Minister orders judicial probe into immigrant drownings

Faced with mounting criticism over the migrant boat tragedy that left two people dead and 10 missing in the eastern Aegean on Monday, Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis on Friday ordered a judicial probe into the incident.

During an official visit to Athens on Friday, European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom described the drownings off the coast of Farmakonisi as “a terrible loss of life” and said she was keen to see the results of an independent inquiry.

Her comments came on the back of strong-worded statements by the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, Amnesty International, the Council of Europe and political parties. An inquiry was also requested by junior coalition partner PASOK.

Survivors, who on Thursday were transported to Athens, have suggested that coast guard officers tried to tow the vessel back to Turkey – which is illegal under EU law. Some witnesses also accused officers of kicking and threatening migrants.

Leftist SYRIZA opposition on Friday called for Varvitsiotis to resign. A statement by the party said that keeping the minister at his post “was sending a signal to coast guard officials to react in a similar way in future cases.”

The conservative minister on Friday rejected allegations of a push-back. Varvitsiotis said that the coast guard vessel’s coordinates, as recorded by radar, showed that it towed the migrant ship toward Farmakonisi, not Turkey. He also quoted testimonies by other witnesses who claim that the coast guard’s intervention was the only thing that saved them.

Rights activists on Friday said that at least some of the survivors had no knowledge of these testimonies.