LONDON: A boat carrying as many as 750 migrants that sank in the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece was being towed by a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel at the time, survivors claim.
A joint investigation by collaborative journalism organization Lighthouse Reports, The Times, Der Spiegel and El Pais also uncovered allegations that survivors were prevented from talking to coast guard or police investigators, and that eyewitness testimonies were altered.
More than 600 people are feared to have died when the boat, which was traveling from Tobruk in Libya to Europe, sank near the town of Pylos on June 14. Only 104 people were rescued, and 80 have been confirmed dead.
Sixteen survivors said the boat was being towed by the coast guard when it sank, with some suggesting they were being taken toward Italy instead of Greece.
Nine of the witness statements from those 16 survivors, which were seen by journalists, had mentions of the coast guard vessel omitted when they handed over to the team carrying out the official investigation into the incident. Two migrants said the coast guard refused to record their statements.
In addition, after translation four other statements were found to contain identical passages that stated the vessel’s captain got lost and had been forced to call the coast guard for help.
One migrant, identified by the pseudonym Sami Al-Yafi, told journalists that Greek authorities edited his statement to remove any reference to the boat being towed by the coast guard. In his evidence, he said the vessel was picked up by the coast guard at 1 a.m., after it had been at sea for five days and had run out of fuel and water.
“The Greek ship sailed and immediately our boat waved (listed) to the left, then … waved to the right,” he said. “The migrants said, ‘Let’s go left to save the balance,’ but then unfortunately it capsized. I was under the boat and it was drowning me with it.
“When I was under the boat, I started to think how I’ll die, how I’ll suffocate, I won’t breathe anymore, how I would be food for the fish.”
Another migrant, Amjad Maher, a dentist from Homs in Syria, said the boat had started to skew from side to side because of the position of the tow rope the coast guard had attached to the vessel.
“I fell into the water and the boat created a huge wave which threw me about 30 meters away from the boat,” he said.
“When I fell into the water, I thought that it was my end, I would die here. I told myself that I made a mistake by risking myself in the sea.”
Al-Yafi said that when he was rescued, he tried to give evidence to the authorities about the coast guard vessel.
“They didn’t type that in my testimony. When they presented it at the end I couldn’t find this part,” he said.
The Hellenic Coast Guard did not respond to requests for comment by journalists.