As many as 700 migrants are feared to have died after an overloaded fishing vessel capsized last week off the coast of Greece. As search and rescue efforts continue with dwindling expectations, the Greek Coast Guard is facing backlash over its failure to help rescue passengers before the boat sank. Most of the migrants were women and children; many were from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria and Palestine. They are presumed victims of what may be one the deadliest migrant shipwrecks ever recorded, yet the story has received far less public attention than the search for five passengers aboard a submersible to view the wreck of the Titanic. All five of those passengers were confirmed by the U.S. Coast Guard to have likely died Sunday, days before wall-to-wall media coverage began to speculate about their plight.
We discuss this disparity and the European refugee crisis at large with two guests: Giorgos Kosmopoulos, a senior migration campaigner for Amnesty International, and Laurence Bondard, spokesperson and operations communications manager for SOS Méditerranée, a nongovernmental rescue organization that operates in the central Mediterranean. Bondard has sailed on seven rescue missions with the NGO, part of a growing necessity in the region, where European countries have withheld the resources available for sea rescue. In the last decade, more than 30,000 refugees are estimated to have drowned in the Mediterranean.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the titanic disparity in how the world responds to maritime disasters. As many as 700 migrants are feared to have died in a shipwreck last week off the coast of Greece, but the story has received far less attention than the search for the five passengers aboard a submersible to view the wreck of the Titanic. On Thursday, search efforts for the submersible ended, after investigators found debris near the Titanic at the bottom of the sea. It’s believed the five passengers died in a catastrophic implosion.
The two vessels were lost at sea four days and 4,000 miles apart. The five men who lost their lives on the Titan have been getting wall-to-wall coverage in the media worldwide. Meanwhile, the estimated 700 who died when the Adriana sank off the coast of Greece, mostly women and children, have been essentially forgotten.
Passengers on the Titan were wealthy; two were billionaires. Each paid $250,000 for an adventure of a lifetime, a deep sea dive to view the wreckage of the Titanic. Those crammed onto the ramshackle Adriana fishing boat were seeking not adventure, but refuge from war, poverty, climate change or any of the many other life-threatening crises that force people to flee their homes with little more than the clothes on their back. They paid human traffickers — some, thousands of dollars — to ferry them from Libya to Europe. Many of the passengers were from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria and Palestine.
A multinational effort was launched to search for the passengers on the Titan submersible. Meanwhile, the Greek government is facing accusations that it could have saved the migrants aboard the doomed ship but opted not to. The newspaper El País reports Greek authorities were tracking the ship for more than 12 hours and never activated a rescue operation, even after the ship’s engine broke down.
We begin today’s show with two guests. Giorgos Kosmopoulos is a senior migration campaigner for Amnesty International. He’s joining us from Brussels. And in Paris, we’re joined by Laurence Bondard, spokesperson and operations communications manager for SOS Méditerranée. She’s been on seven rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Laurence, a spokesperson for Méditerranée. If you can respond to what took place last week and continues to take place? And clearly, when we don’t know the migrants’ names, when we don’t know their stories, like we know those on the Titan, the Titans, it is hard to care. Talk about who died last week.
LAURENCE BONDARD: Hi, Amy.
Yes, it is very difficult to relate and to understand what happens in the Mediterranean, when it’s far and when you don’t exactly understand what it means to be in the middle of the sea and completely alone, facing with the strength of the elements and having no one to hear your cry of despair and to come and rescue.
The people that flee via the sea and that take the risk to die to seek safety are people from very different regions of the world, from the African continent, Asian continent, Middle East region. These are people, as you were describing, who are fleeing their original countries for various reasons, from war to poverty, different kinds of violence. And they end up in Libya, trapped in a country where they are facing a harrowing cycle of violence. We hear recounts of people who are abducted, detained in unofficial detention centers, beaten up with their family on the phone to make sure that the family sells everything they have and provides as much money as possible. So, the people who take these unseaworthy boats that are critically overcrowded, without life jackets, often without enough food and water to do such hazardous and dangerous crossing, are people that are in the absolute despair. They will take any opportunity they have to just flee and try and seek safety.
AMY GOODMAN: Giorgos Kosmopoulos, you have said that this is a completely avoidable disaster. El País continues to expose what took place off the coast of Greece. Explain where the migrants were coming from on this overcrowded fishing vessel, what the Greek Navy knew, when they knew it, and why this sunk. We don’t know how many hundreds of people, in fact, have died, but it could be up to 700.
GIORGOS KOSMOPOULOS: Hi. Hi, Amy. Thank you for having us all.
Indeed, it’s a tragedy beyond words, and it was completed preventable, simply because Europe doesn’t allow, doesn’t afford safe and legal routes, pathways for these people to seek safety. And that’s the beginning. That’s the result of policies of European member states, who do not prioritize lives.
Hearing the account of our other guest, I always remember my friend Ali, when he fled Syria. He called me yesterday, after the shipwreck. He told me, “A few years ago, it could have been me, me and my children.” He always tells me how it was the hardest thing he ever had to do, fleeing his own country among bombs, carrying his three children in his arms, telling them, night and day, “It’s going to be OK,” and thinking inside him, “It’s going to be OK, even if I have to die.”
It’s just to say that these people have absolutely no option. Nobody puts their family and themselves in such danger unless they have no other option. And European politicians, who very often now express condolences, regret, do very little to do the right thing, to have a safe and legal route.
We also know that Greek Coast Guard was alerted in this latest shipwreck. They were alerted early on, and they followed very closely this shipwreck. There are a lot of questions who remain to be answered by the Greek authorities. Why they acted the way they did? Or, why didn’t they act in the way they should have acted? Especially as more information emerges, it was clear that the vessel was probably not seaworthy.
We need an investigation that is thorough, that’s independent, to come to the truth. We need to know the truth. And we expect from the Greek authorities now to, A, look after the survivors, make sure that families and their members have access and identify their loved ones, and, again, truth and justice for what has happened.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Abdelfarid Ahmad, the father of 18-year-old Syrian migrant Mohammad Ahmad, who went missing after that shipwreck off Greece. He said he doesn’t know if his son is dead or alive.
ABDELFARID AHMAD: [translated] On Friday night, we lost contact with my son. And until now, we don’t know anything about his whereabouts. The smugglers say they arrived on the other side. And until now, there’s been no communication. We don’t know anything about him. Drowned, alive, we don’t know. If my son had work, he wouldn’t have thought about leaving. If he had peace of mind or a good livelihood, he wouldn’t have left.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Giorgos, if you could talk more about what people know at this time, what they’re told? And also talk about your own family coming from the southern coastal town of Peloponnese. You’ve worked in the region as a volunteer. We just passed World Refugee Day.
GIORGOS KOSMOPOULOS: Yes, it’s particularly stressful and taxful for — taxing for me to think that this is a region, the Peloponnese, where all my family comes from. It’s the same beaches where me and my family spend our holidays. And it’s becoming a cemetery for refugees and migrants. Over 30,000 people, that we know of — and that’s possibly the tip of the iceberg — have perished in the Mediterranean, again, in shipwrecks that are completely avoidable.
Right now people, survivors, have been taken to facilities who are managed by the Greek authorities. And we understand that there has been one investigation opened by the Greek authorities into the events. We don’t know the exact scope. But, again, I have to repeat: There has to be a thorough and independent investigation into what happened.
I also have to say that despite the negative rhetoric and toxic rhetoric very often by politicians in Greece, in my own country, but also across Europe, the solidarity is strong. I’ve seen a lot of people aiding, running to help, providing for these people. They have done it again. They have done it in 2015. I was there when the thousands of hundreds of refugees from Syria came. And the ordinary people, us, call them, they are there to help. And I do think that there is a lot more solidarity left in us, and it’s proven every day.
And Europe and European leaders must follow that lead, must follow the legacy of what happened in 2015 in solidarity by those people to show the way and provide, finally, safe and legal routes for these people. Otherwise, all the tears and all the condolences amount to nothing. They’re almost hypocritical. And yeah, I hope — I really hope that this is the last shipwreck. I really hope this is the last time we will be looking for survivors and hear testimonies like the ones we heard before, because they’re completely avoidable. And it’s on us. It’s on us to fix it.
AMY GOODMAN: Laurence Bondard, I was wondering if you could talk about — is it pronounced Mare Nostrum? — what this program was, started by the Italian government in 2013, over 100,000 people rescued that year. What happened to it? And if you can talk more about how to avoid these tragedies?
LAURENCE BONDARD: Yes, the operation called Mare Nostrum — in Italian, meaning “Our Sea” — was a European operation conducted by the Italian authorities in between 2013 and 2014. In this time, in less than a year, this European operation — it was a military and a humanitarian operation, also dedicated to search and rescue — rescued over 150,000 people in less than a year. It shows how possible it is. We know how to do, European member states know how to do, and maritime sectors know how to perform search and rescue. It means putting European ships at sea, having people that are trained and equipped and coordinated accurately and efficiently to organize searches and then rescue efforts in distress. It happened at that time in this operation.
But this operation was ended in 2014 due to a lack of European solidarity. The Italian authorities asked for European solidarity to ensure that this was financed not only by the Italian country and that the people that were rescued could be also taken care of by the European Union in its entirety. And with this lack of solidarity, the operation — they decided to put an end to this operation. And since then, it was not replaced, only replaced by operations that were military and that were border defense operations. No European search and rescue operation has been put in place since then.
This is why SOS Méditeranée, we created ourself as citizens eight years ago, and other organizations, citizen organizations, created themselves. It’s to fill the gap left in the central Mediterranean, specifically in this region in between Libya and Europe that is completely left alone. It’s completely empty of European efficient search and rescue assets.
And this is why this is the hope that I’ve been hearing just now. It’s a hope we all share, of course. We hope that this will be the end, that it’s the last shipwreck at all and last shipwreck of this magnitude. Unfortunately, I don’t have this — I don’t hope. I lost this hope. I can tell you here and now: There will be other shipwrecks, in the days to come, in the weeks to come, in the months to come, and most likely in the year to come, if nothing is done. There will be other shipwrecks. There will be other tragedies.
The only way to stop that — and it’s not that complicated — is to have this European solidarity in place, a movement that organizes a European search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, so that there is, again, real coordination, efficient coordination. When we receive the stress alert, it means that maritime rescue centers coordinate, relay the distress alerts, make sure that ships around, in the vicinity, are able to assist, provide assistance, and then disembark in a place of safety. We know how to do. Maritime world knows how to do. What we need is the political choices, is the will to do it. That’s the only thing that is lacking.
AMY GOODMAN: And talking about that will, I want to end with Giorgos Kosmopoulos in Brussels. Do you have a message to the world’s media? This, as we call it, titanic disparity in how they cover the five people who died in that submersible, the idea that that should be a model, blanket coverage, when people die at sea, using that model for — and multiplying it many, many times over, for the number of migrants who have died at sea. The message you have to media responsibility?
GIORGOS KOSMOPOULOS: I think it’s a message for all of us, including media. Everyone who’s at risk at sea, no matter where they come from, no matter which language they speak, their income, the societies they come from, we have to mobilize all our resources to help them, with no reservations, no “but” or “if”s, and put human life on the very, very top of our priorities, not only words but also with actions. We need solidarity. We need search and rescue. We need safe and legal routes for everyone. And everyone has to be able to look in the eyes of the survivors and see we did what we could do, and this is not going to happen again.
But so far, this is not what’s happening. We have policies in Europe that lead to these shipwrecks, that they are — these policies have a direct cause and effect with these shipwrecks we are seeing. So, yes, we have the resources. We have the capacity. We have the technology. We have advanced. It’s time to put human lives on the very top of our agenda and our efforts, no matter where these people come from.
AMY GOODMAN: Giorgos Kosmopoulos, I want to thank you for being with us, senior migration campaigner for Amnesty International, speaking to us from Brussels, Belgium, and Laurence Bondard, spokesperson for SOS Méditerranée, speaking to us from Paris.
Coming up, we look at the occupied West Bank as tensions soar, with Jewish settlers attacking Palestinian villages and Israel launching drone and helicopter gunship attacks. Stay with us.