Varvitsiotis reacts to criticism following deadly boat incident in eastern Aegean [Update]

Amnesty International calls for 'thorough, transparent and independent investigation'

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 earlier in the week.

The immigrant 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.

One of the survivors was on Thursday reported as saying that members of the coast guard pushed people back into water as they tried to climb aboard. The report could not be independently verified.

The incident has 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.

On Thursday, Amnesty International also urged the Greek government to conduct a thorough investigation of the circumstances which led to deaths in the Aegean Sea.

"Amnesty International calls on the Greek authorities to initiate a thorough, transparent and independent investigation into the incident... bring to light the circumstances which led to loss of life and prosecute those who are responsible," the organization said in a statement on its website.

The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, said Wednesday 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,” the conservative minister said.

“Such issues should not become the subject of petty [political] exploitation,” said Varvitsiotis 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.

Greece is a major gateway for immigrants trying to make their way illegally from Africa and the Middle East into the European Union. Since August 2012, at least 136 refugees, the majority of whom were Syrian and Afghan, lost their lives in at least twelve known incidents attempting to reach Greece by boat from Turkey, according to Amnesty International.

'Collective expulsions'

Muiznieks has in the past asked Greek authorities to end the 'collective expulsions' of immigrants.

According to a press release published on the Council of Europe website January 14, the commissioner in December sent a letter to Varvitsiotis as well as Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias urging Greece “to radically change its migration policy and practice.”

“The large number of reported collective expulsions by Greece of migrants, including a large number of Syrians fleeing war violence, and allegations of ill-treatment of migrants by members of the coast guard and of the border police raise serious human rights concerns,” Muiznieks wrote.

According to an Amnesty International report published in December, Greek police and coast guard officers are systematically ill-treating would-be refugees from Syria. The report documented firsthand accounts of pushbacks after violent beatings and confiscations of personal belongings without any due process.