PUSHBACK REPORT 2020

VIOLENCE IS INCREASING – IN 2020 MARE LIBERUM COUNTED AT LEAST 9,000 PEOPLE ILLEGALLY PUSHED BACK

Mare Liberum monitors the current human rights situation in the Aegean Sea using its own ships. As independent observers, we conduct research in order to document and publicise circumstances at the European border. Since March 2020, Mare Liberum has witnessed a dramatic increase in human rights violations in the Aegean, both at sea and on land. Illegal pushbacks, in which those fleeing and migrating people are pushed back across a national border, play an especially crucial role. Over the past year in particular, pushbacks have become an inhumane everyday reality for people on the move. Pushbacks happen almost daily at the Greek-Turkish border and in 2020 alone, we counted 321 pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, with some 9,798 people pushed back.

Although pushbacks have demonstrably been carried out at the EU’s external border for years, media attention has now increased notably, especially in recent months. News magazines such as Der Spiegel and the research collective Bellingcat have been able to publicly demonstrate how the Hellenic Coast Guard forcibly pushes those seeking protection back to Turkey, thereby violating international, European and national law. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex, as has become all too clear, not only turns a blind eye to illegal repatriation operations, but rather actively and systematically participates.

Within the framework of the annual report, we seek to adopt a perspective on pushbacks that looks at the long-term development of these practices at the EU’s external border. The comprehensive documentation of pushbacks forms the basis of the report and is an essential part of our monitoring work in the Aegean. Beyond the mere counting of pushbacks, our work also includes the collection of relevant information on the persons affected by pushbacks, practices by the responsible actors and related geographical data. We have gained deeper insights into these issues by conducting interviews with people who have themselves been pushed back at the Greek-Turkish border.

Where do our numbers come from?

This annual report is based on our own figures alongside documentation of pushbacks which became public or we ourselves became aware of during the past year. Collecting information on pushbacks is a difficult task in an extremely militarised border area such as the Aegean. The responsible actors, whether the Hellenic Coast Guard or Frontex, have so far done their utmost to carry out pushbacks unnoticed and to cover up their own human rights crimes. 

Despite this politically-motivated lack of transparency, we learn about pushbacks via different means. First, there are pushbacks of which we have direct knowledge. This information is collected through reconstructing pushbacks from the testimonies of witnesses we have previously interviewed. In addition, cases published by other organisations, such as Alarm Phone or Aegean Boat Report, are included in our documentation. Finally, the Turkish Coast Guard regularly publishes pushback cases. Figures from the Turkish Coast Guard should always be viewed against the background of a possible political instrumentalisation by the Turkish government. This is another reason why we have sought out several sources for the individual cases, as it is not uncommon for figures and information to differ from one to the next. The figures on which the report is based should therefore be understood as an approximation of the actual numbers. Given the lack of transparency and active concealment of pushbacks by the responsible authorities, it can be assumed that a greater number of pushbacks took place in 2020 than is noted here.

Our goals

Through our documentation and reporting on pushbacks, we aim to increase the pressure on state actors. One thing is clear: the authorities involved in pushbacks at national and international level must be held accountable for human rights violations. Pushbacks can only be understood as part of an overall European border policy based on isolation and deterrence. Its inhumane and often deadly dimensions have become all too clear over the past year. We actively oppose the policy of deterrence and the increasing externalisation of European borders. Mare Liberum seeks to strengthen solidarity and universal human rights: as an independent body, we demand safe escape routes and a right to freedom of movement for all.

Criminalization

In addition to simply documenting human rights violations in the Aegean, we also aim to prevent illegal pushback and pullbacks through our active presence at the Greek-Turkish maritime border and, in case of doubt, to highlight out human rights violations. Accordingly, we maintain a presence with our ship off the coast of the Greek island of Lesvos. However, the active deployment of our ship at the EU’s external border was barely possible in 2020. This was due to both the blockade of our ships by the German authorities and the criminalisation that we as an organisation are currently experiencing in Greece.

The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI), led by Andreas Scheuer, had detained both of Mare Liberum’s ships on 19 August 2020. This detention was only possible because of an amendment to the “Schiffsicherheitsverordnung”, which was implemented specifically to prevent ships working on human rights and search and rescue from leaving port [1].

The Administrative Court of Hamburg finally upheld Mare Liberum in two respects. On 2 October 2020, the court announced that Mare Liberum’s ships do not need ship safety certificates under the current legal situation. The detention orders against the ships were thus lifted. In addition, the Administrative Court ruled that the amendment of the “Schiffsicherheitsverordnung” by Transport Minister Scheuer was invalid because it violates European law.

Alongside the active obstruction of our work by the BMVI, Mare Liberum is facing criminalisation by the Greek authorities. On 28 September 2020, the Greek police announced in a press release that 35 people and four NGOs on Lesvos were under investigation. Mare Liberum was not officially named but has already been linked to serious charges in the Greek press. On 5 September, about 25 officers of the police, the Greek Coast Guard and special forces stormed on board the Mare Liberum. The crew members were not informed about the legal basis or course of action. The ship was searched for two hours, all phones and computers were confiscated. After the raid, four crew members were made to stay in the police station for almost six hours without any reason being provided to them. These recent repressions made it once again impossible for us to operate with our ships at the maritime border.

Nevertheless, we have made a good contribution to the documentation of pushbacks in 2020, we have kept a database in which all pushbacks since March 2020 are statistically recorded, we have made interviews with eyewitnesses and have carried out more detailed investigations in some cases. All this is not only included in this report, but has also contributed to the media coverage of pushbacks in the Aegean Sea during the year.

PUSHBACKS

A pushback forces migrants across a border they have just crossed [2]. In the Aegean, this means that a boat has crossed the maritime border, entered Greek territorial waters, and is then pushed back into Turkish waters by the Hellenic Coast Guard. They are denied the opportunity to apply for asylum, and thereby denied access to international protection and the European migration system. Neither origin, nor personal history, nor the existence of documents play a role. Pushbacks are not deportations. A pushback is the deliberate prevention of protection with the use of violence.

In order to seek this protection, people must to endure great suffering on the run, exposed themselves to physical, psychological, often also sexual violence, and frequently risk their lives along the way. There are no safe flight routes, so illegal entry is the only way for many  to apply for asylum – not to mention the reality that crossing in unseaworthy and hopelessly overcrowded rubber dinghies represents a concrete danger to life. Pushbacks not only turn this already life-threatening crossing into a potentially fatal undertaking, the practice  also systematically denies access to the asylum system. In sum, being pushed back again after reaching European soil or waters reflects a highly traumatizing experience.

Legal basis

Although pushbacks at sea work operate somewhat differently from pushbacks on land, they have the same basis in violating EU and international law. Waters that are within 12 nautical miles of the coast are considered territorial waters of the particular state, with anything beyond that deemed international waters. Therefore, pushbacks at sea basically occur in two different scenarios. Scenario 1 constitutes a pushback outside the state’s territory and Scenario 2 constitutes a pushback within it.

If a boat gets into distress in international waters, as overcrowded and broken dinghies basically do, then according to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1979 Convention on Maritime Rescue, every captain is obligated to render assistance to those in distress. Pushbacks violate these conventions.

In the Aegean Sea, the distance between the Greek islands and Turkish mainland is often so small that there are no international waters and the territorial waters of Greece and Turkey border one another. Scenario 2 is therefore most relevant in this context. While it remains, that people in distress must be rescued, pushbacks from national waters violate also the principle of non-refoulement, as laid out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as well as in international law. According to the Geneva Convention on Refugees, everyone has the right to seek international protection. Under the non-refoulement principle, states may not turn away anyone who enters with the intention of seeking asylum. Moreover, pushbacks at sea almost always involve a group of people who cross the border together in a boat. Collective deportations, which in this case also include group pushbacks, are also prohibited under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights [3][4].

Once a boat has crossed the border, the people on board have the right to ask for asylum or international protection in Greece. If they are pushed back or pulled back across the border, the migrants are denied this legal access to the European migration system without a hearing, a case review or consideration of the circumstances, they once again find themselves in a vacuum of protection and lawlessness.

However, the illegality of pushbacks is only part of the problem. Typically, pushbacks are extremely violent and risk the lives of people on the run. Pushbacks thus not only deprive refugees of the opportunity to find protection, but also expose them to  actual danger to life.

Pushbacks are acts of humiliations through which authorities deny refugees the right to be treated as human beings with dignity. Beyond the violation of law that it represents, a pushback is also an act of massive physical and psychological violence. The message is clear: no matter how bad it is in your country of origin, you must stay there! Refugees are treated as a homogeneous mass to be reprimanded and punished for their effort to escape in order to prevent a repeat attempt. Deterrence through violence is thus systematically used as a political instrument at Europe’s external border. That this political strategy does not work has become more than apparent in recent years. The only thing that is achieved here is that people are broken and lives destroyed. Meanwhile, refugees are forced to choose even more dangerous routes and board even worse vessels for lack of money. Most of those who have been pushed back to Turkey try again, and again, for the simple reason that they have no other option.

The situation in the Aegean

The Aegean islands are close to Turkey, with only a few kilometers from one coast to the other in some places. This also means that there are no international waters, only a maritime border between Greece and Turkey which divides the rescue zones at sea. In Greek and Turkish territorial waters respectively, each national coast guard is responsible for coordinating rescue operations. In addition to these two actors, various vessels under Frontex or NATO command also operate in the Aegean Sea and are involved in pushbacks (more on this in chapter 4). 

Pushbacks have been a part of Greek “border protection” for years, but until the beginning of 2020, it were mostly pullbacks which were observed. In a pullback, the boat might still be in Turkish waters or have crossed the border and is then pulled back into Turkey by Turkish authorities. In addition, boats are often blocked at the maritime border by, for example, Frontex vessels until Turkish authorities arrive and pick up those on board. 

In 2020, the number of documented pushbacks increased sharply. 9,798 people were illegally pushed back by the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex. Since March, this is an average of more than one pushback per day. In the process, the Hellenic Coast Guard has developed several strategies that surpass each other in cruelty.

PUSHBACKS IN THE AEGEAN 2020

At the end of February, Turkish President Erdogan drove thousands of refugees to the Turkish-Greek border in a sinister political game. As a demonstration of his power, Erdogan opened the border to put further pressure on the EU. It was as if everyone held their breath in anticipation of masses of boats reaching the Greek islands: a few arrived and then, nothing! The number of arrivals dropped to an all-time low, with an unprecedented 35 days without a single boat reaching Lesvos. This lack of arrivals was not because there were fewer people forced to flee their home countries, but because the Aegean Sea has become a closed, militarized zone. In its waters, brutal tactics are employed systematically with no regard for international law, human rights, or the lives of those fleeing.

Arrivals, pushbacks and number of refugees pushed back in the Aegean

In 2020, around 9,687 refugees arrived on the Aegean islands. This is the lowest observed value based on data on arrivals from UNHCR, which has been available since 2014. By comparison, 59,726 refugees still reached the Aegean islands in 2019, from around 856,723 in 2015 [5]. Over 75% of the arrivals in 2020 were recorded in the first quarter. A complete drop was subsequently recorded from April 2020, due in part to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Aegean. During the rest of the year, there was only a slight increase in arrivals.

Throughout the year, the pandemic has worsened the situation not only for asylum seekers on the islands, but also for migrants trying to reach them via the Aegean. Faced with the threat of the pandemic, Greek authorities have banned general maritime traffic and are also blocking organizations whose mission is to monitor human rights, such as Mare Liberum itself. 

In turn, the number of people being pushed back to Turkey is increasing dramatically. From April onwards, the pushback figures are consistently higher than those of arrivals and in some cases, even up to nine times higher. The low arrival figures can thus be understood as a direct result of an active practice of repelling and turning back fleeing persons at the Greek-Turkish border. The highest number of persons turned back was recorded in the summer months, when the number of crossings was high. Of the total 9,798 refugees turned back in 2020, 4,727 occurred in the summer, most of them in June (1,814 people). The lowest figure is recorded in April, but even then, 252 people were deprived of their rights and illegally returned to Turkey.

Likewise, when looking at the total number of pushbacks, it is evident that this illegal practice is commonplace in the Aegean. We were able to count a total of 321 pushbacks in 2020. Similar to the number of rejected persons, the fewest pushbacks were documented in April (14 cases) and the most in June (50 cases). In more than half of the months considered, the number of pushbacks exceeded 30 cases per month.

The Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis has proudly announced that arrivals by boat to the Greek islands have decreased by 96% compared to figures from the previous year. Yet he has studiously concealed the fact that this was not due to a decrease in the number of those trying to flee in the first place, but the result of the criminal, brutal and systematized practice of pushbacks by the Greek Coast Guard, including the participation of NATO and Frontex [6]. For his part, Minister of Shipping and Island Policy, Ioannis Plakiotakis — who is also responsible for the Hellenic Coast Guard — in September proudly spoke of 10,000 people whose arrival had been prevented [7]. The illegal practice of pushbacks is thus politically backed by Greece’s conservative government. During a visit to the Greek border guards on the mainland after numerous, violent and in one case fatal pushbacks across the border river, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, thanked them only for maintaining order and did not utter a word of criticism about the activities of the Greek border guards [8]. The suffering behind these numbers is immeasurable and yet has become part of everyday life in the Aegean.

PUSHBACKS: A EUROPEAN PROJECT

In 2020, it has become more than clear that pushbacks are not carried out by the Greek authorities alone, but in cooperation with the European border protection agency FRONTEX. After a joint publication by DER SPIEGEL and Bellingcat [9] in October finally brought the human rights violations at the EU external border between Greece and Turkey to the attention of the international media, further publications and isolated reactions from politicians followed.

In Germany, for example, several inquiries were made about the involvement of German authorities in illegal practices in the context of Frontex and NATO operations. After months of dismissive reactions from the Bundestag, the burden of proof provided by investigative journalism, eyewitness accounts, and human rights monitoring was too high to continue to be ignored. In January 2021, the Interior Committee finally dealt with the issue, questioning Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri about his agency’s violations of the law and receiving sharp criticism from individual MPs. But this can only be the beginning, a political change is needed, in which these brutal pushbacks are no longer even possible.

In the fall of 2020, Frontex’s active and passive involvement in at least six pushbacks was revealed. Frontex blames the “host-state”, i.e. Greece, for this. Greece itself again denies conducting pushbacks at all. The fact that there is clear evidence does not seem to bother either the Greek or the European authorities. On 8 June 2020, the Romanian Frontex vessel “MAI1102” was involved in a pushback, of which there is even video footage [10]. Another Romanian Frontex vessel “MAI1103” was involved in a pushback on 15 August 2020, together with the German naval vessel “A1411 Berlin”, which was under NATO command in the Aegean Sea.

In response to recent reporting on Frontex’s involvement in illegal pushbacks in the Aegean by various journalists and NGOs, Frontex first announced internal investigations and finally presented a report in a special meeting in November 2020. Fabrice Leggeri admits that Frontex vessels were in the vicinity of pushbacks, but were unaware of any violations. Since no Frontex crew reported a human rights violation, Leggeri assumes that none could have occurred. Moreover, he backs the Greek coast guard, emphasizing that Frontex always follows the instructions of local authorities [11]. While this may be true, Frontex is actively supporting human rights violations by doing so.

Frontex’s involvement in illegal pushbacks and human rights violations is not new. In the Western Balkans and on the land border between Greece and Turkey, evidence and reports of pushbacks have been systematically ignored for years [12]. And in the Aegean, Frontex has also been involved in pushbacks for years, or at least informed about them, as shown, for example, by a 2014 report by Pro Asyl [13] and the AlarmPhone case of 11 June 2016, in which a Romanian as well as a Portuguese Frontex vessel were involved in a pushback [14].

Why it is not enough to demand that Frontex should not participate in human rights violations and report those of others becomes clear when one takes a closer look at the structure and functioning of the agency. Frontex was established as a European “border management agency” in 2004 and works both with its own staff and with officials from EU member states. There are several Frontex missions, divided by region, each based on its own code of conduct.

Respecting human rights is a minimum standard to be expected from individuals as well as institutions and authorities. European authorities that do not respect it should be abolished. The billions spent annually on Frontex’s work could be spent differently and actually save lives at the borders. In 2020, over 1,000 people died at Europe’s external borders, mainly in the Mediterranean. Without safe escape routes, there will be no fewer deaths in the years to come. The compartmentalization that makes European borders a lawless and deadly place, and which Frontex so exemplifies, is not a solution. Europe is making itself comfortable in an illusion of human rights and freedoms that is based on the denial of precisely these freedoms to all outsiders.

German involvement in pushbacks

Several reports also make it clear that other European actors beyond the European Border Agency are involved and finally shake the narrative of sole Greek responsibility. Most recently, the presence of the German Federal Police ship “Uckermark” caused a stir during a pushback in early August. 40 people were forced back into Turkish waters and abandoned there in the open sea. Instead of rescuing the people and ensuring their access to a fair asylum procedure, as would have been their duty, the Federal Police thus actively participated in the injustice against people on the run. Not even a “Serious Incident Report”, which is required when human rights violations are suspected, was prepared by the Federal Police [15].

Unsurprisingly, the German Ministry of the Interior confirms the rough course of the operation, but denies any responsibility of the “Uckermark” [16]. Since there was no immediate distress at sea, the situation was merely reported to the command. The “Uckermark” was then relieved by the Greek coast guard and returned to port as ordered. In principle, the German forces would have acted within the framework of the Frontex operation “Poseidon” and would thus have been subordinate to the Greek authorities. According to the Interior Ministry, there could be no question of participation in a pushback.

The repeated commitment to always follow the instructions of local authorities is already known from other statements by Frontex on dubious operations [17]. One is too happy to let primarily the Greek authorities carry out the inhumane sealing-off practice at the European border. However, if one gets into the line of fire oneself, as in the case of the “Uckermark”, one can always point to the responsibilities of Greece as well as flimsy constraints. The undisguised gratitude that becomes apparent when Interior Minister Horst Seehofer declares that Greece is defending “Europe’s integrity” at its external border is therefore hardly surprising. 

Moreover, this is not the first time that the question of how much Germany is involved in illegal pushbacks in the Aegean has been raised. The “Uckermark” itself was already involved in an incident in May 2020, in which it actively helped intercept a boat carrying refugees off Samos, thus denying people their right to asylum. Not to mention the “A1411 Berlin” of the German Navy, which operates under NATO command and has been present as an eyewitness several times, during brutal and illegal pushbacks.

A question to the Bundestag by Green Party MP Luise Amtsberg on whether the federal government had any knowledge of pushbacks in the Aegean, revealed that this could not be disclosed because it could have “detrimental effects on NATO activities [and] the bilateral relations of Germany and Greece” [18]. Andrej Hunko (Die LINKE parliamentary group), Member of the German Bundestag, had also recently submitted a question on whether German navy ships under NATO or Frontex operations had observed pushbacks. The Federal Ministry of Defense admitted having observed a case on 19 June 2020. A case of which we knew nothing until then.

The German government excels in dealing with blatant human rights violations through striking passivity [19].

The notorious looking away and feigned ignorance have become a habit. The strategy is well known, both by German units like the “Uckermark” or the “A1411 Berlin” and by Frontex. Now, at the latest, it should become clear: Pushbacks are human rights crimes, not only organized primarily by Greek authorities, but a common European strategy that is as common as it is inhumane.

At the hearing in the Interior Committee, Frontext head Leggeri praised himself for his good clarification work in the context of the various incidents. For each incident, he said, a separate commission had been set up, which then compiled its findings as part of the Frontex Management Board working group, of which Germany is also a member.

In view of the overwhelming evidence, an independent investigation and reappraisal of the German involvement in pushbacks is urgently needed! The inhumane practice of pushbacks as well as Europe’s deadly isolationist policy behind it must come to an end!

PROSPECTS AND DEMANDS

In 2020, Mare Liberum witnessed a veritable escalation of violent pushbacks in the Aegean Sea. As has become clear in the context of the annual report, that pushbacks are not isolated or extreme cases of European closure, but rather the current and everyday “modus operandi” at the EU’s external border. Pushbacks can only be understood as part of an inhumane and deadly policy of closure that is visible far beyond the borders of the Aegean Sea. Thus, systematic human rights violations have become the norm at the EU’s external borders. Every day, refugees trying to cross the border into Europe are subjected to extreme violence by the authorities: there are regular reports of migrants on the Balkan route being beaten up, stripped naked, marked with an “X” on their heads and forced back across the border. Or more recently, Malta has repeatedly refused to rescue boats in acute distress, instead nearly running over people floating in the water. On Malta, newly arriving refugees were crammed onto a prison boat where conditions were so terrible that one person committed suicide out of desperation and others went on hunger strike. In addition to this, civilian sea rescue is continually criminalized and discouraged from saving lives.

Be it the Balkan route or the open sea, European politicians have so far remained remarkably silent and failed to condemn these crimes. It seems that they would rather see thousands of refugees die than let them reach Europe. Ignorance and neglect and active and massive use of violence against people on the run clearly shows the escalation of anti-migration policies and their acceptance by political institutions and actors.

European Foreclosure Policy: No End in Sight!

There is currently no end in sight to the European isolation policy. Instead, with the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” presented by the EU Commission in September 2020, the EU continues to actively defend itself against refugees at its own external borders. The pact does not attack the right to asylum itself, but rather relies on a perfidious strategy, that already obstructs access to asylum for those seeking protection through a multitude of new hurdles [20].

The individual right to asylum is increasingly degenerating into an empty promise that is no longer attainable for many protection seekers.

Instead, the new pact includes above all: isolation, even fewer opportunities for refugees, asylum procedures under detention conditions and above all: rejections and deportations directly at the external borders as well as even faster repatriation procedures. Through so-called “screening centers” at the external borders of the EU, the entry and asylum procedures are thereby lifted away from the member states to the European level. Instead of these centers, which will inevitably become further closed mass camps with the associated supply bottlenecks, belonging to the respective EU state, these are now zones that legally do not belong to the EU territory. Through the so-called “fiction of non-entry”, people, hoping to have finally arrived in the EU after a long and exhausting journey, are shipped into a stateless space where their access to legal protection and fair treatment is severely limited. At the same time, the binding criteria for so-called safe third countries to which deportation is allowed are being massively lowered. Even the passage through a state such as Turkey should be sufficient for this state to be considered safe. Finally, Frontex’s operations are to be strengthened from 2021 by a “permanent reserve” whose sole aim is to combat illegal entry and smuggling.

With all these measures, the EU is creating a political framework, complete with bureaucratic vocabulary, in which brutal human rights violations increasingly appear like supposedly legitimate practices of European border policy. The observance of human rights hardly seems to play a role in the operational script of Frontex and Co. anymore [21]. Thus, it is to be expected that the “New Pact” will once again drastically facilitate illegal rejections at the EU’s external border and provide fertile ground for pushbacks.

Our demands

We are deeply concerned about the disregard for international law and human rights and the militarization of border regions. It is a deadly and illegal practice that must be stopped immediately. In their quest to find safety in Europe, refugees are subjected to extreme violence and humiliation on a daily basis. For their part, the responsible authorities at both national and European levels have so far only reacted with shocking indifference. Human rights apply globally and not exclusively to white European citizens! There must be a public outcry and a comprehensive state condemnation of these crimes. We demand freedom of movement and safe passage for all!

The Aegean Sea has become a scene of daily human rights violations and a black box for information about them. Yet, pushbacks have been proven through videos, testimonies and forensic evidence. Yet, the European Union fails to condemn and end the conduct of pushbacks on an almost industrial scale – in fact, it even supports this system of compartmentalization and the increasing professionalization of these illegal machinations.

We need safe escape routes! Until then, civilian sea rescue and observation missions must not be criminalized and blocked. Above all, we must remember all the people who did not make it. 

For them and for all people who will be in distress at sea in the future, and will not be rescued because of their origin, we must further intensify our efforts in the fight against Europe’s deadly border regime and the policy of closure.

© Visualisation: CorrelAid

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