To what extent are German police and Bundeswehr (german military) ships involved in practices that violate international maritime law, the Geneva Convention and applicable EU law?
Pushbacks off the coast of Lesvos are currently taking place almost on a daily basis, such as the one on August 15th 2020. A case like many in recent months and thus representative of the European isolationist policy:
A dinghy with an estimated 32 migrants on board was pushed back and forth for eight hours at sea by various ships, a practice cynically termed as "Greek Water Polo". In the afternoon the boat was brought back to Turkey by the Turkish Coast Guard. There were three helicopters and nine (!) Hellenic and Turkish Coast Guard, Frontex and NATO vessels present at the scene. An illegal pushback with the participation of at least three, possibly four nations! Among them was once again the German naval vessel A1411 Berlin under NATO-command. It is unclear whether the crew was actively involved or was simply watching for hours while people were in acute distress at sea and all authorities present refused or at least delayed any rescue attempt.
The German supply vessel has been stationed in the Aegean Sea since April and is a flagship of the standing NATO Maritime Group 2. And as such protocol requires that liaison officers from both the Hellenic and Turkish Coast Guards and Frontex are always on board.
This is not the first time that the German ship was present as an eyewitness during brutal and illegal pushbacks. On June 8th 2020 Frontex blocked a boat with migrants until the Hellenic Coast Guard arrived. They then destroyed the engine and pushed the boat back into Turkish waters.
Also on June 17th 2020, the German Bundeswehr ship, the A1411 Berlin, was present at a pushback of 67 people, including 20 women and 27 children, off the coast of Lesvos. Although the Hellenic Coast Guard disabled the boat by destroying its motor and allowing it to drift helplessly for hours in Greek waters while the boat was taking on water, the crew of the Berlin did not intervene.
Mare Liberum followed and documented the situation and at that moment called on the German Bundeswehr and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as the responsible Minister of Defence via Twitter to initiate a rescue of the deeply desperate people. Shocked, we watched live via AIS as the ship sailed southwards at 16 knots.
The next day @BW_Einsatz (Bundeswehr im Einsatz) announced via Twitter that the crew of the A1411 Berlin had knowledge of the case and was present at the time. "The Coast Guards performed their sovereign duties. The Turkish Coast Guard picked up the people from the dinghy and brought them ashore. No intervention by the Berlin EGV was therefore necessary.“
This statement is in many ways highly problematic and represents a clear violation of law in several cases:
1. The crew members of the A1411 Berlin witnessed over several hours as the disabled dinghy floated in the water. An overcrowded, unstable dinghy at sea is by definition in distress, as it is very fragile and not suitable for such a purpose. Especially if - as can be seen in the video of the Alarm Phone - not all of the people on board are wearing life jackets. This is a clear violation of Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defines the duty to rescue "any person found at sea in danger of his or her life" .
2. According to testimonies the Hellenic Coast Guard destroyed the engine of the dinghy (a method documented in many cases). It is not clear whether this criminal behaviour was observed by the crew of the Berlin. However, the video footage shows that the Hellenic Coast Guard is passing dangerously close to the drifting dinghy and the resultant waves are making the dinghy rock dangerously. In this case the footage clearly shows that the A1411 Berlin was present during these potentially lethal manoeuvres.
3. All this took place deep within Greek waters. The Coast Guards simply did not carry out "their sovereign duties". The Hellenic Coast Guard refused to rescue and risked the lives of 67 people by their behaviour, while the Turkish Coast Guard operated outside their territorial waters. This is by definition a pushback and violates the prohibition of refoulement under the Geneva Refugee Convention and current EU law.
Roughly one month after this incident, the crew of the A1411 Berlin was awarded the medal for "early detection of crisis-like developments" in the Mediterranean region.
There was another case on June 4th, 2020: The A1411 Berlin was present as three boats were drifting for up to 28 hours (!!!) with the knowledge of all authorities, in Greek waters north of Lesvos. Auch ihre Motoren waren zerstört worden. Handyaufnahmen der Flüchtenden zeigen, wie maskierte Männer in einem RHIB sich an ihrem Boot zu schaffen machen. Ein Team aus Investigativjournalist:innen bewiesen später, das es sich dabei um die griechische Küstenwache handelte.
It is possible that the Bundeswehr ship A1411 Berlin was already present and that the crew watched these events without doing anything. Only when some of the 32 migrants jumped into the water out of desperation and were in danger of drowning, did the crew of the Berlin intervene and pulled the boat ashore. The other two boats appeared the next day in Turkey - 'rescued' by the Turkish Coast Guard after a stand-off between the two Coast Guards in the presence of the A1411 Berlin. In this case the crew of the Berlin may have initiated a rescue, but only after almost a day, which must have been a very traumatic experience for the people in constant fear of death.
And these are just the cases we know about. In addition to the A1411 Berlin, every so often other German Coast Guard ships under Frontex command are present in the Aegean Sea. Here too, there are accusations of involvement in pushbacks. The question arises: How involved is Germany in these inhumane, brutal pushback methods?
A request to the Bundestag by Luise Amtsberg, MP for the Green party, on whether the German government has any knowledge of pushbacks in the Aegean Sea revealed that this cannot be disclosed as it could have "adverse effects on NATO activities [and] bilateral relations between Germany and Greece". Andrej Hunko, MP for the Left party, had also recently asked whether German navy ships under NATO or Frontex command had observed pushbacks. The Federal Ministry of Defence admitted that they had observed one case on 19.06.2020. Nothing was known of this case until then.
The German government distinguishes itself by its striking passivity in dealing with blatant human rights violations, while it shows a remarkable degree of commitment when it comes to amending the law to make it impossible for Mare Liberum to monitor human rights! Since the beginning of 2020, we have learned about approximately 150 pushbacks, which have deprived 5000 people of their right to apply for asylum. During the same period, around 71 migrants have died in the Aegean sea , at least 5 of them in pushbacks. Through its behaviour, the German government is also to blame for these deaths.
We demand an investigation of the behaviour of the crew of the Bundeswehr ship A1411 Berlin!
We demand an independent investigation into German involvement in these systematic human rights violations in the Aegean!
We demand an end to the deadly policy of sealing off Europe's external borders!