Are we not allowed to sail at all?

As clear as it gets – Greek authorities misuse their power to keep any witnesses out of areas that have become the main sites for regular border crimes against people trying to reach Europe in search of safety. The Mare Liberum is back in operations since yesterday, 21st October 2021, despite attempts to prevent the human rights work of the organization throughout the past two years. Last night, shortly after arriving at our monitoring spot in the north of Lesvos, the crew was ordered to leave the area and forced to return to a port a six-hour drive away. The email subject from the port authority in Mytilene „Safety of human lives at Sea“ is an utter mockery. There is no legal reasoning that our ship is not allowed in the area – but a clear political intent.

Mytilene, 22nd October 2021 – Yesterday the MV Mare Liberum 1 left port towards her usual anchoring location in the north of Lesvos to monitor. This very area of Europe's external border is the main site for systematic and violent pushbacks of people on the move. At least 156 cases of illegal pushbacks – involving around 5.000 migrants – off Lesvos have come to light this year alone.

After the crew had reached our monitoring spot at the Lamna Reef a vessel of the Hellenic Coast Guard approached our ship. The Coast Guard officer ordered us to leave the anchoring spot stating the ship would pose a danger to „operations by Greek authorities“.

Shortly after, the crew left the anchor spot and asked the port authorities to specify the restricted area via email. Their reply exposes their true intentions: “Return to your original anchorage port of Skala Loutron keeping a safe course close to the coast until you clarify in written form the reasons for operating in areas under our jurisdiction.”

“The reasoning that their concern is „the protection of human life at sea“ can hardly be taken seriously as this is the same area where a shipwreck happened less than three months ago. The Hellenic Coast Guard forbade the trained Search and Rescue crew from the Nomad to join the search: Two women and a child were never found. If we are not allowed to sail in the Aegean Sea, the only actors remaining present are the perpetrators of human rights violations and border crimes: The Hellenic Coast Guard, Frontex and NATO” says Marie Read, Mare Liberum crew member.

We did not receive a written order that prohibits us from sailing in the north of Lesvos nor an explanation as to why we are not allowed to sail. There is no NAVTEX on sailing restrictions in the area. In fact, many fishing vessels are anchoring and drifting around Lamna Reef. Yet, it seems the MV Mare Liberum 1 was the only vessel that was ordered to leave.

Already on their voyage north – and even before departure in port – our crew encountered numerous approaches by the authorities and actors present in the Aegean, including Port Police, Hellenic Coast Guard, Greek Navy and Frontex. Most of them asked for papers, came alongside our vessel, took pictures of the crew and followed our ship.

Further Information 

Mare Liberum documents rights violations by Coast Guards, Frontex and NATO in the Aegean Sea and regularly publishes reports and results of its human rights monitoring. The lastPushback Quarterly Reportshows the drastic increase of the pushback practice by the Hellenic Coast Guard – tolerated and supported by Frontex and NATO – during the last months. 

People on the move are systematically stripped of their rights and pushed back to Turkey, while being subjected to excessive violence amounting to torture. Since March 2020 we counted more than 700 pushbacks: Almost 20.000 people were violently and illegally prevented from entering the EU to seek asylum. During the last three months, the situation worsened again: Usually, we counted an average of 35 pushbacks per month in the Aegean Sea but in the last three months alone, we registered around 198 documented incidents in which almost 5.000 people have been illegally pushed back into Turkish waters.

At least 156 cases of illegal pushbacks off Lesvos have come to light this year already: Around 5.000 people have been deprived of their right to seek asylum in the EU. The flight route from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesvos remains the most used in the Aegean Sea, which is why the number of arrivals and pushbacks is highest in this region.

In addition to a now lifted ban on sailing by the German Ministry of Transport, which has been declared unlawful, Covid-19-restrictions, politically motivated police investigations and a pending court case have also almost completely restricted the organizations deployment at sea during the past two years. It is therefore all the more important that the human rights organization Mare Liberum can now continue its mission as planned.

Mare Liberum i. A.

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