Varvitsiotis reacts to criticism following deadly boat incident

Merchant Marine Minister Militadis Varvitsiotis on Thursday responded to international criticism of Greek authorities following a deadly boat accident involving immigrants in the east Aegean Sea.

The boat capsized off the island of Farmakonisi on Monday while being towed by a Greek coastguard vessel. The bodies of a woman and a child aged around 5 were found near the Turkish coast early Wednesday, but another 10 people were missing. Sixteen people were rescued and were transferred to Piraeus.

The incident prompted criticism from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which quoted survivors as saying that several migrants fell off the boat as it was being towed, at high speed, toward the Turkish coast. The UNHCR has called for an inquiry into the circumstances of the tragedy.

The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, said he was “shocked and distressed” and called on Greek authorities to “put an end to the illegal practice of collective expulsions and effectively investigate all such cases.”

Speaking to Skai on Thursday, Varvitsiotis rejected allegations that the Greek coast guard was towing the boat toward the Turkish coast. He said panicking migrants caused the boat to capsize themselves.

“Muiznieks and several others want to create a political issue in Greece,” Varvitsiotis said.

“Such issues should not become the subject of petty [political] exploitation,” Varvitsiotis told Skai adding that neither PASOK nor SYRIZA have so far asked to be briefed on the incident.

“No one really wants to open up the gates and grant asylum to every immigrant in this country,” said Varvitisotis adding that Greek coast guard officials have so far rescued 3,500 people at sea.