Survivors from the capsized Adriana join other migrants inside a warehouse at the port of Kalamata, Greece, June 15, 2023 (OSV News photo/Angelos Tzortzinis, pool via Reuters).

On June 14, a fishing trawler carrying hundreds of desperate migrants capsized in the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece. Of the approximately 750 people crammed onto the boat, almost six hundred died, including a hundred children.

The few survivors recount hellish conditions on the journey. The Adriana set out from Libya, where smugglers forced migrants into dangerously overcrowded conditions. On the second day, the ship’s engine began to malfunction. On the third, food and clean water ran out, and six people died. When the boat finally capsized on the fifth day, the majority of survivors were those who had a spot on the upper deck. According to the New York Times, the people forced to remain below deck “stood no chance” of survival.

The Greek coast guard sent a helicopter and a small patrol boat to observe the Adriana and enlisted the help of private vessels to bring drinking water to the ship, but they did not undertake a rescue mission. They also rejected repeated offers for assistance from Frontex, the European Union border agency. Greek coast guard officials insist that because the ship was on a steady route to Italy and did not want or require a rescue, they didn’t need to intervene. But a subsequent investigation by the Washington Post concluded that these claims do not hold up to scrutiny: “Maritime rescue and legal experts said that based on information it had early in the day, the coast guard should have initiated a full-scale rescue operation.” The New York Times also determined that lives were lost because “the Greek government treated the situation like a law enforcement operation, not a rescue.” A report by the Guardian found that the patrol boat attempted to tow the Adriana—a dangerous maneuver with such an overcrowded boat—and that this may have caused it to capsize. The Greek coast guard denies that it attempted a tow.

The wreck of the Adriana was the deadliest accident in years in the most dangerous migrant route in the world.

The wreck of the Adriana was the deadliest accident in years in the most dangerous migrant route in the world. The United Nations estimates that more than twenty thousand people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Africa since 2014, when migration to Europe began to increase dramatically. At first, some European countries, especially Germany, were somewhat hospitable to those attempting to migrate. But over time, right-wing parties that promise to keep migrants out have gained more support throughout Europe; indeed, a week and a half after the Adriana sank, Greek voters gave the right-wing New Democracy party a majority in parliament.

Today, the dominant strategy of European governments is one of deterrence; they want to make the journey into Europe as difficult as possible. The EU and national governments have made deals with Turkey and Libya to intercept or detain migrants, sometimes in inhumane conditions. European governments have restricted the work of non-governmental search-and-rescue groups. As in the case of the Adriana, they have avoided doing their basic duty to rescue people in danger at sea. At times, they have even actively imperiled people; the New York Times revealed the Greek coast guard’s use of “pushbacks,” in which migrants who make it to shore are placed on rafts and abandoned at sea. The former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis insists that this amounts to “an explicit attempt to…weaponize mass death”: “The message [is]...‘these people need to be sacrificed.’” There may be no easy solution to the migrant crisis, in Europe or at our own southern border. But Europeans and Americans should at least be able to rule out any policy that involves callously making a cautionary example of migrant suffering and death in order to discourage more migration.

Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents

Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.