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Deadly Crime Scene in the Mediterranean

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Why the June 14th Migrant Boat Disaster Happened, Why it Will Not Be the Last, and What the International Community Must Do in Response

Written by:  Khaled Al Awad, Rania Kisar, and Joel Rayburn 

Was June 14 a Premediated Crime? 

On June 14, 2023, a fishing boat from Libya carrying approximately 750 Syrian, Egyptian, and Pakistani passengers sank in Greek waters. Tragically, the boat sank with at least 500 passengers trapped on its lower decks, including all the women and children aboard the ship. All 104 survivors were men on the deck when the boat finally capsized. 

The shocking wreck resulted in the highest death toll of any migrant shipwreck in the Mediterranean in the past decade, potentially higher than the tragic wreck that killed hundreds off Lampedusa, Italy, in 2013. 

The June 14 tragedy raises several vital questions. Why, in 2023, do thousands of Syrians continue to make their way to ports in North Africa to make such a dangerous journey to Europe? Why do Syrian migrants wind up in Libya, particularly as they seek to make this journey? Why did the number of Syrian refugees living in Libya increase from  70,000 to half a million in 2022? 

To answer these and other questions, ACLS interviewed multiple survivors and their relatives, all wishing to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from authorities in Greece and their homeland.

1-How Assad and Haftar Push Syrian Refugees to Libya and into the Sea

Since 2014, more than 27,633 migrants have gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea. Over ten thousand people attempting to reach European lands have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since 2018. 3,800 of 253,205 people attempting entry to Europe died in 2022, and 42 percent were intercepted and sent back to Libya. 

The number of Syrian refugees in Libya increased exponentially after 2018. Last year, the number went from 70,000 to approximately 500,000. At least ten thousand are waiting for their turn to embark on the same perilous Mediterranean journey as those who died on June 14, despite the recent survivors’ warnings stressing the possibility of the same fate. Fifty thousand people are believed to have used the migrant smuggling route in the first five months of this year, the highest number recorded since 2017.

The reason for this exponential increase of Syrian migrants lies in the fate of Daraa after the Kerry-Lavrov cease-fire agreement in 2016, which set in motion a chain of events that forced Syrians in many parts of the country to die or accept reconciliation with Assad. Among those forced to “reconcile” was the Southern Front, which disbanded after the Russian-brokered local reconciliation agreements were implemented in 2017-2018. 

However, after the Assad regime failed to impose real control over the southern front and Iranian-sponsored militias failed to integrate the youth of southern Syria into their ranks, the Syrian regime began deliberate evacuation operations. 

In 2018, mass “settlement” operations ended the regime’s search for wanted civilians and defected officers for six months, allowing those people to obtain passports from the regime. 

Like many of these “reconciled” people, Yousef, a 20-year-old survivor of the June 14 shipwreck, left Syria a year and a half ago. He described in detail the process by which he and many others have fled Syria, particularly that the Assad regime mafia and the Libyan forces of Khalifa Haftar are leading and facilitating the large-scale movement of Syrians to North Africa to flee further to Europe. Yousef also told the harrowing story of what he experienced in the June shipwreck.

The entire process, from visas to flights to boats, is coordinated between the Syrian regime and Haftar’s Libyan forces. Each trip carrying migrants into the Mediterranean generates no less than $4 million, providing lucrative profits for local Syrian and Libyan mafias. According to testimonies of the survivors, the passengers paid smugglers between $3,500 and $6,000 per person for transit, on top of the high costs people incur to reach Libya. 

The US- sanctioned Cham Wings Airline office in Mezzah, Damascus, facilitates obtaining visas and flights to Libya for $1,500 per person. Cham Wings is the exclusive operator of direct flights to Libya, which depart Damascus International Airport and land in Benghazi at a military section of Benina Airport under the control of Haftar’s forces. 

Upon arrival in Haftar’s territory, the migrants are moved and controlled by smugglers who transport the refugees to undisclosed locations. Throughout the journey, the smugglers are escorted and protected by Haftar’s forces, including the Tariq Ben Zayed brigade commanded by Haftar’s son, Saddam Khalifa Haftar. 

Unfortunately, the new refugees who arrive in Libya are treated inhumanely and endure harsh living conditions. While some with financial means can afford hotel accommodation, most cannot. At least ten thousand of them are packed in warehouses guarded by Saddam Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Tobruk, five hours away from Benghazi. 

Once in Libya, the migrants must wait an indefinite amount of time before actually getting to a boat.  It can take more than eight months before they receive a call signaling departure time.

2-Timeline of the Doomed Journey

On June 8, 2023, it was the turn of hundreds of Syrian, Egyptian, and Pakistani refugees in the heavily guarded warehouse in Tobruk to make the no-notice journey into the Mediterranean. These people were suddenly rousted into large food trucks without being told their final destination. They were ordered to climb down a steep hill onto a remote Libyan shore two hours later. Though they did not know it at the time, they had been driven to a small bay east of Tobruk near the area known as Wadi Arzouka.

Once on the beach in Wadi Arzouka, the smugglers divided the migrants into groups of ten and loaded them into small passenger boats piloted by Egyptians. In these small groups, they were taken aboard the doomed fishing boat, where they were beaten and forced below the deck to join hundreds of migrants already present in the bowels of the vessel. 

Yousef, one of the survivors, said he paid a smuggler $100 to be upgraded to a spot on the boat’s surface deck because he could not breathe in the lower decks. Once on the top deck, the smugglers physically beat the passengers, who crammed them next to one another without room for another person to stand. They were told to sit, bending their knees. 

The first day went fine, but things started going wrong on the second day when the waves became very strong, and the ship started to lose its bearing. One of the smugglers said they were lost, and survivors later confirmed this account because they remembered seeing the same boats on both the port and starboard sides of their vessel. According to other survivors, a defect in the boat’s engine led it to deviate from its course. On the third day of the trip, passengers ran out of food and water. Six people died of thirst in the next two days, while some began to drink their urine

Reconnaissance drones from Frontex, the European border guard agency, spotted the over-cramped fishing boat on June 13. In a statement, Frontex said, “The vessel was crowded and was sailing at a slow speed in a northeasterly direction.” Frontex informed the Greek authorities at least thirteen hours before the disaster and later said they offered to provide air support for any Greek operation, but there was no answer. Frontex also confirmed that it was not monitoring the area during the shipwreck because one of its drones was monitoring another ship near Crete at Greece’s request. 

Alarm Phone, an organization that receives global sea distress calls, alerted Frontex, UNHCR Greece, and the Greek authorities that they had received a distress call from a boat in distress at 16:53 CEST on June 13.

Thirty minutes later, Frontex, the first to respond, stated that they relayed the message to the Greek authorities. The second distress call came from the boat at 17:20 CEST.

At 18:00 CEST, a merchant ship called Lucky Sailor approached the fishing boat to provide relief, which soon created a significant problem. Akram, one of the survivors, said the passengers talked to people on the ship in English and asked for water. “Many people jumped out of the boat to grab and tie the ropes to our boat. Everyone had not eaten or drunk for days,” said Hassan, another survivor. “They threw water bottles with ropes, but the water was not enough for everyone.”

Two hours later, a second vessel, Faithful Warrior, came too close to the fishing boat, which caused the waves to move wildly, and the boat almost capsized, recalled Akram. He said the passengers told the people on board the Faithful Warrior that they needed rescue, not only food and water they needed. Mustapha, another survivor, continued: “They continued sailing and left us, filming us with their mobile phones…They threw water and food at us with ropes, and these materials fell on people’s heads. Everyone started screaming and hitting each other. We told them we do not want water or food, help us help us, we have dead people!” By that time, the captain of the fishing boat had died.

Word spread on the fishing boat that the Greek maritime authorities were coming. Akram said that some passengers who knew the practices of the Greek guards and had seen videos of immigrants forced to return to Turkiye beaten and naked started crying in terror. 

The Alarm Phone organization said it lost contact with the passengers during a phone call of them screaming, “Hello, my friend…The ship you send is….” then the call cut off at 0:46 CEST. The engine had stopped, and the ship sank at 1:04 CEST, taking more than 600 souls with it.

3-Were the Greeks Culpable?

In the hours and days following the sinking, the role of the Greek coast guard in the tragedy raised significant concerns, especially as discrepancies in the timeline of events and alarming witness statements came to light.

The official Greek Coast Guard statement issued on June 14 confirmed the narratives of Frontex and the two vessels that assisted the fishing boat. The Greek statement further explained that the Greek coast guard did not assist the fishing boat because the coast guard received a negative response when asking the boat whether it needed help. The Greek authorities’ timeline set out a sequence of events indicating the arrival of one of their vessels from Carte at 22:40. They further revealed they had discreetly monitored the fishing boat and insisted that the boat had maintained steady speed. 

Tracking animation of vessel traffic showed a stream of ships coming to help the distressed boat at the time of its sinking. However, according to formal statements by the Greek coast guard, one of their vessels from Crete was discreetly observing the fishing boat from a distance at 22:40 CEST, meaning that when the fishing boat sank, the Greek Coast Guard just watched the tragedy happen

However, the Greek authorities’ timeline contains at least a one-hour discrepancy concerning the time the boat sank compared to other timelines and survivor statements.

On June 19th, BBC News Brussels bureau published a timeline giving evidence that calls into question the Greek coast guard’s handling of the disaster. Kostas Kallergis, the senior producer at BBC News Brussels bureau, published images taken from inside the Greek patrol vessel that left Crete on Tuesday morning and the proximity encounter with the fishing boat. Kallergis later tweeted that the LS-920 ship had a capable camera. However, according to the spokesperson of the Hellenic Coast Guard, the camera was used to monitor the final hours of the doomed boat, but the event was never recorded.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s timeline of the tragedy established that the ship was stopped in the sea for hours when the Greek authorities’ narrative claimed the ship was moving steadily. 

These timelines provide strong evidence that the Greek authorities violated the UN’s Declaration on HRDs (agreed upon by all member states at the General Assembly 25 years ago) by failing to undertake rescue mission operations for the distressed boat, something the Greek authorities were legally bound to do under the UN declaration. 

Worse yet, survivors have testified that the Greek coast guard vessel actually caused the final capsizing of the boat–and may have done so intentionally. The most shocking testimonies came from the 35-50 survivors, who are mostly still locked up behind barbed wire fencing in heavily guarded warehouses in Kalata after being pulled from the sea by the Greek authorities. These survivors confirmed other testimonies that the Hellenic coast guard caused the boat to capsize by trying to pull the vessel with a rope, causing it to sway several times before it overturned

Ten of the 104 male survivors carefully described and detailed to numerous agencies the last few minutes before the boat capsized, saying they only survived because they were on the deck. They said the Greek patrol boat stopped alongside the fishing boat and threw a blue rope to the passengers, who tied it to their boat. Suddenly, the Greek patrol boat pulled the fishing boat to the left side, causing the vessel to tilt to the left and prompting many passengers to rush in the opposite direction aboard the boat. The Greek guards then pulled the fishing boat to the right, causing the boat’s nose to sink underwater and the boat to capsize. Three survivors told Arabic media, “The coast guard sailed away after the boat turned over.” Some survivors stated they were in the water for two hours before rescue boats came for them. 

What came after the tragedy sadly shows the ill-treatment survivors received from the Greek Coast Guard. It was at least one hour before the rescue operations began. The survivor Mustapha said, “The Coast Guard saw us but did not come to our rescue.” He added that the Greek ship circled them rapidly, which caused high waves that separated them. On the other hand, Akram stressed that the last circle the Greek patrol had done caused the fishing boat to sink entirely.  

Khaled, another survivor, recalls seeing more than fifty bodies bent inward with their backs floating above the water. Survivors pulled from the water were not provided any care. He said that after the ship flipped, he saw a woman and children screaming for help, but no one came. “It took them a very long time to send the small rescue boat, and when they did, we were petrified of riding with them because we had just seen them killing us; they deliberately drowned us.” 

Once on the Greek ship, Mustapha described the Greek officers as unkind and careless. As dawn broke, the Greek Coast Guard transferred the survivors to the luxury yacht Mayan Queen IV to be transferred to the beach. The guards confiscated the phones that remained with some of the survivors who had filmed the incident and promised they would return the phones but never did, says Hassan. The survivor Ahmed said they were forced to stay in the corner of the luxurious ship without being allowed to sit on the deck chairs.

4-How June 14 Represents a Major Violation of Human Rights Law

When six hundred people drown at sea, investigations should not just look into criminal negligence but also examine the record for indications of criminal intent, and several elements of the June 14 disaster seem to indicate an intent to violate international law governing distressed vessels and people stranded at sea.

International law defines distress calls from ships as a situation where there is a reasonable certainty that it is threatened by a grave and imminent danger that requires immediate assistance. In the June 14 case, two commercial vessels were cited for providing food and water to the fishing boat without any extradition activities. Georgios Vassikakos, the volunteer rescue doctor, told BBC that survivors were drinking seawater at least two days before the boat capsized, which shows that the people on the boat were in no position to negotiate their final destination. 

International law also unambiguously states that even if assistance was refused, the rescue operation should have begun immediately after the fishing boat was detected because of the apparent overload, the boat’s unseaworthiness and lack of a state flag, and the fact that the people on board did not have life-preserving equipment. Legal experts noted that the first SOS call via Alarm Phone was omitted from the Hellenic Coast Guard’s communication manifestos

In the case of the June 14 tragedy, the Greek authorities may have intended to move the fishing boat out of Greek jurisdiction and into Italian jurisdiction to evade their legal obligation to assist the vessel. As Al Jazeera reported, “Greek parliamentarian Kriton Arsenis, who spoke to some survivors in Kalamata, confirms the account and accuses the coastguard of trying to move the boat into Italian waters.” If these witness accounts are true, they could signify that the Greek authorities’ actions that resulted in the capsizing of the boat were, in fact, premeditated.

Finally, article 12.2 of the HRD declaration obligates states to protect people exercising these rights from retaliation, a principle the Greek authorities may have intentionally violated by causing the vessel to capsize. They also may have treated the survivors with purposeful harshness to compel them not to expose the Greek role in the disaster of June 14.  Aegean Boat Report, another NGO that assists refugees, stated on June 17 that “survivors were locked up behind barbed fences and heavily guarded from the outside world” and warned of the Greek coast guards’ attempts to cover up the truth. Relatives residing in Europe did not get the bodies of their loved ones until July 6, 2023. Survivors were moved to different camps awaiting an asylum hearing in the Greek courts. “Many of the people interviewed agreed that organizing their papers in Greece to seek asylum was not an option but coercion and under the threat of imprisonment and deportation. Hassan says: “We said that before we are organized in the records, we want to know where our victims’ relatives are, where are the bodies? We wanted to see them first of all. But they did not answer us, nor did they tell us anything about them. We told them we had European relatives and wanted to go to them. But in the end, they forced us to. They threatened us with two options: either go to prison or be deported to Turkiye if we did not. We feel forced.”

5-What the International Community Must Do Now

The June 14 tragedy is a shocking event that calls for immediate international action to prevent the next such atrocity from happening.  There are several necessary steps the international community–especially the United States and the European countries–could take to hold the June 14 perpetrators accountable and deter actors such as the Assad regime and Haftar from continuing their cynical exploitation of destitute Syrians and other refugees.

First, the US and European capitals should initiate an international investigation into the June 14 incident to establish the precise sequence of events leading to the tragic sinking of the boat and the loss of over 600 lives. It is crucial to determine whether the Greek authorities demonstrated criminal negligence or had criminal intent in this deadly tragedy. Human rights organizations are leading the call for such an investigation already.  For example, an open letter led by Tima Kurdi, the aunt of Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old toddler whose lifeless body was found on the shores of Turkiye in 2013, to over 180 human rights organizations demanded “a full and independent investigation into the event, clear consequences for those responsible, an end to the systematic pushback practices at the European borders, and justice for the victims.”

The same powers should initiate a separate international inquiry, preferably by law enforcement agencies, to investigate human trafficking involving the Syrian regime, the Haftar faction, and any other entities coordinating the transport of Syrians from their homeland to North Africa for purposes of making the life-threatening sea voyage to southern Europe. As witnesses testified, this operation reportedly brings in millions of dollars in profits per migrant vessel, with Assad, Haftar, and their co-conspirators exploiting vulnerable individuals seeking safety and a better life.

At the same time, the Western countries and the United Nations should launch a joint public diplomacy campaign to expose the systematic exploitation of Syrians that leads to their trafficking from Syria to North Africa and into the Mediterranean. The Assad regime, the Haftar faction, and other involved parties should be highlighted for their roles in these dehumanizing practices. 

The United States, European Union, and the United Kingdom should also impose sanctions against the Assad regime, Haftar, and any other parties implicated in human trafficking. This would send a clear signal of condemnation for their actions and underscore the international community’s commitment to combat human trafficking. A prime candidate for sanctions enforcement should be the already-sanctioned Cham Wings, which is under US Treasury sanction but is able to operate freely in a number of countries due to Washington’s failure to enforce the sanctions.

Finally, the United States and the European countries should press the supporters of the Haftar faction, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, to use their influence to compel Haftar to cease his militias’ trafficking activities as well as their abuse of consular authorities in Syria and elsewhere. These steps should be taken to ensure that those responsible for these horrific acts are held accountable, and measures are put in place to prevent such events from happening again in the future.

These are just a few of the many tools the United States, the European countries, and international organizations have at their disposal that could help to find some justice for the victims of June 14, some accountability for the perpetrators of June 14, and some deterrence for the regimes and factions that collude in and profit from sending desperate refugees to risk death. 

Without serious international action, the systematic exploitation of these people will continue unabated. As witnesses to the trafficking and tragedy have shown, more than ten thousand are still resolved to take the same journey of death despite all warnings. And the next tragic, needless disaster in the Mediterranean Sea will happen sooner than anyone can bear. 

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