LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A survivor of a migrant boat tragedy in which a dozen people are thought to have drowned in Greek waters has given a harrowing account of last week’s disaster in which he saw his wife and four children perish as their boat sank while being towed by the coast guard.
Safi Ehsanullah said when he asked for help to save his children, one of the coast guards pointed a gun at him, according to an interview on the Greek news website Pandora’s Box. He also said coast guards beat back desperate migrants trying to scramble from their sinking vessel onto the guards’ boat.
The boat was carrying up to 28 people, mostly Afghans and a few Syrians. The dead and missing include three women and nine children under the age of 12, according to reports.
Ehsanullah, an Afghan, described how their boat broke down in the dark as they approached Greece two hours after leaving Turkey late at night on Jan. 20. When the coast guard appeared they were initially relieved, according to Ehsanullah’s account posted this week on the Greek Forum of Refugees website.
“Two of them got inside our boat and tied our boat to their own. But unexpectedly they turned back and were pulling us back to Turkey with zigzag and very high speed,” Ehsanullah said.
“Suddenly the part of the ship to which the Greek coastal guard’s ship was tied, broke off from the ship carrying the refugees, causing great damage to the boat and thus allowing water to flood the boat. The boat was old and frail, and began to sink.
“The guard gave the order to tie the boat again and to start pulling again, but the boat was full of water so they cut the rope and tried to escape. Refugees’ belongings, bags, etc stuck to the coast (guard) boat engine and it started to emit smoke and there was a panic among the coast guard.”
He said some of the people still in the water managed to hang onto the coast guard boat, but the guards kicked and shouted at them and prevented them clambering in.
“One of the survivors from Syria, tried saving a woman by extending her a stick from the safety of the coastal guard boat, but was brutally prevented by a member of the coastal guard, who beat the man,” he added.
Pandora’s Box quoted Ehsanullah as saying that the coast guards beat people’s hands as they tried to get on the boat making them fall in the sea.
“Whoever was in the cabin – women and children mainly – were trapped. We were asking for life jackets to save our people, but they did not give us any. I told them that my children were drowning. One of them pointed his gun at me,” he said.
Only two bodies - one woman and one child - have been recovered. One baby survived. All the other children are believed to have been in the cabin.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), which is helping the survivors with asylum as well as legal and social support, said they were all vulnerable and traumatised people fleeing Afghanistan and Syria.
"The survivors said the coast guard ... pointed guns at them while they spoke in insulting language. When the boat ultimately overturned and people fell overboard, there were no life jackets or ropes thrown to them,” UNHCR spokeswoman Ketty Kehayioylou told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Athens.
She said UNHCR had received many reports from migrants about illegal pushbacks from Greek sea and land borders, some involving people fleeing Syria. The U.N. agency sent documentation to Greek authorities in November detailing several incidents in which the coast guard had allegedly forced migrant boats back towards Turkish shores, but Kehayioylou said they had not received any reply.
Greek prosecutors have opened an inquiry into the Aegean Sea disaster. The Greek coast guard has strongly denied the migrants’ claims, saying they had been trying to take the boat to the nearby island of Farmakonisi when it capsized.
Greece, a major gateway into the European Union, has long complained of being overwhelmed by migrants, and its economic crisis has boosted anti-immigrant sentiment. In 2012, the country built a 10.5-km (6-mile) fence along a section of its land border with Turkey.