Open Letter on the Greece Boat Disaster: Questions of International Law

- EN - NL

In an open letter addressed to Greek and EU authorities, 300 academics turn their attention to the migrant shipwreck of 14 June 2023 off the coast of Pylos, Greece, resulting in the loss of an estimated 650 lives. They emphasize that Greece did not only have the right but also the duty to intervene, assist and rescue those on board. Dr. Mariana Gkliati, Assistant Professor of Migration and Asylum Law at Tilburg University is one of the initiators of this letter.

The letter is addressed to the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and the Ministry of Migration and Asylum of the Hellenic Republic, the Prime Minister of Greece, the European Commission, and the Executive Director of Frontex. The signatories of the letter emphasize that this incident highlights the urgent need to address systematic pushbacks and the practice of ’delayed/non-assistance’ in the Mediterranean. These practices not only undermine well-established legal obligations but also cast doubt on fundamental principles of international law. In this letter, academic experts on migration, asylum, refugee and human rights law, public international law, law of the sea and international criminal law raise important legal questions and call for a comprehensive examination of the incident.

Misinterpretations of obligations

Dr. Mariana Gkliati, Assistant Professor of Migration and Asylum Law (Tilburg University, the Netherlands), one of the initiators of this letter, states: ’National authorities attempt to evade their responsibility by presenting radical misinterpretations of their obligations under international law. In this open letter, we clarify the applicable legal obligations. We intervene to show that certain basic principles of international law are beyond contestation.’

Dr. Elizabeth Mavropoulou, Lecturer in International Law (University of Westminster) comments: "While the investigation of the tragic incident is ongoing it is important that we steer clear from any intentional or unintentional misrepresentation of the current state of international law relating to search and rescue. Contrary to popular belief, for the purposes of search and rescue, the high seas or international waters are divided into zones between states. In this case, the migrant boat in distress was within Greece’s search and rescue zone and therefore Greece had a legal duty to rescue".

Duty to rescue

The open letter emphasizes that Greece did not only have the right but also the duty to intervene, assist and rescue those on board irrespective of their status as irregular migrants or smugglers, regardless of whether they asked for or refused assistance, and even though the incident took place on the high seas. Moreover, under human rights and refugee law, Greece can be found in violation of the right to life and possibly the prohibition of refoulement and collective expulsion.

The open letter calls for a comprehensive investigation into the incident, highlighting the need for a thorough and effective criminal investigation to ensure accountability for loss of life. The criminal investigation is currently ongoing, but it can already be assessed that it will fall short of the standards for an effective investigation if it deals inappropriately with issues of jurisdiction, presents flaws that undermine its ability to determine the facts, and does not cover the examination of the criminal responsibility of the Greek Coast Guard.


The signatories also raise concerns regarding the involvement of Frontex and its legal obligations in search and rescue situations. Failure to abide by its fundamental rights obligations may result in the legal responsibility of the agency and the EU. It should be independently investigated whether Frontex took all reasonably expected steps after its first sighting of the vessel to protect the lives of the passengers. Moreover, any internal investigation conducted by the agency needs to consider not only possible wrongdoings by Greece but also by Frontex.

The signatories urge the relevant authorities to take immediate action, examining the legal obligations and responsibilities involved in this tragic incident. They emphasize that failure to abide by these obligations may result in legal responsibility for the parties involved.

This open letter remains open for signatures, and the number of signatories is continuously growing. The authors welcome academics specializing in the relevant fields to add their names to this important initiative. The full text of the open letter and the list of signatories can be found here .