Mare Liberum has seen evidence that since March of this year, over 8,000 people have been illegally and brutally forced back across the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the Aegean Sea. When talking about pushbacks, i.e. the pushback of refugees across a border by the European and national border control authorities, the focus is mostly on the legal aspect. Every single case of pushback inevitably constitutes a breach of law and a violation of human rights. Sometimes, however, it recedes into the background how dehumanising, humiliating and traumatising pushbacks are as a structurally established political instrument.
Pushbacks deprive refugees of legal access to the asylum system and thus of the chance to obtain international protection. For this protection, people on the move have to endure great suffering, they are physically and psychologically exposed to violence, often also sexualised violence, and they also risk their lives several times during the journey. There are hardly any safe flight routes, so for many refugees illegal entry is the only way to apply for asylum. Not least the crossing in unseaworthy and hopelessly overcrowded rubber dinghies represents a concrete danger to life. Pushbacks turn this already life-threatening crossing into a potentially deadly undertaking. The refugees are also systematically denied access to the asylum system. Moreover, being pushed back after reaching European soil or waters is a highly traumatic experience.
Besides the systematic dehumanisation caused by pushbacks, their actual implementation is no less problematic. At this point we are concerned with the behaviour of the Greek coast guard in the Aegean Sea, which is currently the main actor on the ground in 'protecting' Europe's external border, but also with Frontex and NATO, who are cooperating with them. During pushbacks at sea, refugees are once again more hopelessly exposed to the border guards and their violent and inhuman practices than on land. It is easy to be discovered and almost impossible to escape. Regular hunts often end in excessive violence. Pushbacks make it clear that the lives of the refugees and their simple survival seem to have no value whatsoever to the coast guard. People are actively put into distress at sea, abandoned at sea, beaten, shot at or otherwise humiliated and attacked. Many refugees on Lesbos can report pushbacks, and each of these reports illustrates the trauma that refugees experience at sea. One man reported how the coast guard crew repeatedly beat the occupants with long poles inside a boat. The women in the boat held up some children to show that no danger was coming from them, hoping to learn/see some humanity from the authorities. In vain - they were attacked further.
We often hear that both the Greek and Turkish coast guards personally take items such as mobile phones, identity documents or even entire bags and backpacks from the people in the boats and throw them into the sea. In one case, all the people who were on a rubber dinghy on the way to Lesvos were taken on board a Greek coast guard ship. The coast guard took all their mobile phones and under the pretext of a coronate virus test, each of them was taken to a separate room. Instead of being tested, they all had to undress one after the other and undergo a full body search, which included rectal and vaginal searches. The Coast Guard kept not only the mobile phones but also the clothes, shoes and wigs of some of the women. After the search, the people were put back into the dinghy in their bare underwear and dragged back into Turkish waters.
Humiliation like this is a way for the authorities to deny refugees the right to be treated as human beings and with dignity. Apart from the breach of law that a pushback represents, it is an act of massive physical and psychological violence. The message is clear: no matter how bad things are in your country of origin, stay there! Refugees are treated as a homogenous mass that needs to be educated and punished for their attempt to escape in order to prevent a repetition. Deterrence through collective torture is thus systematically used as a political instrument on Europe's external border. The fact that this political strategy is not working has been more than clearly demonstrated in recent years. The only thing it does is breaks people and destroys lives. Meanwhile, the refugees are forced to choose even more dangerous routes and, for lack of money, to board even worse boats. Because most of those who have been pushed back to Turkey try again, and again. For the simple reason that they have no other option. We spoke to a man who only managed to cross the Aegean with his family on the 12th attempt. His 5-year-old son has fallen silent since the third attempt.
We estimate that since March more than 8,000 refugees have been pushed back. Ioannis Plakiotakis, Minister of Shipping and Island Policy, also responsible for the Coast Guard, recently spoke proudly of 10,000 people whose arrival was prevented. The suffering behind these figures is immeasurable and yet it has become part of everyday life in the Aegean.
We must not accept this inhumane practice of pushbacks and the deeply violent European border policy, consisting of sealing off and deterrence! Show solidarity with refugees and displaced persons, denounce the brutal acts of the border guards, protest against Fortress Europe and fight against racism at every level!