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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Greece, Italy, ‘Eastern Libya’ and the EU: killers of 650 people

A catastrophe in which 650 people were killed off the Greek coast was the direct fault of the governments of Greece and Italy, ‘authorities’ in ‘Eastern Libya’ and the EU. We are tired of being expected to pretend it was not. Those four bodies killed 650 men, women and children.

As many as 650 men, women and children have been killed in a catastrophe off the Greek coast.

While the vital immediate hope is that as many people as possible can be rescued, it would be dangerously neglectful of us not to also note the clear and definitive responsibility of the governments of Greece and Italy, as well as the pseudo-‘authorities’ in Eastern Libya, and the EU, for these hundreds of entirely avoidable deaths.

Earlier this morning, the Greek Coastguard announced it was involved in a rescue 47 nautical miles south-west of Pylos, where a boat carrying people to Italy had capsized.

It said its officers had rescued 104 people, and found 35 dead bodies, while ‘dozens’ may have been missing.

By 3pm, 78 people had been found dead. The number rescued remained at 104.

But it has since become clear that rather than ‘dozens’, as many as 750 men, women and children were aboard the sunk vessel, meaning the number of deaths is likely – and more likely with every passing hour – to be close to 650 people.

Alarmphone reported yesterday that it was in contact with a vessel carrying ‘around 750’ people, which had set sail from Tobruk, Libya. The organisation has said it has ‘strong reason’ to believe this vessel is the one which sank off Pylos, and all available evidence proves this is, in fact, the case.

The Greek and Italian Coastguards, as well as the EU’s border ‘agency’ Frontex, were alerted to the boat’s existence and position, as well as it and the people aboard its distress, yesterday afternoon.

Yet nobody helped the people aboard onto safer vessels.

As early as 8.55am today (roughly six hours after the boat capsized, but while the rescue was ongoing) the Greek Coastguard was outlining its version of events, claiming that:

Initially, the fishing vessel was spotted at midday yesterday by a FRONTEX aerial vehicle and then by two vessels sailing by, sailing north without requesting assistance. Then the Coastal Patrol boat LS-EL.AKT sailed for the spot. (P.P.L.S.), while a L.S.-EL.AKT helicopter also took off. The helicopter L.S.-EL.AKT. spotted the A/K moving at speed heading north.

In consecutive telephone calls of the Chamber of Operations to the fishing vessel to provide assistance, he received a negative response.

In the afternoon, a F/G ship approached the boat and provided it with food supplies, while the foreigners refused to provide any further assistance.

Subsequently, a second F/G ship approached the vessel to provide supplies and assistance, but the foreigners refused both supplies and assistance.

In the evening, the P.P.L.S. arrived. confirming the existence of a large number of migrants on the outer deck of the A/K vessel, but denying any assistance and stating their desire to continue their voyage to Italy. The P.P.L.S. he remained close to the ship for possible assistance, which continued its course.

In the early hours of the morning today, the above fishing boat overturned and finally sank.

Now. It may well be that this entire account is untrue, and that the Greek Coastguard is attempting to cover itself for what would be an unconscionable failure to even attempt a sea rescue.

But even if we accept that what is said here is largely accurate, or at least close to it, there are at best some serious false claims, if only by omission.

Because first of all, as Alarmphone makes clear, the boat’s position was in fact noted and highlighted to emergency services on Twitter by humanitarian activist, Nawal Soufi, at 9.35am yesterday (Tuesday 13 June 2023). Her tweets not only alerted the emergency services to the boat’s existence, some two and a half hours before the Greek Coastguard implies Frontex ‘found’ it, but also included its precise GPS location.

This means the Greek Coastguard, if it is telling the absolute truth from its perspective, ignored the boat for at least two and a half hours, and if its vessels and aircraft travelled at top speed probably in fact did not reach it – a vessel already in distress – until some three and a half to four hours after the first emergency notifications were made.

In its statement above, the Coastguard has not actually offered any times more exact than ‘in the afternoon’, but even if everything else the Coastguard says is accurate, the service is claiming to have had a boat ‘close’ by the vessel, which did nothing whatsoever until the latter boat had capsized, and even then rescued only a fraction of those aboard.

So, we have a Coastguard which at best appears to have been inexcusably slow to respond to a vessel in distress, which did almost nothing when it did respond and then sat and watched while the vessel it was supposed to be there to ‘help’, capsized, allowing hundreds of people to die.

We will be as fair as possible, however. It is not easy to force people to accept assistance – though we should also note that the competing sea militias which laughingly refer to themselves as the ‘Libyan Coastguard’ and are funded by the EU to break international law on the latter’s behalf, do seem to do exactly that several times every week, and the Greek Coastguard is, as hundreds of pushback videos show, an armed force.

But that in itself raises a question: why would 750 people on a boat in distress in the open sea refuse assistance from a Coastguard?

The Coastguard’s account claims the people expressed ‘their desire to continue their voyage to Italy’, a claim seemingly backed by Alarmphone and Ms Soufi’s statements, based on conversation with people aboard the vessel that they did indeed wish to reach Italy.

But under stress and in grave danger, if all other things were equal, surely anyone would accept help and an offer of safety if it were made, even if not by the Coastguard of the country one wished to reach.

And this is the problem. Because the Greek government has, since 1 March 2020, made illegal and brutal pushbacks its primary policy regarding new arrivals to Greece. These pushbacks always involve armed uniformed Greek officers beating people and stripping them of their cash and possessions (often including their clothes), often sexually assaulting them, and in some cases killing them.

The government has carried out this barbarism against at least 59,578 men, women and children since 1 March 2020, some 70.7 per cent of all those who have arrived in Greece via the Eastern Aegean Sea.

That is, Greece simply is not a place of safety for people arriving in the hope of escaping danger. The possibility – in fact the overwhelming likelihood – that the Coastguard would beat, rob and then push back (in this case, push forward, but that, too, is sadly not unheard of) the vessel’s passengers to Türkiye, means that Greece is simply not civilised enough to offer people hope of safety at present.

As a result, though it is not alone in this, the Greek government must accept direct responsibility for every single one of the 650 people killed today. Had the government not made Greece a byword for vicious, violent, bigoted illegality, these people would have felt comfortable to reach a safe Greek port, and would not, in all likelihood, not have been killed at sea.

Even an Italy governed by a fascist coalition has not yet sunk to these levels of depraved inhumanity – though we should note that similar pushbacks from Italian to Libyan or Tunisian waters would be significantly harder than the Greek government using its armed officers to force people into Türkiye.

But mention of the Italian fascist government does raise its own responsibility – and that of the ‘authorities’ claiming the legal right to operate in 'Eastern Libya'.

Because Tobruk is the headquarters of the Libyan House of Representatives, which in February 2022 set up a rival ‘government’ to oppose the internationally-recognised administration based in Tripoli.

In truth, neither body has any active or actionable control over what happens in Libya – that control in the almost failed state is held at present by groups of militias, some claiming the title of ‘army’, which claim to ‘back’ (but not to be controlled by) one or other of the two.

The situation in Libya makes it impossible for people arriving there having fled catastrophe elsewhere (traditionally, Libya has welcomed refugees from across sub-Saharan Africa and South West Asia) to remain there.

Most ‘detention centres’ for refugees are run by local war-lords, many have been fired on repeatedly by other militias (notably those loyal to the Eastern Libya-based war-lord Khalifa Haftar), all carry out beatings and torture, and some have sold their ‘inmates’ (who should not be being held by anyone) into slavery.

And in the last two weeks, matters have become even worse for those people.

We have noted elsewhere that the Tunisian ‘president’ Kais Saied made the sole openly racist outburst of his political career against sub-Saharan African people in Tunisia at the end of February this year. He claimed that those people were in Tunisia as part of a ‘conspiracy to change Tunisian demographics’ and were responsible for a ‘crime wave’ which was, in fact, not happening.

The predictable outcome of this unacceptable outburst was moves to ethnically-cleanse Tunisia.

But an interesting note about Saied’s unique (we should not pretend Saied is anything other than a terrible dictator who has seized power from Tunisia’s people in a coup, but he had never before been so openly racist) harangue was that it came just days after a visit to Tunisia by members of Italy’s fascist coalition, headed by Giorgia Meloni.

This is interesting in part because Meloni and her party, I Fratelli d’Italia (The Brothers of Italy) campaigned in Italy’s last election (Sunday 25 September 2022) on a promise to end immigration to Italy. Tunisia and Libya are the two main setting-off points for people attempting to reach Italy via the Mediterranean. It is almost impossible not to conclude that Saied’s rant was not inspired by this visit, and whatever the Italian fascists offered him in return for ‘reducing migration’ from Tunisia.

It is of course worth noting that – also predictably – the numbers of people to have fled the new, racist and ethnically-cleansing, Tunisia have actually increased since Saied’s declaration. But the failures of fascism are never accepted by the fascists responsible for them.

The reason this is relevant here is that in recent days the prime minister of Libya’s internationally-recognised (Tripoli-based) government, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, has held meetings in Italy with Meloni and members of her fascist coalition.

By ‘coincidence’, his ‘government’ has launched airstrikes against four cities in Western Libya, all of which it claims are ‘hosting’ people traffickers.

Once again, it is almost impossible to imagine that the timing of this activity is not relevant – and points directly to the Italian fascist coalition’s efforts to make Libya (and Tunisia) break the law on its (Italy’s) behalf, by preventing people using their legal right to travel to seek safety.

And in Eastern Libya, where Haftar has also recently met with Meloni’s government, and where the House of Representatives is acutely aware of its need for international backing and allies, ‘authorities’ (armed militias) have in recent days rounded up at least 4,000 non-Libyan men, women and children – including at least 1,800 who had every legal right, proven with documentation, to be in Libya for the medium to long-term future – and forced them into Egypt.

Once again, it is impossible not to see the fingerprints of Meloni and her fascist collaborators on this activity: Italy’s fascist government is making life even worse for people in Libya, and in doing so is forcing ever-increasing numbers of people out of the country.

It may, of course, be a coincidence that this vessel left where it did, the home of the House of Representatives, when it did, at a point at which that body’s ‘supporters’ were carrying out the arbitrary arrest and forced deportation of foreign people, but only as much as it may be a coincidence that this despicable activity is being carried out while Libyan politicians meet with the fascist Italian government’s ministers.

Along with the Greek government, the Eastern Libyan ‘authorities’ and the Italian fascist coalition must shoulder responsibility for the completely unnecessary, absolutely avoidable, deaths of 650 men, women and children today.

We must also mention the EU. Because whatever we think of the EU as an idea, or even of its current political make-up, there is no way one can ignore the simple fact that it has consistently backed and funded the Greek government in full knowledge of its despicable, barbaric treatment of new arrivals on its borders, including, but of course not limited to, claiming ‘Greece is our shield’.

In recent days, the EU has made it clear that it is willing to bow to the demands of the Italian fascist coalition, including offering it the chance to decide its own rules for the declaration of ‘safe states’ to which to return people who arrive in Italy, and last weekend, the EU Commission president made the astonishing decision to accompany Giorgia Meloni to Tunisia, where she (von der Leyen) promised the country’s illegitimate dictator Kais Saied €1.4bn in exchange for ‘dealing with’ ‘migration’.

And it has also been at the heart – indeed been the leader – of efforts both to violate international law by declaring countries ‘safe’ and forcing people back to them against their will (both Türkiye and Libya) as well as making it almost impossible for men, women and children seeking safe places to live, learn and work, to travel by safe, ‘regular’ routes. If those routes existed and were accessible, the 605 people killed this morning would never have been on board that boat.

They may not still be alive, but they would not have died when, where and how they did.

That is, the EU, along with the Eastern Libyan ‘authorities’, the Italian fascist coalition, and the Greek government, is responsible for the deaths of 650 men, women and children this morning, off the Greek coast.

Their actions killed those people. We cannot pretend it is not so, and as human beings, we all deserve far better.

We must demand that pushbacks end from Greece: that people who arrive there will be allowed to apply for asylum, as is their right. We must demand that the Italian fascist government ceases to bribe and cajole North African governments and pseudo-governments into launching illegal and despicable acts against people seeking safety, to reduce immigration to Italy.

And we must demand that the EU, a body which demands to be regarded as a promoter and protector of human rights and international law, stops supporting those who break it, paying other states to break it for it, and breaking it by preventing people travelling in safety to places where they are legally-entitled to ask to live.

It is not acceptable that people keep dying - keep being killed - while doing nothing more than seeking safety.

We cannot pretend that these deaths are not killings, and that our politicians are not responsible for carrying them out.

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