A boat carrying refugees met with disaster as it capsized off the shores of Greece, resulting in the loss of at least 79 lives on Wednesday.
The ill-fated victims were onboard a large trawler that sank near the southern Peloponnese region. The precise number of missing passengers remains uncertain, as the vessel, which departed from eastern Libya bound for Italy, was reportedly overcrowded.
The tragedy at sea unfolded simultaneously with the European Union’s (EU) announcement of a “historic” agreement aimed at reshaping the continent’s asylum system. Endorsed by 21 EU countries, the deal aims to address the processing and relocation of asylum seekers, marking a significant departure from existing procedures. The agreement seeks to strike a balance between the interests of border countries, which require greater support in handling asylum seekers, and the concerns of inland nations regarding uncontrolled migration.
Initial reports from Ioannis Zafiropoulos, the deputy mayor of Kalamata, a southern Greek port city where survivors were brought, indicate that over 500 individuals were on board. However, a European rescue support charity estimates the figure to be around 750, while the UN’s migration agency suggests that up to 400 passengers could be missing. Nikos Alexiou, a spokesman for the Hellenic coastguard, highlighted the severe overcrowding on the boat, emphasising its substantial size.
Greek authorities state that the refugee vessel was approached on Tuesday afternoon and offered food and supplies. However, the passengers declined further assistance, expressing their intention to continue their journey to Italy. This incident shines a spotlight on the ongoing criticism faced by Greece for alleged practices of forcibly expelling asylum seekers, potentially violating international law. The country’s centre-right government, currently facing imminent elections, denies such “pushbacks” and defends its migration policy as “tough but fair.”
Under the new EU asylum system, two routes will be established, with frontline countries required to implement stricter procedures at the border for individuals deemed unlikely to be granted asylum. This includes the possibility of a brief detention period. Additionally, frontline countries will have increased discretion in returning rejected applicants.
Other EU member states will have the option to either accept a designated number of migrants annually or contribute to a collective EU fund.
Supporters of the agreement view it as a pragmatic compromise that provides assistance to border states without mandating the acceptance of asylum seekers by all EU countries. However, critics express concerns about the potential proliferation of inhumane detention centres resulting from enhanced border asylum checks. While the detailed legal text is yet to be released, the agreement sets the stage for a transformation of Europe’s asylum process.
While the agreement and the preceding negotiations fail to address several issues, including the alleged Greek pushbacks, further negotiations with the European Parliament are expected, potentially leading to changes and disputes in the future.