Three boats with a total of more than 300 refugees are missing in the Atlantic Ocean off the Canary Islands. A search has so far been unsuccessful. As a result of this new horror, the official number of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean and Atlantic while attempting to reach European Union (EU) countries this year has risen to more than 2,000, and the actual death toll is undoubtedly much higher.
The responsibility for this mass death lies entirely with the EU leaders: in their refugee deterrence, they have no compunction about allowing people to drown to prevent others from fleeing to Europe.
Dozens if not hundreds of refugees who set out on the dangerous sea passage but don’t reach their destination are added to the registry of the dead each week.
A spokesman for the Spanish refugee aid organization Caminando Fronteras (Walking Borders) reported that two boats, each carrying around 60 refugees, left Senegal on June 23. Following that, an even larger boat with 200 refugees on board, including many children, ventured on the more than 1,700 kilometer-long route to the Canary Islands from the Senegalese coastal village of Kafountine on June 27. Caminando Fronteras fears “another catastrophe.”
Family members of the refugees informed the aid organization after contact with the boats was lost. A search initiated by the Spanish Maritime Rescue has so far been unsuccessful. The rescuers found a boat with 78 refugees on board last Monday, but according to Caminando Fronteras, it is not one of the three missing boats. Reports that the 200 refugees were found on Monday also turned out to be false.
According to the Senegalese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the 260 refugees rescued from distress in Moroccan waters between June 28 and July 9 are also passengers from other boats, not the missing ones.
The search for the refugees sheds light on one of the deadliest sea routes in the world. The EU’s brutal closed-border policy forces refugees to choose longer and more dangerous routes to escape war and misery. The Canary Islands, a Spanish autonomous community and archipelago, are only 100 nautical miles from the Moroccan coast. However, many refugee boats depart further south from Senegal, Gambia or Guinea.
The crossings take between one and ten days depending on the length of the route. An EU report on the West African route asserts: “Usually, after only a few days, migrants face significant problems such as food, water and fuel shortages.” Nevertheless, the EU has drastically reduced sea rescue efforts in this region, as well as in the central Mediterranean.
The Spanish government recognized Morocco as the administrative power of Western Sahara in early 2022, and has since shifted responsibility for sea rescue missions to the Moroccan coast guard. However, it is far less well equipped and takes far more time than its Spanish counterpart to reach the people in distress at sea.
At the end of June, an inflatable boat that had left Dakhla in Western Sahara with 60 refugees on board was in distress at sea. After a Spanish reconnaissance plane spotted the stranded boat, it took more than twelve hours for a Moroccan coast guard patrol boat to arrive at the scene of the accident. Only 24 people were rescued.
“The people in this inflatable boat were hoping to be rescued in Spanish waters for more than twelve hours in vain,” Helena Maleno Garzon, founder of Caminando Fronteras, said in a social media post.
The aid organization Alarm Phone, which accepts and forwards emergency calls from refugees in distress at sea, also strongly criticized the expansion of the Moroccan area of responsibility for sea rescue. “This is very worrying, because the Moroccan authorities have repeatedly shown an unwillingness to carry out a safe and rapid rescue–often at the expense of human lives,” a September 2022 report said. In addition, Morocco does not send rescue boats, but warships, and deports the apprehended refugees to the countries from which they fled.
Four refugees die every day in the Atlantic
On the route to the Canary Islands alone, according to Caminando Fronteras, 778 refugees have drowned in 28 boat accidents in the first six months of this year. And this figure does not include the 300 missing refugees. Every day, more than four people die in the Atlantic. Between 2020 and 2022, more than 7,500 refugees drowned on their way to the Canary Islands. With the total number of registered arrivals being 60,000, the death rate is more than 10 percent.
Caminando Fronteras’ figures significantly exceed those of the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrants Project, as it also includes information from family members who are missing their relatives. The IOM, which has so far registered “only” 200 drowned refugees on the Atlantic route for this year and cites official figures, itself says that it is “a cautious estimate” and that the actual number of victims is far higher.
Last Wednesday, eight bodies were recovered from a wooden boat off the coast of Senegal, while 155 refugees were rescued in the incident. A few days earlier, a boat with 57 refugees on board capsized, of whom only 50 could be rescued. At the beginning of July, 51 refugees, including three children, perished trying to cross from southern Morocco to the Canary Islands. Motor damage caused the inflatable boat to drift in the Atlantic for more than a week. Rescuers found only four survivors.
Mehdi Lahlou, migration expert at the National Institute of Statistics and Applied Economy in Morocco, told Deutsche Welle: “Due to increased controls in northern Morocco, Libya and Tunisia, migrants from the countries of northwest Africa are increasingly choosing the route via the Canary Islands.” In view of the risks of the crossing, however, professional and coordinated sea rescue is absolutely necessary. In fact, rescue missions are launched much too late, poorly coordinated and poorly equipped. Caminando Fronteras therefore insists that both the Spanish and Moroccan authorities “instead of defending the right to life are guided only by the geopolitical interest of controlling and limiting immigration.”
EU agreement with Tunisia
The EU is deliberately shifting the responsibility for sea rescue to the countries from which the refugee boats leave. This policy prevents refugees rescued at sea from having to be brought to European ports, and thereby accepts the deaths of thousands of refugees. In recent years, the EU has intensified cooperation with the Libyan government and Libyan warlords, resulting in refugees being detained, mistreated and sold as slaves in Libyan detention camps under horrendous conditions.
Most recently, the EU reached an agreement with the Tunisian government on refugee deterrence. This was preceded by high-level visits by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen together with Italy’s fascist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, as well as a visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz together with French President Emmanuel Macron.
They met with Tunisian President Kais Saied, who only a short time prior was being criticised by the EU Parliament for human rights violations and his authoritarian style of government. The EU has pledged at least €100 million [$US112 million] to Saied for refugee deterrence and intends to deliver boats and other equipment.
Immediately following the visits, the Tunisian authorities began fulfilling their assigned role as the guard dog of Europe’s external borders with brutality and ruthlessness. Hundreds of refugees in the Tunisian port city of Sfax were transported in buses and deposited in the Tunisian-Libyan or Tunisian-Algerian border area without any supplies. An eyewitness told AFP that two convoys of refugees had been brought to the border region. Youssouf Bilayer, a 25-year-old Ivorian, reported that the refugees were “transported in six buses and dropped off in the forest. They beat us up to get us out of the vehicle.”
The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimates that there are many children among the hundreds of such displaced refugees. If they don’t get help as soon as possible, their lives will be in serious danger. According to HRW, several people have already died. A heavily pregnant woman from Guinea died when her contractions started as a result of the stress, and her baby also died with her.
Mamadou, who had fled Gambia, spoke to AFP on the phone. “If you can send the Red Cross, help us–otherwise we will die. There’s nothing here. There is no food, no water.” The next day Mamadou was no longer available. According to HRW, the Tunisian security forces are systematically destroying the refugees’ mobile phones. The region is also extremely remote and militarized, making aid operations next to impossible. The Tunisian government is using this inhumane and murderous approach to obtain much-needed loans and financial aid from the EU.
The sinking of the Adriana
The member states of the EU themselves no longer have any qualms about deliberately allowing refugees to die on Europe’s external borders. This is exemplified by the sinking of the Adriana on June 14 off the Greek port city of Pylos. Against the claims of the Greek authorities, there is now overwhelming evidence that their own coast guard deliberately caused the capsizing of the Adriana and in so doing murdered 600 refugees.
An investigation by German regional broadcaster NDR, the Guardian, the research agency Forensis and the Greek organization Solomon came to the clear conclusion that the Adriana was towed by the Greek coast guard towards Italian waters and then, when this was unsuccessful, capsized.
The search team spoke to 26 survivors, evaluated the available court records and examined the logbook entries of the ships involved. The Coast Guard ship 920 reached the Adriana, which had just received water, food and fuel from the tanker Faithful Warrior, on June 13 at 10:40 pm. Video footage shows that the completely overloaded Adriana was already listing dangerously by this point, and that an immediate rescue action should have been initiated.
The Adriana had been drifting for hours due to a broken compass and lack of fuel, propelled only by the current. But after the arrival of the Greek coast guard, she again moved at a steady speed towards Italy. Survivors report that the coast guard led them, claiming that an Italian coastguard ship was already waiting for them.
Around 1:40 am on the morning of June 14, the Adriana stopped, apparently the engine had failed again. Then it moved a few hundred meters to the east, which cannot be explained by wind or current. Eyewitnesses report that after the renewed engine damage, masked men from the Greek coast guard ship boarded the vessel and attached a rope to the bow of the Adriana.
It is fitting that the coast guard ship 920 had left Chania in Crete and, according to the logbook entry, had taken a four-member team of the KEA stationed in Chania on board. The KEA is a military unit that specializes in carrying out dangerous operations at sea.
The coast guard claims that the rope was attached to stabilize the Adriana. However, Stefan Krüger, an expert on ship safety, expressed strong doubts about this version to the NDR. “This kind of listing momentum, which you certainly bring on with such a tow, does not lead to the ship being stabilized.” Krüger rather believes “that the motivation was to tow the ship because the engine no longer worked.” Only a short time after the tow rope was attached, the Adriana capsized.
Two survivors, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of the Greek authorities, told the BBC about how the capsizing occurred. “They fixed a rope from the left. Everyone went to the right side of our boat to balance it out. The Greek ship quickly moved away and tipped our boat. They took it with them for a long time.”
Another survivor told the Guardian that Greek soldiers had attached the rope and the Adriana had been pulled for about 10 minutes. “I felt that they tried to push us out of the Greek water so that their responsibility ends.” Other survivors said the Adriana suddenly moved forward “like a rocket” even though the engine was not running.
The fact that the version of the Greek coast guard does not correspond to the actual course of events is also evidenced by the testimony of the survivors before the investigating judge, who is examining the sinking of the Adriana. According to this, the statements recorded and published by the coast guard were made under pressure and manipulated.
As the Guardian reports, the statements made by two survivors of different nationalities, according to the coast guard, surprisingly agree word for word: “We were on the boat that was old and rusty with too many people … That’s why it capsized and eventually sank.”
But under oath before the prosecutor, the same survivors days later blamed the Greek coast guard for the sinking. A survivor who told the coast guard in his testimony that the trawler capsized because of its age and overcrowding later testified, “When they boarded the boat (and I’m sorry to mention that), our boat sank. I think the reason was the towing by the Greek boat.”
Survivors told the BBC that they were intimidated by the coast guard. Whenever it was said that the Greek coast guard had caused the capsizing, they were told to shut up. “You have survived death! Stop talking about the incident! Don’t ask any more questions about it!” they were told.
Other incidents demonstrating that the Greek coast guard was never interested in rescuing the refugees have come to light. The European border protection agency Frontex also remained idle, although it was informed at an early stage that there was an urgent case for a naval rescue.
According to information from the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the boat was first sighted by Italian authorities at 6:51 a.m., according to an internal Frontex document. Frontex previously claimed to have only learned about the overloaded ship at 9:47 am through a reconnaissance drone. In fact, as early as 8:51 a.m., the sea rescue center in Rome alerted both Frontex and the control center in Piraeus, from where rescue operations of the Greek coast guard are controlled. The information also reportedly included the fact that two children had died on board the fish trawler.
Nevertheless, it took hours for the Greek coastguard ship 920 to leave Crete. It remains unclear why boats located much closer in Kalamata, Pylos or Patras were not alerted and sent. Speaking to the Guardian, a member of the Greek coast guard expressed his complete incomprehension that a rescue operation had not been initiated immediately: “It was a situation in which you send everything you have. The trawler was clearly in need of help.”
Clearly, however, the Greek authorities were more concerned with bringing on board members of the KEA stationed in Chania in order to remove the ship from Greek waters. An actual rescue operation was therefore not planned at any time.
The Greek coast guard has since confirmed that it was informed by Italian authorities at an early point. Greece’s newly appointed migration minister Dimitris Kairidis said in Brussels that “an independent judicial investigation” is underway. If someone is found guilty, “there will definitely be consequences.” “Until then, we should not jump to conclusions or bow to political pressure,” he added.
Frontex has initiated its own pro forma investigation of the sinking. But at the same time, the EU Commission continues to back the investigations of the Greek authorities. These, however, focus on the nine Egyptians arrested after the shipwreck, who allegedly steered the boat and distributed water and food.
The Egyptians are accused of belonging to a human smuggling ring and causing the capsizing of the ship. If convicted, they face life imprisonment. Survivors reported to the BBC that the Coast Guard forced them to refer to these nine as masterminds and people smugglers. “The Greek authorities detained them and wrongfully accused them of covering up their own crime,” one survivor said.
The sinking of Adriana, which killed more than 600 refugees, was evidently an act of mass murder, committed either deliberately or by failing to provide assistance, for which the EU is responsible.