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Outpouring of grief over Aegean drownings

Minister claims attempts are being made to make a 'political issue' of the matter

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As grieving fathers describe the loss of their loved ones in the Farmakonisi drowning disaster, Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis accuses Europe's human rights watchdog of wanting to make a 'political issue' of the matter

This man says he lost his wife and four children (Photo: AFP) This man says he lost his wife and four children (Photo: AFP) A leading international human rights organisation has joined calls for an investigation into Monday's tragedy in which up to twelve migrants, most of them children, drowned when the boat they were in capsized while being towed by the Greek coastguard. 

In a statement issued on Thursday, Amnesty International called "on the Greek authorities to initiate a thorough, transparent and independent investigation into the incident off the coast of Farmakonisi island."

It followed claims from the survivors that their boat was being towed by the Greek coastguard with great speed towards Turkey when it capsized. The coastguard, however, has denied these allegations, reterating that the boat carrying the refugees and migrants was being towed towards the islet of Farmakonisi, not towards Turkey.

Amnesty's call was made as the 16 survivors of the disaster arrived in Piraeus port, the cost of their tickets paid for by a charity. 

One man, who said he lost his wife and four children in the incident, said migrants trying to get onto the coastguard vessel were pushed back into the water. "The coastguard hit them. They tried to jump on the boat. And the coastguard hit them with the door so they would fall back into the water," he said. 

He added he could hear his one-year-old child shout "Mama, Papa, help" from the sea, but no one helped. 

Another man, who said he lost his wife, two sons and a daughter (aged 9, 11 and 13), said the coastguard were swearing at them. "They threw them into the sea, on purpose," he said, as he broke down in tears.

Amnesty said that the investigation needed to "bring to light the circumstances which led to loss of life and prosecute those who are responsible", the organisation said. It also called on the government "to investigate all allegations of collective expulsions (push-backs) and ill-treatment on Greece’s land border with Turkey and in the Aegean and prosecute officials involved".

Meanwhile, the shipping minister, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, insisted that the boat had capsized because the migrants on board had panicked.

Speaking on Skai TV, the New Democracy minister went on to say that the Council of Europe human rights commissioner “Muiznieks and several others want to create a political issue in Greece”.

“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.

"All of this can't be used for stupid games. I don't believe anyone wants to throw open the gates for all immigrants to enjoy asylum in the country," he continued.

Amnesty said that the incident "is yet again another reminder of the dangerous journeys migrants and refugees have to endure to reach Europe. 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.

"EU and member states should ensure effective search and rescue at sea by focusing their efforts into saving lives rather than protecting borders."

* A demonstration in protest at the policies that led to the deaths of Farmokonisi will be held on Saturday January 25 at noon on Syntagma Square (Leof Amalias)

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