By Elinda Labropoulou and Sana Noor Haq, CNN
Kalamata, Greece (CNN) — Nine crew members have been arrested for people smuggling after a packed vessel sank in the Mediterranean on Wednesday, killing dozens of people, as human rights campaigners accused Greek authorities of neglecting those on board.
The Greek coastguard said nine Egyptian nationals aged between 20 and 40 were also arrested on suspicion of setting up a criminal organization, manslaughter by negligence, exposure to danger, and causing a shipwreck.
The boat was traveling from the coastal city of Tobruk in Libya to Italy when it capsized off the coast of Greece. At least 78 people have died and some reports said up to 750 were on board.
Coastguard officials told CNN the arrests were made after two days of interrogations at the southern Greek port city of Kalamata, where 104 shipwreck survivors were temporarily being sheltered. Of those survivors, 71 arrived at a registration facility outside Athens on Friday.
Authorities said they cross-referenced survivors’ testimonies to determine the exact role of the nine arrested. They are expected to appear before a local magistrate on Monday.
‘Horrible and systematic’ pushback campaign
Scenes of relatives descending on Kalamata in their desperate search for loved ones reignited the heated debate on Europe’s migrant crisis, a political lightning rod that NGOs say is exacerbated by the lack of safe and legal routes available for refugees.
The NGO Alarm Phone denounced the Greek response to the tragedy, alleging that authorities failed to acknowledge an earlier alert that the vessel was in danger. It characterized the “horrible and systematic pushback practices” carried out by Greek authorities, accusing them of “violently deterring people on the move.”
Pushbacks are state measures aimed at forcing refugees and migrants out of their territory, while impeding access to legal and procedural frameworks, according to the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).
A CNN investigation in 2020 revealed allegations of an illegal pushback campaign by Athens against migrants and asylum seekers reaching Greek shores. The Greek Migration Ministry denied the claims.
Alarm Phone has released emails showing it contacted Greek authorities on Tuesday late afternoon local time regarding the boat in distress.
The email appears to have been sent directly to Greek authorities, including the Hellenic Coast Guard, Hellenic Police Headquarters and Greece’s Ministry of Civil Protection.
The email also appears to have been sent to the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR), NATO, the office of the Greek Ombudsman and the European border patrol agency Frontex, as well as the UNHCR country offices in both Greece and Turkey.
A UNHCR spokesperson confirmed to CNN that it received the email from Alarm Phone on Tuesday evening and said that the UN agency asked Greek authorities to take action.
A separate email, which Alarm Phone shared with CNN, appears to show Frontex confirming receipt of Alarm Phone’s SOS email on Tuesday afternoon.
The Greek coast guard said in a press release it repeatedly asked the boat if it needed assistance and that the agency was told it did not.
Greek authorities also said they could not intervene with the boat without being asked for assistance, as the boat was in international waters.
A huge search-and-rescue operation continued on Friday but no survivors have been found since its initial phase early on Wednesday.
Greek coastguard spokesperson Nikos Alexiou told CNN the chances of retrieving the sunken vessel are “next to non-existent” because the area of international waters where the incident took place is one of the deepest in the Mediterranean.
The people rescued include Egyptians, Syrians, Pakistanis and Palestinians. Eight are minors.
None of the survivors were women but witness accounts say there were many women and children on board, traveling in the ship’s hold.
‘Impossible life-threatening choices’
Questions are now being asked as to whether the tragic incident could have been avoided, with many international bodies saying the international community should collaborate on “more safe pathways” for migrants.
The Mediterranean region near Greece is a key route for migrants and refugees trying to escape political strife in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
The number of undocumented people emerging on European shores has spiraled this year due to conflict, global inequality and the climate crisis.
The Central Mediterranean remains the main migratory route into the European Union, with the highest number of irregular border crossings recorded since 2017, according to recent figures from Frontex.
Irregular entries refer to the process of traveling across borders without adhering to the necessary requirements for legal entry, according to the European Commission.
In the first five months of this year, detections of irregular border crossings along the route more than doubled compared to the same period in 2022, Frontex said. National authorities reported more than 50,300 detections from January to May, accounting for nearly half of all irregular entries into the EU in 2023.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN’s refugee agency stressed that search and rescue at sea is a “legal and humanitarian imperative” and welcomed an investigation ordered in Greece into what happened.
Both agencies called Wednesday’s boat disaster “the worst in several years.”
“We need more safe pathways for people forced to flee,” the UNHCR office in Greece tweeted on Wednesday. “They should not be left with impossible life-threatening choices.”
On Thursday evening, groups pledging solidarity with migrants marched outside the port of Kalamata and in Greece’s two major cities, Athens and Thessaloniki.
The country’s caretaker government has called three days of national mourning and political leaders have temporarily suspended electoral campaigns, before fresh elections are held on June 25. A national vote in May was inconclusive.
Greece’s former center-right government has faced international criticism over its hardline stance on migration. In a May interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, former Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis described his migration policy as “tough but fair.”
Mitsotakis’ party won a resounding victory in the May election with 40% of the vote but did not secure a big enough majority to govern alone.
His main opponent, Alexis Tsipras, whose center-left party Syriza is trailing heavily in the polls, visited Kalamata Thursday criticizing the former government and EU migration policy. “It’s a policy that has turned the Mediterranean into a watery grave,” he said.
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CNN’s Elinda Labropoulou reported from Kalamata, Greece. CNN’s Sana Noor Haq wrote from London. CNN’s Sharon Braithwaite contributed reporting.