Christmas Eve on the island of Paros: a refugee boat capsizes off the coast. 16 people drown. Villagers help at once, but soon discontent emerges. A report.
December 24 is a mild day on the Greek Cycladic island of Paros, a bit cloudy, with no wind. After a very busy tourist season that lasted well into autumn, things are calming down in the Christmas-decorated villages. Last errands, arrivals and departures at the port, picking up relatives, celebrating Christmas together. Almost 14,000 people live on Paros, including many foreign residents as well as travellers, Greek and from abroad. Darkness sets early, streets are empty. Around 10 p.m., a bright light was suddenly visible on island’s northern part, then another and another. While observing, it’s recognizable that these lights are plummeting slowly but steadily. And soon, one after another ball of light appears in the sky: as it quickly turns out, they are flares to illuminate the sea.
At around 6 p.m. and 13 kilometres off the coast of Paros, towards Syros, the main island of the Cyclades, a motorized catamaran capsized. It’s a twelve meters taxi-boat, equipped for short distances and a maximum of 20, maybe 30 passengers. However, there were at least 79 people on board who wanted to travel from Turkey to Italy, including at least five women and an infant. Most of them are Syrians, some Palestinians and Afghans.
Representatives of the Orthodox Church organize food and drinks
Fishing boats like the “Eleni K.” were the first to set out to the rescue. Around 8 p.m., five vessels from the coast guard and their divers, nine private boats, helicopters, and a military plane follow up to rescue the castaways. Also, the Hellenic Rescue Team (HRT), four men and one woman on board the lifeboat “Chiara”, which operates under German flag, take part in the search at sea for the capsized. The “Chiara” was already moored for some time at the village of Naoussa since the local crew had apparently been preparing for a mission.
Two flares illuminate the Aegean Sea now, forming long streaks of light on the water, like highways. Some of the victims can only be rescued after drifting for four hours in the cold sea, others get rescued, still dry from the hull of the upturned boat. However, 16 people drowned, some in the belly of the upside-down ship, whose windows could not be opened. Among the dead are three women and an infant.
At 2 a.m., the “Chiara” rushes back to port: the crew is exhausted and urgently needs to rest. The sea is illuminated until 2.30 a.m., then the search is stopped until the next day. Meanwhile, the “Eleni K.” brought 63 survivors to the port and capital of Paros, Parikia, where they receive emergency medical care, food, clothes and blankets. Regardless of the late hour, a group of volunteers from the island, who got together spontaneously distribute donations, which got handed over swiftly by the local population.
The two surviving women are soaked but physically fine. Like all the casualties, they are completely in shock. Because of hypothermia, two other castaways have to be treated at the local health centre immediately; there is no hospital on Paros. All the rescued are tested negative for Corona. 63 people will be brought to the Epal technical school in the next few hours, where volunteers prepared a makeshift camp for them. Priest Papa Stelios is on the scene shortly; representatives of the Orthodox Church are organizing food and drinks.
Many people have drowned or are missing
The wreck at Paros is the third accident within a week in the Aegean Sea. On December 21st, a boat carrying refugees sank south of the island of Folegandros, and on the 23rd, another vessel crashed into Pori, an islet north of Antikythira. In total, at least 31 people died; many are still missing. Human traffickers who profit themselves in the fate of the refugees have recently started to prefer the direct and much longer route from Turkey to Italy to avoid the Eastern Aegean islands, which are now heavily patrolled by the Greek coast guard.
As Alarmphone, a phone hotline for refugees in distress, describes it: “This kind of tragedies are a direct result of the cruel pushback regime that the Greek government is implementing on behalf of the EU”. This initiative is a network of volunteers who support the search for missing persons and educate about the great dangers of crossing the Mediterranean.
Pushback stands for moving back refugees, refugees who have been apprehended in Greece, back into Turkish waters, as quickly as possible, defenceless, where they are finally caught and taken to camps. According to Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian non-governmental organization that monitors refugee movements in the Aegean Sea and provides information via social networks, this year in Greece alone there are said to have been 620 pushbacks, affecting over 15,533 men, women, and children.
According to the UNHCR, by December 19 of this year, 116,000 asylum seekers had crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, a good half of them to Italy, one third to Spain, just under 10 percent to Greece and some to Malta and Cyprus. In 2021 alone, 1,864 people who sought refuge in Europe drowned or are missing.
Who caused the disaster?
After the passenger ferry “Express Samina” sank off Paros in September 2000 with over sixty deaths, the tragedy on Christmas Eve is the largest maritime disaster that Paros has seen since then. The island is not prepared for a large number of refugees; there is no infrastructure for their reception or care, although there would be possibilities for their long-term accommodation.
With the selfless aid of many residents, the municipality, and the Orthodox Church, the rescued are initially provided with first aid and essentials. The morning after the accident the message gets spread via social media, that the castaways no longer need clothes but urgently are in need of shoes, size 38 if possible.
The refugees are questioned by the coast guard and police. Their primary goal, however, is not to record the victims’ stories, notify their families or even to get them legal assistance: They are completely fixated on getting hold of the trafficker’s helpers, hence finding out who steered the catamaran and is therefore legally responsible for the accident – even if he is one of the refugees himself.
Some refugees have sold their houses
The refugees had to hand over their mobile phones on arrival, provided they had not lost them when the boat capsized. The aim is to put them under pressure to reveal those responsible. They are all treated like criminals, who are not allowed to have any contact with the outside world. It remains unclear whether their travel documents were also taken away, whether they started the journey without them or whether they lost them during the accident.
Volunteers suddenly find themselves in the position to conduct criminal inquiries. They learn that most of the rescued are between 20 and 30 years old, originate mainly from rural areas in Syria and are quite educated. One of them worked in Beirut for the daily Al-Nahar. A Palestinian originates from the Gaza Strip, and some Afghans are also in the emergency shelter. According to a source with whom the Berliner Zeitung spoke over the weekend: “They are people like you and me”.
The group of around 80 people met in Istanbul on schedule. At a sort of travel agency, each individual deposited 7,000 to 8,000 Euros. Some of them said they were given a code that they should bring forth at the point of arrival in order to complete the payment. Some of the travellers sold their houses in Syria in order to be able to afford the crossing.
There was no turning back
In Istanbul, they were supplied with food and then driven in trucks to the vicinity of Izmir, presumably to Cesme. They had to stay there for two more nights because the Turkish police were patrolling the area. Finally, masked and armed men took them to the boat that was to take them to Italy.
The traffickers used one of the passengers as a helmsman since the usual practice is that these completely unskilled and inexperienced “captains” have to pay less for their crossing while the human smugglers remain undetected. Are these helmsmen aware that they are responsible in the event of an accident, including the death of people? According to one woman the boat was much smaller than it was promised. But nobody dared to decide against the trip since at this point the traffickers gave them no more choice. Probably also because too much of their savings was at stake so there was no turning back.
The crossing started on December 24th, around 8 a.m. 80 people – some sources report 88 people – crammed together on the taxi boat. About 165 kilometres further on, close to Paros, at around 6 p.m., first one machine failed, then the second. The helmsman went into the engine room – then water seeped in. Some of the passengers escaped to the boat‘s roof; eventually panic broke out and, the ship capsized.
Crime in the Aegean
When the rescued found themselves in Paros, they didn’t even know the island’s name. They are traumatized, totally exhausted and very hungry and thirsty. They lost everything, their money, their belongings. “I would rather die than stay in Syria”, one of the refugees told one of our sources. Another tells them that within four hours, he experienced more humanity and good treatment than in his previous 30 years of his life: “Yesterday my old life ended, my new one began today.”
The respondents state that they no longer felt safe, felt disregarded in their countries of origin, and that their living conditions had become unbearable. Most of them want to go to Germany, where some of them already have relatives; they actually don’t want to stay in Greece. Nevertheless, they are overwhelmed by the helpfulness of the Greek population. The most important thing is to be safe.
However, on Sunday, the tide turns, presumably after the police from the mainland arrived. Not only are the refugees now under guard on the premises of the technical school, but now nobody is allowed to speak to them either. The Berliner Zeitung does not get permission for interviews during that weekend either.
A Coast Guard officer calls the people “prisoners”, suspected of smuggling and killing 16 people. According to Alarmphone, this is one of the regular attempts by the Greek authorities to criminalize the passengers. The initiative’s website says: “This is another practice to hide the real crimes in the Aegean Sea – the pushbacks, the violent and deadly consequences of the European border regimes on water and on land”.
Suddenly discontent arises
Meanwhile, the victims of the accident continue to be interrogated in the Coast Guard office in the island’s capital. Still any contact with them is prohibited. They look disturbed, there is fear in their eyes. It’s Sunday and no one got their phones back yet, which, according to an asylum lawyer in Athens is illegal.
Without phones, they cannot ask for legal assistance either. The focus now is on criminal prosecution; their human rights, except for basic needs, do not play a role for now. When asked whether their rights to asylum had been explained to them and whether they had been given the opportunity to apply, the present officers of the coast guard and the police reply in unison that they could only submit such an application for asylum after the investigation had been completed. Until then the criminal investigation would have Priority.
In Paros, after all the helpfulness, resistance is stirring. Some politicians on the island emphasize that once again it has been shown how unacceptable the Dublin Agreements between the EU and Turkey are. Safe routes to Europe must finally be created for refugees. Many people are angry with Germany, and many Greeks feel they are the victims of a misguided EU policy.
On social media, residents indicate that the refugees now need to be evacuated from the island urgently, occasionally in an undisguised racist tone. Former mayor Kostas Argouzeli publishes a statement on Facebook that “one heard from reliable sources that the Greek immigration minister Notis Mitarakis was considering setting up an immigration centre in Paros as well”. Therefore, one would have to mobilize, so that the migrants would be transported as quickly as possible to organized structures outside the Cyclades. You don’t want to experience something like Christmas Eve in Paros again.
Those who are truly responsible usually remain unchallenged
Current mayor, Markos Koveos, acted and got Athens to send police buses in the meanwhile. On Monday, December 27th, two days after being rescued, the refugees are transported to Piraeus on the “Blue Star” passenger ferry. The mayor is not available for an interview, and written questions about the legality of the actions of the authorities or the whereabouts of the refugees after their arrival on the mainland remain unanswered. Nobody can or wants to answer about where the people have been taken. Migration experts suspect that the stranded people have been brought from Paros to the outskirts of Athens and are being held in the Amygdaleza detention centre for undocumented immigrants.
Three of the castaways are still being held in Paros: According to the newspaper Ekathimerini of December 27th, they are charged with the murder of 16 people. A local opposition politician told the newspaper that they will soon be brought to the mainland and to court. Through their headlines alone the press has already identified the culprits. However, those who are truly responsible usually remain unchallenged.
Those seeking help vanished as quickly as they appeared
On Tuesday, employees of the Coast Guard and the local Naoussa shipyard pulled the wreck out of the water. Inside they found life jackets, items of clothing, packaged loaves of bread and water bottles, as well as a few backpacks of the stranded with their personal belongings. These are documents of the tragedy.
Those seeking help have vanished as quickly as they have appeared, like a storm shaking the islands until the sun shines again, and the sea is calm. The fate of these people is yet unknown and difficult to trace, especially since their names are only known to the authorities. What remains of them is like a negative, an imprint in the fabric of the island. The people themselves disappeared as they came – almost like ghosts on a ghost ship. This is everyday life in the Mediterranean in times of migration.
People in Paros are relieved to have mastered the crisis well and eliminated the problem. The residents can now celebrate New Year’s Eve carefree, and soon they will be preparing for the next tourist season.
First appeared in the Βerliner Ζeitung am Wochenende on 1/1/2022