’s story, showing the vessel was stationary several hours before it sank.

So people aren’t happy with Greek officials?
There have been protests across Greece with people accusing the coast guard of not doing enough to help a ship that was clearly in distress. UN officials have called for a further investigation into what exactly happened at sea, but for now, Greek authorities have arrested 9 survivors on suspicion that they were the people smugglers responsible for the boat.

Who are they?
They are Egyptian nationals, which is where the boat is said to have first originated. As for the people on board the ship, reports say they were primarily from Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan.

So just to step it back – what led all of those people to get on that rickety boat? 
There’s no one answer why people flee poorer countries to seek a life in Europe. But it can include conflict or economic troubles in their home countries, persecution, or migration forced by climate change.

And are a lot of these people ending up in a boat across the Mediterranean?
Yep, there’s been an increase in the number of Mediterranean crossings this year, with many coming from places like Tunisia and Libya in northern Africa, as well as Turkey, Syria, and Afghanistan. 

And how is Europe responding to all this?
So you might remember back in 2015, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that the country would take in a million asylum seekers while there was a surge of migrants fleeing Syria’s civil war. 

And since then?
That was a moment of national pride for Germany but in the years since, as migrants have continued to arrive, consensus in Europe around where these migrants should be able to live has broken down, and countries like Greece and Italy that are on the Mediterranean have become unhappy with the situation. 

What’s the big boss – the European Union – doing about it?
In the week before the recent sinking of the asylum boat off Greece, European lawmakers, including those connected to the far-right in Italy, endorsed harsher new rules that allow countries to decide for themselves where they can send people who are denied asylum. 

Where would they send them?
Well, if one video that’s been verified by the New York Times is anything to go by, one Greek coast guard was seen putting a group of asylum seekers on a life raft and floating it towards Turkish waters where it was eventually picked up.

So Greek officials have a bit to answer for…
They are definitely facing a few questions but it gives you some sense of how asylum seekers were treated prior to this latest disaster in the Mediterranean.

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