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Migrant boat disaster has Greece and European authorities facing criticism


Off the coast of Greece, more than 80 bodies have now been recovered after one of the deadliest migrant shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in years. Up to 750 people are believed to have been aboard a fishing vessel that set sail from Libya, headed towards Italy and then capsized off Greece last week. Well, today, questions are mounting over whether Greek and European authorities could have done more to prevent the tragedy. Reporter Lydia Emmanouilidou joins me from Athens. Hey, Lydia.

LYDIA EMMANOUILIDOU, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: These are such grim numbers in terms of the number of people still missing, the number confirmed dead. What is the latest?

EMMANOUILIDOU: Well, several more bodies were recovered just this week. The number of survivors is at 104 people. Many of them are Syrians, Pakistanis and Egyptians. Most of those who have been rescued were taken to a refugee camp on the mainland just outside of Athens, and if you do the math, that leaves hundreds of people still missing - up to 500, according to the U.N. Family members have been showing up to the refugee camp I mentioned to find their loved ones. I was there yesterday, and I spoke to a young Syrian. He didn't want us to use any names because he fears for the safety of his family back in Syria, but he came from Germany to look for his 21-year-old cousin who fled Syria to avoid army conscription.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So he had to flee and he was applying for visas for two years now, and he didn't get anything, so that was his only way.

EMMANOUILIDOU: His only way was getting on that overcrowded boat in Libya, and this young man you just heard from did find two of his cousin's friends who were on the boat with him, but nobody has seen the cousin since the boat capsized.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm still trying to see if his body is with the Greek authorities, but so far, no news.

EMMANOUILIDOU: And, Mary Louise, there are many others like this young man who are eager for any information on loved ones who haven't been accounted for.

KELLY: Of course. Tell me a little more, Lydia, about this criticism of Greece's initial response, whether more could and should have been done to save people on board this vessel. What are the facts?

EMMANOUILIDOU: Well, we know that the boat capsized overnight local time on Wednesday last week. We also know the Greek Coast Guard was observing the vessel for several hours before it sank. And one question is why Greek authorities didn't immediately intervene, given how unseaworthy and overcrowded this vessel was. According to international law experts, Greek authorities had an obligation to act even if people aboard rejected assistance, which Greek authorities claimed they did.

KELLY: What do we know about what caused the boat to capsize? What are you hearing there?

EMMANOUILIDOU: Many of the survivors who spoke to me, to other journalists and to the lawyers representing them - they say that the Greek Coast Guard attached a rope to the boat, started towing it, and that this caused the boat to sink. Greek authorities initially rejected using a rope, but their narrative has shifted over the past few days. Now they've told media that they did use a rope to stabilize the boat and assess the conditions aboard, but they denied towing the vessel.

KELLY: And for the survivors - those you have talked to and others, you said many of them are at this refugee camp just outside Athens. What's next for them?

EMMANOUILIDOU: Well, they're going through the asylum process here in Greece, and many want to leave the country after that. Roghaayan Adil is a 23-year-old survivor from Kobani in northern Syria. He spoke to me through an interpreter.

ROGHAAYAN ADIL: (Through interpreter) I'm going to go to the Germany because I have a brother there, and I'm ready to take the risk once again to arrive Germany.

EMMANOUILIDOU: So Adil traveled for 3 1/2 months through Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya to get on this boat that eventually sank. He says he paid 5,000 euros. That's about $5,500. Many of the survivors I spoke to, like Adil - their No 1. hope is to be granted asylum and be relocated to other EU countries.

KELLY: Just heartbreaking. Thanks for your reporting, Lydia.

EMMANOUILIDOU: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: That is Lydia Emmanouilidou speaking to us from Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lydia Emmanouilidou