How Adriana Lost Its Way


Photo source: The New Yorker

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In June 2023, Adriana, the migrant ship, lost power, and it wandered aimlessly off the coast of Greece and eventually invited itself into a humanitarian disaster. Before the drowning, officials had watched and listened to them for thirteen hours by sea, using radar, telephone, and radio.

As terrified passengers telephoned for help, humanitarian workers assured them that a rescue team was coming. European border officials, watching aerial footage, prepared to witness what was certain to be a heroical operation. Yet, it sank, killing more than six hundred migrants in a maritime tragedy that was shocking even for the world’s deadliest migrant route.

At that time, it was believed that the Greek government treated the situation like a law enforcement operation and not a rescue process. According to an Oped in New York Times by Matina Sevis-Gridneff and Karam Shoumali: ‘Rather than sending a navy hospital ship or rescue specialists, the authorities sent a team that included four masked, armed men from a coast guard special operations unit.’

The Greek authorities repeatedly reiterated that the Adriana was sailing to Italy and that the migrants did not want to be rescued. But, satellite imagery and tracking data obtained by The New York Times showed Adriana drifting in a loop in its last six and a half hours.

When the BBC, using data from neighbouring vessels, reported that the Adriana had been practically idle for several hours before it sank, the Greek government noted that the ship had covered thirty nautical miles toward Italy since its detection by Frontex. However, the satellite imagery and data from the ship-tracking platform MarineTraffic showed that the Adriana was directionless for its final seven hours or so. Radar satellite imagery from the European Space Agency shows that by the time the Greeks mustered the commercial ships, the ill-fated Adriana had already reached its closest point to Italy. Although, from then on, it was roaming backward.

Add to that, there were sworn testimonies that narrated passengers on the ship’s upper decks, calling for help and even trying to jump aboard a commercial tanker that had reached to provide drinking water.

The first tanker, the Lucky Sailor, had arrived within minutes. The second, the Faithful Warrior, arrived in about two and a half hours. The captain of the Faithful Warrior reported that some passengers had thrown back supplies and yelled that they wanted to continue to Italy. How many people actually rejected the help is unclear, but they included Adriana’s captain and the handful of men who terrorised the passengers, according to survivors’ testimonies and interviews.

As night fell in its prime, the Faithful Warrior’s captain told the Greek control centre that the Adriana was ‘rocking dangerously.’ Radio transmission records show that, over five hours, the Greek control centre broadcast five messages across the Mediterranean using a channel reserved for safety and distress calls.

So even as passengers on the Adriana called for help, the authorities chose to listen to the boat’s captain, a 22-year-old Egyptian man who believed that he wanted to continue to Italy. This is because smuggling captains are typically compensated only when they reach their destinations.

The Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs later disseminated a message believing that it would not respond to detailed questions because the shipwreck was under criminal investigation.

The only eyewitnesses to Adriana’s final moments were the survivors and thirteen crew members aboard a coast guard ship known as the 920. According to certain inputs by Maritime Ministry, it was ascertained that the ship’s night-vision camera was switched off during that time. Court documents show that the coast guard captain gave the authorities a CD-ROM containing video recordings, but the source of the recordings is unclear, and they have not been made public.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece defended the coast guard during his public comments in Brussels in July 2023, calling its critics ‘profoundly unfair.’ However, the sinking brought rare public criticism from officials in the European Union, which has over the course of time remained silent as the Greek government has indurated its stance toward migrants.

In Greece, nine Egyptian survivors from the Adriana were arrested and charged with smuggling and causing the shipwreck. In sworn testimonies and interviews, survivors believed that many of the nine convicts brutalised and extorted passengers. However, interviews with relatives of those accused established a more perplexing picture. At least one of the men charged with being a smuggler had himself paid a full fee of more than $4,000 to be on the ship.

Matina Sevis-Gridneff and Karam Shoumali further wrote: ‘Collectively paying as much as $3.5 million to be smuggled to Italy, migrants crammed into the Adriana in what survivors recalled was a hellish class system: Pakistanis at the bottom; women and children in the middle; and Syrians, Palestinians and Egyptians at the top. An extra $50 or so could earn someone a spot on the deck. For some, that turned out to be the difference between life and death.’

As midnight of June 14, 2023 approached, the Greek Coast Guard vessel 920, the only government ship dispatched to the scene, arrived alongside the Adriana. The presence of the 920 did not reassure the migrants for help. Several said in interviews that they were unnerved by the masked men.

As per a New York Times Oped, the mission of the 920 is unclear, as is what happened after it arrived and floated nearby for three hours. Some survivors say it tried to tow the Adriana, capsizing it. The coast guard denied that at first, then acknowledged throwing a rope to the trawler, but said that was hours before it sank.

But Greece, one of the world’s foremost maritime nations, was equipped to carry out a rescue. Navy ships, including those with medical resources, could have arrived in the 13 hours after the Frontex alert.

Exactly what turtled the ship is unclear. The coast guard blames a tumult on the ship. But everyone agrees that the ship swung once to the left, then to the right, and then flipped.

Those on deck were chucked into the sea. Panicked people stepped on each other in the dark, desperately using each other to come up for air, to stay alive.

At the water’s surface, some clung to pieces of wood, surrounded by drowned friends, relatives, and strangers. Others climbed onto the ship’s sinking hull. Coast guard crew members pulled dozens of people from the sea. One person testified that he had initially swum away from the 920, dreading that the crew would drown him.

Hundreds of people, including the women and young children, inside the Adriana stood no chance. The ship had taken them down within a minute.


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