After five years of operation in the Aegean, we have decided with a heavy heart to withdraw from Lesvos, end our human rights monitoring as Mare Liberum, and dissolve the association.
First of all, we would like to thank all the people who have trusted us to tell us their stories and whose struggles we have been able to support. We would like to thank all the people who have been a part of Mare Liberum over the past five years. We thank all our friends, donors, and everyone who has supported us in any way. Without you, our work would not have been possible.
Blockage and criminalisation of our work
Like many organisations, we have experienced sabotage, obstruction, and, repression during our time in the Aegean, and not only in Greece. The Hellenic Coast Guard has repeatedly tried to intimidate us, through reckless maneuvers or radio calls, through repeated controls and questioning of our papers. In addition, we were banned from leaving the port, justified by the Corona measures. Twice the German Ministry of Transport under the direction of Andreas Scheuer (CSU) issued a detention order for our ship to prevent us from sailing. And to make matters worse, the Greek police raided our ship, searched it, and are now investigating us on flimsy grounds.
Despite these numerous politically motivated attempts to obstruct our work, we have not stopped from continuing our operation with the ship over the years. We were able to successfully defend ourselves - on behalf of others - in German courts against the elimination of large parts of the civilian sea rescue fleet using the German Ship Safety Regulation. However, in Greece, a new level has now been reached and leaves us no room for maneuvering. Ultimately, a repressive law by the government of Greece brings the end of our work.
Two ministerial decisions from April and September 2020 state that all NGOs working in Greece in the fields of asylum, migration, and social inclusion must officially register and certify themselves. Without such registration and certification, civil society organisations are no longer allowed to work in Greece. The registration and certification process creates high bureaucratic hurdles. All organisations must provide several officially translated and certified documents, including detailed financial data, personal data of staff and volunteers.
A further amendment to the law in early September 2021 extended the registration and certification requirement to all organisations under the jurisdiction of the Hellenic Coast Guard. Since then, the law also explicitly applies to rescue vessels and monitoring operations at sea. Even if all documents were complete and submitted at high expense, the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum has the power to refuse registration of NGOs and individual NGO members on vague, arbitrary, and abuse-prone grounds. It is clear that the law is not compatible with the EU Data Protection Directive. Three UN Special Rapporteurs also highlight in a letter the Greek government that the legislation is not compatible with Greece's obligations under international law to protect the right to freedom of association. Yet, the law is in effect and prevents the solidarity work on the ground for the time being. Whereas before we still could react, e.g. after being contacted by the Hellenic Coast Guard by radio, since the change in the law crew members are now threatened with high fines and imprisonment if they do not immediately follow the instructions of the Coast Guard. This risk is not acceptable to us as an association. Obediently following every order to leave crime scenes is not compatible with our human rights monitoring. Our efforts to fight the law have been unsuccessful.
We have repeatedly adapted to the changed conditions on the spot in the Aegean, developed and tested new operational concepts, and been able to provide concrete help and set the right impulses in many places with our freestyle. Having started as a watchdog for the coast guard, we can no longer fulfill this central and constitutive function at sea.
Five Years of Operation in the Aegean - a look back
After the summer of migration in 2015, state authorities tried to prevent border crossings again in the following years. Leaders in the EU declared the movement of migrants to be over and “order” to be re-established. But only increased closure, a dirty deal with Turkey, violence, illegal push- and pullbacks reduced the numbers of those who managed to reach the EU.
When we started our work in the Aegean in 2018, illegal pushbacks in the Aegean were taking place unnoticed by the wider public. Pushbacks, the violent forcing back of people seeking protection across a border, violate international law and deprive people of their right to asylum. Furthermore, there have been undocumented shipwrecks on the coasts with uncounted and unnoticed deaths. The actors in the Aegean Sea were the Hellenic and Turkish coast guards, the EU border protection agency Frontex and NATO. At sea, they had a practically free hand.
In order not to leave the situation at sea completely to the authorities, we set ourselves the goal of observing the situation of people on the move by ship at sea. Our area of operation was to be the EU maritime border between Turkey and Greece. We would monitor the treatment of refugees crossing the sea. We set ourselves the goal of documenting the situation of people on the move and drawing the attention of the European public to it. In particular, we would publicise illegal behaviour by authorities at sea. Our presence was intended to persuade coastguards to refrain from violence and injustice for fear of documenting illegal actions and legal consequences. The aim of our documentation and reporting on pushbacks was to increase pressure on state actors. We wanted to see the executive organs of the authorities involved held accountable for human rights violations.
And we started. We had been meeting since the end of 2017, in January 2018 we registered the association Mare Liberum e.V. in Germany, Sea-Watch signed over their first ship to us, which we named MARE LIBERUM, and since April 2018 we were present on Lesvos, and prepared ourselves, the ship and the assignment. In August 2018, we finally had all the necessary papers together to set sail in September for the first monitoring operation in the north of the island with the MARE LIBERUM.
Just as we reached our area of operation, our ship and crew were inspected by FRONTEX for the first time. As in the following years, we took the intimidation and repression of the authorities as proof that we were seen, and our approach worked: they felt they were being watched, and they did not want us as witnesses at the border.
During our operation with the boat, we documented many pushbacks, conducted interviews with survivors of pushbacks and eyewitnesses, and in some cases conducted more detailed investigations, thus contributing to the media coverage of pushbacks in the Aegean over the years.
In 2019, 60,000 people on the move reached the Greek islands, the highest number since the EU-Turkey deal in spring of 2016. However, even more, people were intercepted by the Turkish coast guard and returned to Turkey. Our crew witnessed and documented several incidents where Frontex personnel as well as the Hellenic and Turkish coast guards were operating at the edge of their legal framework. We published reports of deportees as well as of people who survived the crossing and were admitted to one of the camps. We reported on the stranding of survivors in the camps on Lesvos, Chios, and Samos, who were prevented from both continuing their journey and arriving.
At the beginning of 2020, the situation came to a dramatic head. In a political calculation, Turkish President Erdoğan changed the tactics of the Turkish coast guard to put pressure on the EU. The boats of migrants were no longer stopped by the Turkish coast guard on their way to Greece. The extreme right in Greece took advantage of the situation and incited outbreaks of violence against migrants and planned camp facilities. Our crews were also threatened and attacked during this time. Nevertheless, the activists decided to stay.
And so crew members remained in action for months when the Corona pandemic also hit the refugee movement. The number of migrants staying in the Moria camp had already risen to over 20,000. A camp that was originally designed for 2,000 people to stay for a short time. On the Greek islands as a whole, 40,000 people had to struggle in camps with no prospect of further progress, no hygienic standards, no health care, poor food supply, and no self-determination. We warned the European public for months that these unbearable conditions would explode before a fire broke out and destroyed Moria and 20,000 people had to sleep on the streets.
In the shadow of Covid and the tensions between Turkey and the EU, members of the coast guards became increasingly openly violent. Covered by the new right-wing government in Greece and EU Commissioner Von der Leyen, there was a new quality of violence and pushback that continues to this day. Since March 2020, Mare Liberum has witnessed a dramatic increase in human rights violations in the Aegean, at sea, and on land. We first released the collected data in 2020 in the form of a first pushback report. Almost 10,000 illegal pushbacks and violations of the right to asylum had to be identified. Human rights violations thus reached a level that we had to attest to again in the 2021 Pushback Report and which, unfortunately, has not been abandoned to this day.
Since September, our crews and our association were threatened with heavy fines if we sailed with the ship. Consequently, we concentrated on observing the situation in the Aegean - without a ship - from the shore. We shifted our work from the sea to research on the land. The basis of the research was mainly the collection of testimonies from survivors, but also from residents, according to a standardised scheme and criteria. The transcribed testimonies were published in the database of the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN). During the entire period of the onshore operation, 21 testimonies were collected and the results were published as a report in September 2022.
The current situation in the Aegean Sea
Since 2020, we have observed an increased rise in violence against people on the move. Not only in the number of cases but also in their brutality. Human rights violations in the form of illegal pushbacks by the Greek authorities at sea represent the modus operandi in the treatment of people on the move. By now, it is also an established practice that people who have already reached the Greek islands are illegally pushed back into Turkish waters. Time and again, people seeking protection are abandoned in life rafts or unseaworthy boats on the open sea. They are thrown from the boats into the sea. Sometimes their hands are handcuffed. The security officials use not only violence and humiliation but also torture.
The brutal pushbacks from land led to more and more people hiding in the forests after arriving at one of the Greek islands, for fear of the authorities. Again and again, people die from lack of medical care, thirst, hunger, or cold.
The survivors face systematic criminalisation. In most cases, at least one person is arrested when a boat arrives. Who are then usually convicted of "aiding and abetting illegal entry" or "smuggling", because they allegedly steered the boat in which they fled. Away from the public eye and without access to adequate legal aid and assistance, people are systematically sentenced to decades in prison. There is no "fair" trial for the accused that follows the applicable law. According to the Greek Ministry of Justice, alleged "smugglers" constitute the second-largest group in Greek prisons. However, it is the people seeking protection who were sitting at the back of the engine when they arrived.
Anti-migration course is legally legitimised
It is a scandal that no civilian monitoring organisations or rescue ships can operate between Turkey and Greece anymore - because human rights monitoring in the Aegean Sea is more important than ever.
Time and again, various actors also try to make access to asylum more difficult on a legal level and to legitimise the EU's deadly isolationist policy.
The restrictions on NGOs working on asylum, migration, and social integration explained above, combined with systematic repression and criminalisation, mean that fewer and fewer solidarity structures can work in Greece. At the same time, the right to asylum in Greece is also being significantly restricted. For example, in 2021, the Greek authorities declared Turkey a safe third country for people from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in general. This enables the Greek authorities to systematically deport protection seekers to Turkey without examining the asylum application.
Attempts to restrict the right to asylum have also been made again and again at the EU level. For example, in December 2022, the European Union's Home Affairs and Justice Council discussed the so-called Instrumentalisation Regulation, which would allow EU member states to restrict the right to asylum if they see a supposed threat to "national security". This regulation aims to make access to asylum more difficult and to give legal legitimacy to the EU's lethal isolationist policy. As early as October 2021, twelve EU member states wrote to the Commission calling for the reform of the Schengen Borders Code to legalise pushbacks. These serious attempts to legalise violence against people on the move are alarming.
What remains to be done?
Greece urgently needs an independent monitoring mechanism at the borders and in the camps. There must be an independent investigation and those responsible for their crimes must be brought to justice so that the practice of pushbacks finally stops.
Ultimately, however, border policies as a whole need to be changed, not only in Greece but in the EU as a whole. There needs to be safe corridors into the EU and guaranteed respect for human rights for all people, not just Europeans.
While we are forced to stop our work as Mare Liberum and dissolve our association with effect from 1 May 2023, many projects on the ground are working for refugees and are worth supporting, such as: