Europol will investigate what is thought to be the largest mass migrant drowning in the Mediterranean this year after a joint investigation by BBC’s Newsnight and the Reuters news agency revealed there has been no criminal inquiry into the incident.
More than 500 migrants and refugees are thought to have lost their lives when the ramshackle fishing trawler they were crammed onto by people smugglers capsized off the cost of Egypt in the early hours of 9 April.
Only 37 of the boat’s passengers survived the doomed trip after they were rescued by workers on a cargo ship and taken to the Greek port city of Kalamata.
The survivors said that some 200 migrants were taken out to sea from Libya and then transferred onto a larger boat that was already carrying 300 other people. They told investigators the larger vessel capsized during the transfer.
The 37 migrants who survived the sinking, all of whom were from African nations, stayed on the smaller vessel. One of them told the BBC a people trafficker threatened him with a knife when he attempted to help one of his fellow migrants who was drowning.
It is thought that each migrant paid around €1,800 to reach Europe.
The BBC/Reuters investigation discovered that the migrants actually departed from Egypt, and were told by the people smugglers who arranged their crossing to say they had come from Libya to avoid being sent back.
According to the BBC and Reuters, the Greek coastguard failed to trigger an investigation into the mass drowning, while authorities in Egypt have never acknowledged that the sinking took place, or that the vessels involved set off from its coastline.
After reviewing the findings of the BBC/Reuters investigation, Europol boss Rob Wainwright said the case was “uncomfortable”, and that his agency would now review the shipwreck in light of “the absence of any clear answers”.
The UN’s refugee agency told the BBC: “The UNHCR is not a law enforcement agency and investigating sea disasters or transnational organised crime is beyond our means, mandate and expertise.
“But with many thousands of lives having been lost on the Mediterranean… the need to bring to account those involved in the organised trafficking and smuggling of people couldn’t be clearer. The loss of life at sea has been truly appalling and we have been very vocal in denouncing it.”
The International Organisation for Migration estimates that some 4,715 migrants have either died at sea or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far this year. In 2015, 3,771 were feared missing or dead in similar circumstances. Between 19 November and 1 December alone 1,263 migrants were rescued while trying to reach the southern coast of Europe.