Reflections on one year monitoring human rights in the Aegean

Mare Liberum is monitoring human rights in the Aegean Sea by ship, and we are prepared to set sail for the second season of monitoring human rights. Our dedicated volunteers feel the urge to prevent unnecessary deaths at Europe’s maritime border. Mare Liberum aims to observe, document and draw public attention to the dangerous situation at the European border.

It has been one year since Mare Liberum arrived on Lesvos. 1Shortly before we arrived we were sadly reminded why we started the Mare Liberum project. Fourteen people - two families from Iraq and Afghanistan - drowned in the Aegean Sea because their boat sank. Despite being alerted, the Greek Coast Guard did not rescue them. 2During 2018 alone, 174 people lost their lives trying to cross the Aegean Sea. Since the beginning of 2019, sixteen refugees have already drowned. 3On April 11th refugees reported they were “refouled” 4 from Greek waters into Turkish waters. Mare Liberum’s aim is for this not to happen anymore. People are drowning, though they could live if legal and safe passage were offered. We are there to bear witness. People should be rescued and have their human rights respected, without regard to their origins. The lives of refugees should be equally valued to those of people with an EU-passport.

However, even with a good idea and the best of intentions, one still has to go through a lot of legal trouble in order to be able to pursue this idea. But for us, it was and continues to be worth it. One year ago, ahead of our mission, it was our goal to get the ship ready to sail. Many volunteers helped us by painting, de-rusting and so on. Our vanguard and long-term mission coordinator arrived on Lesvos in April 2018 and networked with all the organisations and institutions present there. Soon every volunteer and every Coast Guard member on the island had heard of Mare Liberum, even before we were ready to sail. And this is exactly our goal: authorities in the region should know we are there, watching.

From the beginning

The search and rescue NGO Sea-Watch had performed a monitoring mission in the Aegean in 2017. 5Though their priorities shifted more towards search and rescue in the centrel Mediterranean, they saw the importance of the continuation of an oversight mission in the Aegean. They trusted us to continue the activism for refugees and human rights, and so they supported the founding of Mare Liberum. Not only that, they even sold us their former ship (SEA WATCH 1) for just a single euro.

Upon arrival in Greece, the positive chaos and inspired commotion of 2015 had ceased. Both the number of refugees crossing the maritime border to the European Union (EU) and the number of volunteers receiving them have decreased. Now that the EU-Turkey Deal6 had been implemented, the international attention towards the situation had faded. Coast Guards and the EU border agency FRONTEX are gaining back control of the sea between Turkey and Greece. What hasn’t changed, however, is the fact that too many people die after being shipwrecked and the pressing misery pushing for people’s arrival to Europe continues to worsen. After arrival in the EU, refugees are forced to live in overcrowded camps. The current conditions of refugee Camp Moria 7 serve as a prime example

Furthermore, our arrival was met by a climate of repression and criminalisation. Spotters of Lighthouse Relief 8were being pushed away from their spots. Civilian initiatives to help those people arriving by boat were prevented by the authorities. The Coast Guard was not allowing the search and rescue unit of Refugee Rescue 9 to help people in distress. Just as we were about to start our mission, three volunteers of a search and rescue organisation were arrested on Lesvos. Sean Binder, Nassos Karakitsos and Sara Mardini 10 were amongst the accused and arrested for collaborating with smugglers. It wasn’t until the following December that they were finally released. 11These false allegations and unwarranted arrests are a clear example of the attack on solidarity-organisations in general. Meanwhile, in the central Mediterranean Sea the search and rescue NGO Sea-Eye 12was forced to stop its mission because their flag was withdrawn. Contrastingly, the search and rescue organisation Mission Lifeline 13 was forced to stay out at sea with 234 people on board since they were denied access to the ports. We ourselves had to be very careful with our actions; however, the Seebrücke movement 14 gave us immense support, and backing from Germany pushed us forward to follow through with our plans.

Bringing our mission statement to life

Finally, at the end of August 2018 we had our flag and permission to sail. We navigated to the north of Lesvos which is one main arrival point for refugee boats. We were saluted from the shore and warmly welcomed by our friends working in the town of Skala Sikamineas. Some hours later, Frontex approached us during our dinner to check our papers. It showed us yet again that we were at the right place and that the authorities were aware of our presence. So we celebrated the start of our mission and the very same night we began sending out night shifts, looking out for refugee boats.

After some weeks of monitoring at sea, we realized that it is very difficult to be at the right spot when a boat is arriving. We are not allowed to patrol border alongside Frontex, so either they were always the first to arrive to a boat, or the refugee boats reached land without having been detected. Still, we kept observing. We remained at the ready. An additional approach that we adopted has been to monitor the general situation, investigate political and social developments affecting those on the islands and at sea, and act as a loudspeaker to call more attention to a what has become a neglected issue. 

Spreading the word about Mare Liberum

As tension in the region continues, Mare Liberum continues to be a reliable source for updates from the ground. Due to our ability to take journalists on the water, tangibly show what refugees go through to reach Europe, and explain how the EU’s authorities behave, our shop is often frequented by journalists.

Fortunately, the media’s special coverage of our work caught the attention of the Punk-Rock-Singer Monchi of Feine Sahne Fischfilet. 15Monchi not only visited Lesvos and camp Moria, but he also stayed several nights on the MARE LIBERUM 16 with our crew. We cannot thank him enough for his work in calling more attention to the European border. The band took us on tour with them to all of their concerts and organized events in collaboration with Audiolith, their booking agency, where we could present our work alongside the association Solidarity at Sea. 17 

Solidarity at Sea is managing support to the criminalized volunteers of the IUVENTA-crew. The IUVENTA was used as a search and rescue vessel saving a total of 14,000 people from the sea bordering Libya, before the Italian police seized the ship in 2017. Regardless, some of the former crew members are not afraid to continue working for refugees’ rights with Mare Liberum. 18 We will keep on struggling side by side, as we live by the solidarity and the support of many. 19.

Refugee camp on Samos

Expanding our horizons

In November 2018 we sailed the Mare Liberum to the island of Chios in order to get a better understanding of the situation one hundred kilometers south of Lesvos. We met with local solidarity actors and were taken to and informed about the situation in Vial, the local refugee camp. Again, the Coast Guard visited us 20 and showed us that they were very aware of our presence, which is just what we want. A few months later, in January, we went to Samos to support other local initiatives and obtain a better understanding of the situation on the island, which gets even less international coverage than Lesvos. It was striking to see how a manageable and predictable situation such as the winter was deliberately not being handled properly, showing a complete lack of respect and heavy discomfort for the migrants who are forcibly stuck on the island.

After broadening our scope of activities and expanding our horizons within less than four months of sailing, we ended our first season in the beginning of December. Just like everyone else on Moria and Vial, we had to prepare for winter the best we could.

During these winter months we did several public appearances, informing people about our work and organizing internal workshops. Despite being in between mission seasons, we do not keep quiet. Three years after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, we published a joint statement with several other NGO’s, calling for European leaders to end this humanitarian crisis. 21We also took to the streets, together with refugees, denouncing the policies that force people to either live in horrible conditions or die at sea.

We repaired and prepared our ship to be ready for the next season, which is starting very soon. Many volunteers contributed their time to make this happen. We will continue our mission and to strengthen the support of solidarity and fundamental human rights.

Demonstration in Mytillini on the ocasion of three years EU-Turkey-Deal, 16.3.2019

  6. Many refer to the EU-Turkey-Deal as a dirty, considering that the EU is trading people. The EU pays money to Turkey for taking back refugees who have arrived to Greece via Turkey. Turkey is intercepting about 50 % of refugees-boats now. Before it was only about 20 %. For further info: 
  7. Moria is an EU-hot-spot refugee camp on Lesbos, harboring nearly 9,000 people when there is barely enough space for a third that number. See also: 
  16. See report on Monchi on Mare Liberum: Video: 
  18. see!5543461/ and 
  19. On October 13, 2018 in Berlin, 242,000 people demonstrated for impartible human rights as part of the #unteilbar demonstration. Thanks you to the CCC for hosting us ( and thank you to Plus 1! (!5508734/

Mare Liberum i. A.

Gneisenaustraße 2a
10961 Berlin