Greece: 6 Months On, No Justice for Pylos Shipwreck
Authorities Need to Learn Lessons to Avert Future Deaths at Sea
- Official investigations into credible allegations that the Hellenic Coast Guard’s actions and omissions contributed to the shipwreck and loss of life off Pylos, Greece six months ago have made little meaningful progress.
- A full accounting of what happened is paramount to securing truth and justice for survivors and families of the victims and to help avoid future deaths.
- Authorities should ensure that the allegations against Hellenic Coast Guard officers and other Greek officials are thoroughly investigated and prosecute any officials for whom there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
(Athens) – Official investigations into credible allegations that the Hellenic Coast Guard’s actions and omissions contributed to the catastrophic shipwreck and loss of life off Pylos, Greece six months ago have made little meaningful progress, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today.
The Adriana, a severely overcrowded fishing trawler, capsized in the early morning of June 14, 2023, leading to the death of more than 600 people. It had started its journey from Libya five days earlier with an estimated 750 migrants and asylum seekers, including children, mainly from Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt. Only 104 of those onboard survived and 82 bodies were recovered.
“The Pylos shipwreck appears to be another tragic example of Greek authorities’ abdication of responsibility for saving lives at sea,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “A full accounting of what happened is paramount to securing truth and justice for survivors and families of the victims and to help avoid future deaths.”
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 survivors, 5 relatives of 5 people still missing, and representatives of the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Greek police, nongovernmental organizations, United Nations and international agencies and organizations.
They found that in the 15 hours between receiving the first alert that the Adriana was in their search and rescue region, and when it capsized, Greek authorities failed to mobilize appropriate resources for a rescue. The authorities were clearly aware of indicators of distress, such as overcrowding and insufficient food and water, on the Adriana and, survivors said, knew about corpses on board and requests for rescue. Survivors’ testimonies also challenge the authorities’ claim that people on the Adriana did not want to be rescued, which in any event would not have relieved the Hellenic Coast Guard of its obligation to take all measures necessary to ensure safety at sea. Survivors consistently said they pleaded repeatedly for rescue, including to the Coast Guard itself.
Survivors said that a Coast Guard patrol boat attached a rope to the Adriana and pulled, causing the boat to capsize. They also alleged that, after the boat capsized, the Coast Guard boat was slow to activate rescue operations, failed to maximize the number of people rescued, and engaged in dangerous maneuvers.
Among others, separate investigations by the independent group Solomon, the interdisciplinary investigative platform Forensis, the New York Times, Der Spiegel, El País, Lighthouse Reports, and the Washington Post documented similar allegations.
The nature of ongoing judicial investigations in Greece raises concerns about the prospects for accountability for the shipwreck, the organizations said. Nine survivors, currently under arrest, are facing serious charges before the Criminal Court of Kalamata in Greece, including for causing a shipwreck. In parallel, the Naval Court opened an investigation in June into the potential responsibility of the Coast Guard and in September, 40 survivors filed a complaint with the same court alleging that Greek authorities were responsible for the shipwreck. It is unclear how a finding by one court might affect the other.
Survivors’ testimony points to potential serious procedural shortcomings that might affect both investigations, including the confiscation of survivors’ mobile phones, some of which may contain key evidence of the events. The Naval Court prosecutor requested Hellenic Coast Guard officers’ phones, which could also contain evidence, only in late September, and as of early December, only 13 survivors had been summoned to provide statements.
In November, the Greek Ombudsman opened an inquiry into the Coast Guard’s actions, citing its refusal to conduct an internal disciplinary investigation. The European Ombudsman opened an inquiry into the role of the European Union border agency Frontex, whose aircraft initially sighted the vessel, while the agency’s Fundamental Rights Officer is pursuing his own investigation. In contributions to the European Ombudsman’s inquiry, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch contend that Frontex should have continued its monitoring of the Adriana and issued a mayday call. Frontex told the organizations that it is the responsibility of national authorities to coordinate search and rescue operations and that it did not issue a mayday alert because it did not assess an “imminent risk to human life.”
The Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy replied to the organizations’ letters, saying that protecting human life at sea constitutes its “highest professional and moral obligation” and that the Coast Guard and the Joint Rescue Coordination Center Piraeus, abide by the legal and operational frameworks in place in search and rescue operations. However, citing ongoing judicial and nonjudicial investigations, the Coast Guard declined to answer the organizations’ questions or respond to their findings.
The historic failures in Greece’s investigations of shipwrecks involving people on the move and the widespread impunity for systemic human rights violations at its borders raise concerns about the adequacy of the ongoing judicial inquiries into the Pylos tragedy, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said. In 2022, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Greece for the shortcomings in its rescue efforts and in its subsequent investigations in the 2014 Farmakonisi shipwreck in which 11 people died.
“Almost 10 years since the deadly Farmakonisi shipwreck, the Greek authorities’ response to the Pylos tragedy is a crucial test of their willingness to investigate human rights violations against racialized people at the country’s border,” said Adriana Tidona, migration researcher at Amnesty International. “Greece must ensure that survivors and families’ of the hundreds who lost their lives can safely and effectively participate in proceedings to the highest degree possible and ensure that investigations are carried out in a timely manner, guaranteeing the completeness and integrity of evidence admitted.”
For detailed findings, please see below.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch conducted independent human rights fact-finding and interviewed victims with informed consent and on condition of confidentiality.
They sought information in writing from the Hellenic Coast Guard, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy, the Disaster Victims Identification Unit of the Police, the Supreme Court Prosecutor’s office, and Frontex. Information received as part of these exchanges is reflected, as appropriate, in this document. In a response to the findings and requests for information, on December 4, the Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy, responsible for the Coast Guard, stated that they could not provide further information on the events, citing ongoing judicial and nonjudicial investigations.
Survivors are identified by pseudonyms for their privacy and safety.
While the Pylos shipwreck raises broader issues relating to Frontex, EU search and rescue practices, and the role of merchant vessels, the information below focuses primarily on the responsibilities of the Greek authorities.
At 11:01 EEST on June 13, the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC Rome) alerted the Greek Joint Rescue Coordination Center (JRCC Piraeus) and Frontex about a boat carrying 750 people in the Greek search and rescue region. Frontex confirmed to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that the alert stated there were two dead bodies on the Adriana. Until the Adriana capsized and sank shortly after 02:00 EEST on June 14, and despite formally assuming coordination of the incident and receiving evidence of distress, the Hellenic Coast Guard took limited action to ensure the safety of those aboard.
The Coast Guard says that during satellite phone communications between 15:30 to 21:00 EEST people on the Adriana “consistently repeated that they wished to sail to Italy and did not want any assistance from Greece.” In interviews with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, however, survivors said that people on the Adriana asked for rescue during satellite calls, and one survivor said he personally heard such requests for rescue during calls with the Coast Guard.
Ahmed, from Syria, said “We talked with them [the Coast Guard] through the machine [satellite phone], our wish to be rescued was explicit in the calls.”
Greek authorities said after a Greek helicopter located the Adriana at 15:35 EEST on June 13, JRCC Piraeus dispatched a 40-meter patrol boat, the PPLS920, from Crete, which reached the Adriana only around 22:40 EEST. The tankers Lucky Sailor and Faithful Warrior, instructed by JRCC Piraeus to provide assistance and monitor the Adriana, report first sighting the vessel at 17:50 EEST and 19:12 EEST respectively.
Greek authorities ignored or redirected offers of assistance from Frontex. An agency plane sighted the Adriana at 12:47 EEST and monitored the boat for 10 minutes before returning to base due to low fuel. Frontex confirmed to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that it subsequently offered twice to send aerial support but did not receive a response from the Greek authorities, who ultimately told them to send a drone to a distress case south of Crete. Frontex confirmed offering to deploy the drone to the Adriana also while it was engaged in the Crete incident.
At several points, the Coast Guard received information about conditions on the boat that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch believe should have been interpreted as indicators of distress as set out in EU law and that trigger the duty to rescue under EU and international law of the sea. At 12:47 EEST, Frontex told the Greek authorities that the boat was heavily overcrowded and no one was wearing life jackets. At 17:53 EEST, the rescue hotline Alarm Phone, which had calls with people on the Adriana, sent an email to the coast guard saying there were children on board, several people were “very sick” and passengers were “urgently asking for help.” The activist Nawal Soufi, also in touch with people on board, tweeted at 18:55 EEST that six people had died and two others were in critical condition. Greek media reported that the captain of the Faithful Warrior told the Coast Guard at 21:45 EEST that the boat was “rocking dangerously.”
The patrol boat sent by JRCC Piraeus, the PPLS920, was not equipped to perform a large-scale rescue. According to official information, the vessel had only 43 individual life jackets, 8 life preserver rings, 2 inflatable life rafts able to transport 39 people, and one auxiliary inflatable vessel. JRCC Piraeus did not mobilize other assets, although reports indicate that vessels were available in closer ports, and released the two tankers despite the PPLS920’s limited rescue capacity.
Greek authorities have an obligation under the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue to act upon situations of distress at sea. The EU Regulation on Maritime Border Surveillance lists factors relevant to determining a situation of uncertainty, alert, or distress – including a request for assistance, the seaworthiness of the vessel, the number of people on board in relation to the type of vessel, and the presence of deceased persons. Even if some people on the Adriana rejected assistance, this does not relieve competent authorities on the scene of their duty to protect lives at sea. The regulation states that the obligation to take “any measure necessary for the safety of the persons concerned” remains even “where … the persons on board refuse to accept assistance.”
The Hellenic Coast Guard claims that the Adriana’s engine ceased functioning around 01:40 EEST on June 14 and patrol boat PPLS920 approached the boat to assess the situation. At 02:04 EEST the PPLS920 informed JRCC Piraeus that they had seen the Adriana veer andcapsize. In a meeting with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch researchers on July 13, senior Coast Guard officials said the PPLS920 had used a rope to draw closer to the Adriana at an earlier stage but that after “negotiations,” people on the boat had cast off the rope and continued their journey.
Seven survivors said Greek authorities instructed the Adriana via satellite phone to follow the PPLS920 toward Italy. Some of them said the Adriana could not keep up with the PPLS920 or experienced engine problems. Ismail, a young man from Syria, overheard a satellite phone conversation: “The Greeks said they will take [us] to Italian waters. We followed them for almost an hour. Then…we informed the Greeks that the engine is damaged and we cannot follow. They said relax, calm down. They told us, you are not allowed to record.”
Eleven of 21 survivors interviewed said the PPLS920 then attached a rope to the Adriana and accelerated, causing the boat to veer in various directions before capsizing. Gamal, from Egypt, said when the Coast Guard boat came toward them, he was sitting on the roof “because I was so excited, I wanted to see those people who came to rescue us.” He remembered “When they tied the rope…they pushed our boat to the left very fast…They go left, the boat sinks left, then they go right, the ship sinks more on the right…”
Numerous survivors described a similar dynamic to Lighthouse Reports, Solomon/Forensis, the New York Times, and Reuters. Even accounting for the possibility that these separate investigations interviewed some of the same survivors, the consistent accounts constitute strong and compelling evidence.
In addition to a well-documented history of pushbacks and other abuses at its land and sea borders, there are cases in which Hellenic Coast Guard vessels appeared to have dangerously towed or attempted to tow migrants and refugees’ boats. Survivors of the 2014 Farmakonisi shipwreck claimed that the Hellenic Coast Guard tied a rope to tow their boat toward Turkey. A 2021 report of the European Anti-Fraud Office highlighted other cases in which the Hellenic Coast Guard towed migrant boats out of its waters.
After the Adriana capsized, survivors said that people climbed on the hull of the boat, which – according to survivors’ recollections and closely in line with the Coast Guard’s account – took roughly 20 minutes to sink completely.
Most survivors said that crew of the PPLS920 did not take immediate action to rescue people after the capsizing, with several saying that the vessel deployed dinghies only 20 to 60 minutes later. Abbas, from Syria, said, “If they had been serious and come immediately at least 300 would have been rescued.”
Five survivors said the PPLS920 moved quickly and far away from the Adriana after the capsizing; some said its movements created a “wave.” Ahmed said after the PPLS920 had moved away, it “turned with the front of their vessel toward us. The turning caused a wave. The boat was bottom up but after they made the wave, it changed position, it became the way the Titanic sank.”
While there may be operational reasons for the patrol boat’s actions, and survivors’ perspectives are affected by their immediate experience of the crisis, the seriousness of these allegations merit full investigation.
The Greek Investigations
Nine Egyptian survivors were arrested on June 16 and later charged with smuggling, aggravated by the deaths of passengers, causing a shipwreck, irregular entry, and forming and membership of a criminal organization. Their case is pending at the Kalamata Criminal Court. The Naval Court, which has jurisdiction over the Hellenic Coast Guard, opened a preliminary investigation in June. In September a coalition of legal nongovernmental organizations filed a complaint on behalf of 40 survivors alleging that Greek authorities were criminally responsible for the shipwreck and asking to be parties to the Naval Court case. They have asked judicial authorities to secure all evidence and take photographs of the sunken vessel if it is not possible to retrieve bodies. As of early December, only 13 survivors had been summoned to testify. Survivors’ lawyers said that the Naval Court prosecutor asked officials to provide the mobile phones belonging to 13 officers on the PPLS920 only in late September.
Greek authorities may have undermined the integrity of key evidence. Seven survivors told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that Greek officials took their phones without giving them an opportunity to download or copy data. Several of these survivors confirmed they had used their phones to document the journey. To our knowledge, none of them were given any receipt or information about how to retrieve their property and none of them has been able to do so. It is not clear if there was a legal basis for this confiscation, or whether any procedure set out in law was followed. The absence of a clear legal basis, or a failure to follow legal process would make the confiscations arbitrary, unlawful, and a violation of survivors’ rights to privacy and property.
In August Greek media reported that 20 mobile phones were recovered “in a bag on the coast guard boat.” The Maritime Affairs minister confirmed that 21 phones were seized as part of the “investigation material.” Lawyers for the 40 survivors applied to the Naval Court to ensure that all relevant data from these phones is admitted as evidence in the investigation against the Coast Guard.
There is a lack of clarity about whether the PPLS920 had video recordings. The Maritime Affairs minister told the Greek parliament in August the equipment was not functioning properly, while an earlier statement by a Coast Guard spokesperson cited different reasons for the lack of recordings. However, Greek media reported that audio-visual material from the Coast Guard vessel was handed over to unspecified judicial authorities in June and that the captain of PPLS920 took a video of the image on the patrol boat’s screens on his mobile phone showing the Adriana rocking close to a larger ship, believed to be the Faithful Warrior.
In the days after the shipwreck, as part of the criminal investigation, survivors were interviewed not only by the Kalamata prosecutor but by officials from the Coast Guard, which raises questions about the independence and integrity of the investigation. In separate investigations, Documento news, Lighthouse Reports, and Solomon/Forensis found that various survivors’ statements admitted as evidence described the shipwreck in identical terms, suggesting those taking the statements may have written official pro forma accounts rather than the actual accounts provided by survivors. Farid, from Syria, told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that his statement before the public prosecutor about the Coast Guard’s towing the Adriana was changed to say that the boat sank due to other reasons.
In the 2022 Safi judgement, the European Court of Human Rights found that Greece had violated the right to life for the way it conducted rescue operations in the Farmakonisi shipwreck, where 11 of 27 passengers died, and for failures in the relevant investigations. The Naval Court prosecutor had closed the investigation in that case into the Coast Guard’s responsibilities, stating that towing and pushbacks “did not exist as a practice.” Farmakonisi survivors said at the time that the content of their statements was not recorded accurately.
Identification of Missing People
For the first time in responding to a shipwreck, the Greek authorities activated the Disaster Victims Identification (DVI) protocol to identify victims through the cooperation of the Greek police, Ministry of Migration and Asylum, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Commission on Missing Persons and countries of origin. According to information provided by the DVI unit to Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, as of mid-November, 58 of the 82 bodies recovered had been identified and the majority repatriated; unidentified bodies will be buried in Athens with specific safeguards to ensure their traceability. As of November, the unit has received up to 550 identification requests backed with DNA samples.
The unit noted the lack of experienced DVI Teams in countries of origin and other difficulties in cross-country and international cooperation, as well relatives’ reluctance to cooperate with their respective authorities. In the context of disasters involving asylum seekers, families might not be able or willing to rely on their local authorities. The identification of missing people often relies on the availability of DNA samples from immediate family members, creating hurdles for some people. In Syria, the unit said it faced challenges, but that Syrian authorities authorized the ICRC delegation “to facilitate DNA sampling…alongside with Interpol.” The unit cooperates with ICRC and others in cases of Syrians relatives residing in Syria, EU countries, Jordan, and Lebanon.
It is vital to ensure the rights of relatives of people missing from the shipwreck to truth and justice. Hussein, from Syria, said about his missing brother: “the most important thing is to receive his body and for the Greeks to verify what happened in this incident.”
To Greek authorities:
- Ensure that the allegations against Hellenic Coast Guard officers and other Greek officials in this case are thoroughly investigated in compliance with international human rights standards of impartiality, independence, public scrutiny, and effectiveness, including with respect to the collection of evidence, interrogations, inspections, and expert and forensic reports.
- Prosecute any officials for whom there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.
- Ensure full cooperation by the Hellenic Coast Guard and JRCC Piraeus with the Greek Ombudsman’s investigation.
- Initiate disciplinary investigations into the responsibilities of the Hellenic Coast Guard.
- Ensure the safe and effective participation of the largest possible number of survivors and relatives of victims in judicial proceedings and nonjudicial inquiries and their adequate and timely access to relevant information and evidence.
- Ensure that all evidence—testimony, audio-video material, digital and physical records of signals, communications, and logs, data from survivors’ phones, and any physical evidence—is collected from all public and private actors, admitted into evidence, and made available to all parties.
- Ensure relatives’ effective access to identification procedures in Greece, including by creating dedicated humanitarian visas.
- Ensure that clear and verifiable protocols in line with international and EU law and standards are carried out regarding situations of uncertainty, alert, and distress, instructions to merchant vessels, availability and deployment of sufficient and adequately resourced assets, and the conduct of rescue operations.
- Ensure that the Disaster Victim Identification is triggered in all incidents involving large numbers of asylum seekers and migrants and is adequately resourced.
To European bodies:
- The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, responsible for overseeing implementation of ECtHR rulings, should examine the Safi judgment under “enhanced supervision” and ensure that Greece undertakes necessary structural reforms to address systemic failures in ensuring rescue at sea and effective investigations and accountability for Coast Guard operations.
- The European Commission should press Greece to establish an effective and independent border monitoring mechanism and consider suspending funding for border management in Greece pending the conclusion of an independent investigation into the shipwreck.
- Frontex should cooperate with all judicial and non-judicial inquiries in Greece, publicize the results of its own internal inquiry, and conduct a human rights assessment of its operations in Greece.