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Brothers reunite after migrant ship capsizes, bringing a brief reprieve from grief in Greece

After three days of unwavering grief in Greece following the sinking of a vessel carrying hundreds of migrants to Europe, two brothers had a tearful reunion. Meanwhile, UN officials and human rights groups called on European authorities to get tougher on human traffickers and demanded safer migration routes for asylum seekers.

Family, friends gathered to find out fate of others aboard vessel amid calls for safer migration routes

Families of migrant boat tragedy victims find hope and grief in Greece

6 hours ago

Duration 1:49

Family members of those onboard a capsized migrant boat are traveling to Kalamata, Greece — the closest city to the tragedy — in search of their loved ones. Some are being met with emotional reunions, but most are arriving to uncertainty.

After three days of unwavering grief in the wake of what may prove to be one of the deadliest European shipwrecks in modern times, a moment of euphoria flickered on the cement and steel port of Kalamata in southern Greece.

Fadi, a Syrian-born Palestinian who lives in the Netherlands, arrived at dawn, and through the gates of the port, spotted the teenage sibling he feared had died. The two young men burst into tears as Fadi reached his arms through the gate, grasping his younger brother's scratched and battered face in his hands and kissing it.

"Thank God you're safe," Fadi said in Arabic.

A young man with a battered face leans his head through a blue gate, crying as another young, bearded man reaches for him.

Mohammad, 18, is one of the 100 or so migrants rescued from a boat that capsized early Wednesday morning off the coast of Greece. He was among the men on the deck who were able to stay afloat until the Greek coast guard pulled them to safety.

But even the glimmer of good news Friday as the brothers reunited was accompanied by anguish. Fadi's brother survived, but his brother-in-law was on the boat, too.

"He was also in Libya for a couple of years, held in a warehouse, with no documents, no telephone, no contact," said Fadi, who didn't want to give his last name.

Reports suggested between 400 and 750 people were on board, including many women and children that survivors say were trapped below, disappearing with the boat as it sank in an area of the Mediterranean Sea that can run five kilometres deep. Authorities said at least 78 people had died and hundreds more were missing.

WATCH | Search continues after migrant vessel capsized:

Search continues as hundreds feared dead after shipwreck off Greece

13 hours ago

Duration 0:51

Greek forces searched for the missing in the area where an overcrowded boat carrying hundreds of migrants capsized on Wednesday, killing at least 78 people.

Waiting for news of rescue

In an attempt to discover his brother-in-law's fate, Fadi joined dozens of other men in front of the Port Authority in Kalamata on Friday. Most are migrants themselves who now live throughout Europe.

There, in the hot sun, they waited their turn to learn if their brother, brother-in-law, cousin or countryman was on the list of those rescued. Or whether they had to make a report for a missing person.

A man in a grey shirt holds up a phone displaying a passport photo as another man looks on in the background.

"Nothing, no news," said Pakistani Anzeem Anzar, emerging from the Port Authority office with a friend who's looking for his brother. "He gave them the address, DNA, photo, telephone number, what he wore, bracelets, anything."

Some came to Kalamata as emissaries of communities in Pakistan, Syria and Egypt, where most people on the boat hail from.

Mohamed Shabaam, part of an Egyptian association in Greece, arrived in Kalamata with a list of dozens of names and photos of young men that parents, wives and siblings had sent after hearing about the ship capsizing through social media.

Based on messages from Egyptians, he says about 115 men from his country were on the boat. Seventy-five of them alone were from the small town of El Batanun, north of Cairo.

"It's a big problem, this mafia that plays with the minds of young men, they make them believe in a beautiful future, to go to Libya and then Europe, and it's a monkey game, really," said Shabaam.

"All these people are big liars who are playing with the minds of the family and the lives of these boys."

A man in a red t-shirt with short, greying hair wears sunglasses propped up on his forehead as he speaks to members of the media.

Arrests and calls for safer migration routes

Greek authorities arrested nine men in connection with the capsized ship and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Europe to get tougher with traffickers.

"What happened on Wednesday underscores the need to investigate people smugglers and human traffickers and ensure they are brought to justice," said Jeremy Laurence, a spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Office.

But refugee and human rights groups, including protesters in front of Greece's parliament on Thursday night, say that without safe routes to Europe for asylum seekers, the drowning deaths will continue unabated.

The UN has recorded more than 20,000 deaths and disappearances in the central Mediterranean since 2014, making it the most dangerous migrant crossing in the world.

A new report from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, says detection of migrant boats in the Central Mediterranean have risen by 160 per cent in the first five months of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022, which was the highest since 2017.

A blurry image shows dozens of people on the deck of a battered blue fishing boat in the Mediterranean Sea.

Reforming European asylum laws

Earlier this month, a majority of European Union member states struck a tentative new deal to reform asylum laws in an attempt to better deal with refugee arrivals, which have long been in a state of perpetual crisis.

For years, there have been stand-offs among countries over who is responsible for rescues — and various failed schemes to share the hosting of refugees, most of whom enter Europe by sea through Italy, Malta, Spain and Greece.

The agreement would involve a redistribution of migrants across the European Union, with a threshold of the number of migrants frontline states must process before they can ask for help from their northern neighbours.

Eleven men sit, looking dejected and tired, in front of a concrete building, a collection of overstuffed shopping bags at their feet.

Member states that balk at taking people in, as Poland, Hungary and others have done in the past, will be fined €20,000 ($25,000 Cdn) for each refugee they refuse.

The deal also says each EU country can decide for themselves if a third country the migrant passes through en route to Europe is "safe" enough for the migrant to be sent back to if their asylum request is rejected — a provision Italy's far-right government pushed hard for.

Critics say the new deal amounts to a watering down of asylum rights and puts more lives at risk.

On Thursday, thousands protested in the northern city of Thessaloniki and in Athens — one group hurling petrol bombs at police, who responded with tear gas — demanding the EU relax migration policies.

EU migration policy "turns the Mediterranean, our seas, into watery graves," leftist Greek leader and former prime minister Alexis Tsipras said during a visit to Kalamata Thursday.

A man with short, dark hair speaks into several microphones.

Some believe migrants being targeted

Some in Kalamata waiting for news of loved ones believe migrants are not only kept out, but targeted by those supposedly there to rescue.

Pakistani taxi driver Shibaz Ahmed flew to Kalamata from his home in Barcelona after learning through social media that his brother Ghulam, 19, and recently married, was on the boat.

He says some Pakistani survivors told him the Greek coast guard tossed bottled water to the migrants for five days, but did nothing to save them until the ship capsized, tipped by a rope attached to the coast guard boat, they say.

Others who spoke with the coast guard Friday say the officials also told them a rope attached to the migrant boat was likely the cause of the boat capsizing.

Higher officials though deny that this is the cause of the tragedy, saying that before the boat capsized, those on board refused the coast guard's help, insisting they wanted to make it to Italy, where it's easier for migrants to move on to other destinations.

A heavyset man with dark hair wearing a dark blue polo shirt and jeans sits on a curb holding a jacket and a phone.

Ahmed doesn't believe the coast guard tried to help. And he doesn't believe he'll ever see his brother again. His name is not on the list of those rescued.

And, he says, when he showed the rescued Pakistanis a photo of his brother, they told him that he'd helped them survive.

"I'm going to hold onto that truth until my dying breath," Ahmed said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.

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