VATHY, Greece -- On a pine-covered hill above the sparkling blue Aegean lies a boy’s grave, a teddy bear leaning against the white marble tombstone. His first boat ride was his last — the sea claimed him before his sixth birthday.
The Afghan child with a tuft of spiky hair stares out of a photo on his gravestone, a hint of a smile on his lips. “He drowned in a shipwreck,” the inscription reads. “It wasn’t the sea, it wasn’t the wind, it is the policies and fear.”
Those migration policies are now being called into question in the case of the boy’s 25-year-old father, who is grieving the loss of his only child. Already devastated, the father has found himself charged with child endangerment for taking his son on the perilous journey from Turkey to the nearby Greek island of Samos. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
The charges are a stark departure from Greece’s previous treatment of migrant shipwreck survivors. This is believed to be the first time in the European Union that a surviving parent faces criminal prosecution for the death of their child in the pursuit of a better life in Europe.
The father’s hopes were dashed on a cold November night against the rocks of Samos, a picturesque island that also houses Greece’s most overcrowded refugee camp.
“Without him I don’t know how to live,” the young man said, his soft voice breaking as a tear rolled down his cheek. “He is the only one I had in my life. All my hopes were him.”
Now, he says, he often thinks of killing himself. He no longer mentions the child’s name. The father agreed speak to The Associated Press on condition he only be identified by his initials, N.A., and that his son wouldn't be named.
It is not entirely clear why Greek authorities took the extreme step of charging this man when so many others have been in his place. Activists suspect the move indicates a hardening of Greece’s already restrictive migration policies, or suggest it could be an attempt to divert attention from possible negligence by the coast guard.
But Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi rejected the idea that the case heralded a change in policy.
“If there is the loss of human life, it must be investigated whether some people, through negligence or deliberately, acted outside the limits of the law,” Mitarachi said, adding that each incident is treated according to its circumstances.
He noted that the lives of asylum-seekers aren't in danger in Turkey, a country the EU has deemed safe.
“The people who choose to get into boats which are unseaworthy, and are driven by people who have no experience of the sea, obviously put human lives at risk,” he said.
The father said he had no choice but to make the journey. His asylum application in Turkey had been rejected twice and he feared deportation to Afghanistan, a country he fled at the age of 9. He wanted his son to go to school, where, unlike him, the boy could learn to read and write, and eventually fulfil his dream of becoming a police officer.
“I didn’t come here for fun. I was compelled. I didn’t have another way in my life,” he said. “I decided to go for the future of my son, for my future, so we can go somewhere to live, and my son can study.”
At the southeastern edge of the EU and with thousands of kilometers of coastline bordering Turkey, Greece has found itself on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis. From 2014 to 2020, more than 1.2 million people traveled along the eastern Mediterranean migration route, the vast majority through Greece, according to figures from the U.N. refugee agency. More than 2,000 died or went missing.
Last March, as Greek-Turkish relations soured, Turkey announced its borders to the EU were open, sending thousands of migrants to the Greek border. Greece accused Turkey of weaponizing the desperation of migrants and temporarily suspended asylum applications.
Aid groups and asylum seekers have also complained of pushbacks, the illegal deportation of migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum. They accuse Greece’s coast guard of picking up new arrivals and towing them in life rafts towards Turkish waters — a claim vehemently denied by Greek authorities.
The AP has pieced together what happened in the case of this mild-mannered father and his dead son from interviews with the father, another passenger, the man who first reported their arrival, the coast guard and legal documents.
Divorced and raising his son alone, N.A. said he obtained a smuggler’s number from a neighbor after his second asylum rejection in Turkey, where he had lived for years.
Their journey to Europe began in the Turkish coastal town of Izmir, where the 24 passengers, all Afghans, gathered in a house. Among them were Ebrahim Haidari, a 29-year-old construction worker, and his wife.
Haidari remembers the little boy as an intelligent, sweet child who easily struck up conversations with the other passengers and joked with the smugglers in fluent Turkish. He was struck by the close relationship between the boy and his young father, who Haidari said was as much a big brother and friend to the child as a father.
On Nov. 7, a cold, cloudy, windy night, the group boarded a truck headed to a wooded part of the Turkish coast, arriving at around 10 p.m.
There were four smugglers in all, Haidari said. The sea wasn’t particularly calm and the passengers were worried, especially since at least some couldn’t swim. But the smugglers assured them the weather would improve.
The boy didn’t share the adults’ anxieties. He had never been to the sea before, his father said, and he was eager to sail in a boat.
The boat was an inflatable dinghy, the type preferred by smugglers on the Turkish coast. Cheap and dispensable, they are usually overloaded with people, and a passenger is made to steer so the smugglers avoid arrest. At least one of the smugglers was armed.
Once they donned lifejackets, everyone was forced into the boat, Haidari and the father said. One smuggler drove a short way before making a passenger take over the steering, telling him to head toward a light in the distance. In a flash, the smuggler dove overboard and swam away.
Sitting just in front of Haidari and his wife, the father held his son tightly in his arms.
As one hour turned into two and then three, the weather deteriorated. The wind whipped the sea into ever-larger waves, and the inexperienced designated captain struggled to control the boat.
“I don’t know what the smugglers thought, leaving us in such a bad situation,” Haidari said. “We didn’t know anything about the sea.”
Tossed by the waves, the dinghy took on water. People screamed they would die. To make matters worse, fuel was running out — the smugglers had provided barely enough to reach Greece.
Suddenly, the shape of a mountain loomed out of the darkness. Terrified of dying at sea, they turned toward it.
But the coastline was jagged with rocks. The waves smacked the dinghy against the rocks once, then twice. The boat broke in two. Before they knew it, the passengers were in the water.
As they tumbled into the inky sea, the child slipped out of his father’s embrace. The waves closed over the man’s head.
He didn’t know how to swim, but eventually his lifejacket brought him to the surface. He scanned the waves for his boy, listening for his voice. He shouted until the salt water made him hoarse. Nothing.
He sank beneath the waves again. Out of seemingly nowhere, a hand grabbed his and dragged him toward a rock. He doesn’t know who it was, but he is sure that person saved his life.
There was chaos all around. People were calling for their brothers, wives, sons. Haidari and his wife struggled in the waves to stay alive, crying and vomiting seawater.
At one point, N.A. and Haidari said, a boat appeared and switched on a searchlight. The survivors raised their hands and shouted for help, but the boat passed on.
About 15 to 20 minutes later, Haidari said, a second boat appeared. Again, they hoped for a rescue, but again the vessel shone its searchlights and moved on.
“Maybe they didn’t see us or didn’t want to help us,” Haidari said.
The father is certain the crew saw him and the people in the water. He said that when he shouted and waved, the patrol boat trained its searchlight on him.
“They didn’t help,” he said. “They were going around and coming back, going around and coming back.”
The account of the coast guard is quite different in the crucial question of whether it acted fast enough, and whether its patrol boats saw the struggling migrants.
Legal documents obtained by the AP show the process of charging the father was initiated by the Samos coast guard, which informed the prosecutor of a man’s arrest for “exposing his minor son to danger during the attempted illegal entry into the country by sea.”
Greece’s Shipping and Island Policy Ministry, under whose jurisdiction the coast guard falls, didn't grant permission for Samos coast guard officials to speak to the AP. The prosecutor didn't respond to an interview request.
However, a Samos coast guard official outlined authorities’ account of events that night, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The coast guard was alerted at around midnight by an English-speaking man who provided coordinates for a possible migrant boat, the official said. The coordinates were on land on Cape Prasso, a mountainous, roughly five-kilometer-long (three-mile-long) peninsula of tough terrain, with steep rocky slopes.
That man was Tommy Olsen, founder of Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian nonprofit which monitors and provides information on arrivals on the Greek islands. Olsen said people who are reluctant to contact Greek authorities for fear of pushbacks contact him instead.
On that night, Olsen said, he received a call from someone saying a group had arrived on Samos, but several people were missing. Olsen said he immediately informed the Samos coast guard and shared the coordinates.
The coast guard official said upon receiving the call, they immediately initiated emergency procedures, dispatching two coast guard vessels that left the main port of Vathy at around 12:20 a.m. The vessels arrived in the area at around 1 a.m., the official said, but saw nobody.
At around 6 a.m., one of the vessels spotted a heavily pregnant woman behind a rock in a treacherous part of the coast, the official added. While rescuing her, which took about an hour and a half, they found the boy’s body nearby. Documents show the vessel carrying the woman and child returned to Vathy at around 9:30 a.m.
The woman and child weren't related. At around the same time as they were found, at roughly 6:40 a.m. on Nov. 8, a two-person coast guard foot patrol came across a group of 10 people on the hill of Cape Prasso, several hours’ walk away. The group included the father.
“If you have a dead child, you try to figure out who he was with,” the official said. “It’s different when you have relatives there helping, and different when you find them alone.”
The suggestion is, the fact the father wasn’t with his son when they were found was a key reason for him being charged.
The indictment accuses him of “leaving your ... child helpless.” It says the father allowed his son to board an unseaworthy boat in bad weather without wearing an appropriate lifejacket — although a photo in the case file of the boy’s body clearly shows him in a child’s lifejacket.
“These people have to rely on smugglers, and these smugglers decide when and where people take these journeys,” said Nick van der Steenhoven, the Greece and Europe advocacy and policy officer for refugee rights charity Choose Love. The father and son, he said, “became victim of the failure of the European Union to provide safe and legal routes" for asylum-seekers.
The father, his defense lawyer, Dimitris Choulis, and Olsen paint another picture of that night’s events: one of delays and negligence by the coast guard. Choulis is filing an application with the Samos prosecutor requesting an investigation. The father, he said, is convinced his son would still be alive if the coast guard had acted faster.
The lawyer considers the charges “the product of panic and not the product of some broader policy ... But automatically we are creating one more obstacle to these people to claim asylum.”
N.A. said he desperately sought help to find his son all night.
When he managed to drag himself ashore, he said, he searched and shouted for his son to no avail. Nobody had seen his boy. He wanted to dive back into the waves to look for him, but didn’t know how to swim.
After searching for two hours, he decided to try to find help. He persuaded a group of survivors to go with him, and they trekked through the night across the tough terrain.
As dawn broke, they came upon the coast guard foot patrol. Court documents indicate the father managed to convey to the officers that his son was missing, showing them his possible location on a mobile phone.
The father said they soon realized the location was too far for a search on foot themselves, and that reinforcements were needed. The passengers were taken to the island’s refugee camp for identification and coronavirus testing.
His recollection of the exact timeline of events from there on is somewhat vague. A woman came to the father with a photo and asked if it was his son. It was.
He was told the boy had been found but had been taken to the hospital and was in a coma. The missing pregnant woman had also been found alive, he heard.
At some point the pregnant woman also arrived at the camp, and the father’s hopes were buoyed; if she had survived, perhaps his son would too.
Then he was separated from the others and taken for questioning. He asked to see his son, but was told he had to be interviewed first.
When the interview was over, he still wasn’t allowed to see his child. Eventually, he said, the police called the hospital. They told him his son had been dead already when he arrived at the hospital.
“Why did they do this to me?” the father said, distraught at the idea he had held out false hope of his son surviving. “They should not have done that. They should have told me the truth.”
The father was then jailed on charges of endangering his son’s life.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “A person who loses his loved ones, his son, and then he goes to prison in that condition, alone ... Is it humane to do this thing?”
It took three days and pressure from his lawyer, Choulis, for him to be allowed to see his son’s body.
The coast guard escorted him to the hospital morgue, handcuffed. When they came back up 15 minutes later, the man wasn’t wearing handcuffs anymore and the coast guard officers were carrying him, Choulis said. He had collapsed.
The father was eventually released on the bail condition that he not leave the country. Refugee organizations put him up in a hotel.
The little boy’s body lay in the morgue for weeks. His death certificate shows he was buried on Nov. 30, in the small cemetery above the village of Iraion, where other victims of migrant shipwrecks lie.
The father has since been granted temporary asylum in Greece. But without his son, he said, he doesn’t much care where, or if, he lives.
“His son was his friend, he was everything to him,” Haidari said. “He was his hope to be alive.”
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