Court rejects political attack on solidarity with refugees
Read this text in Greek: Greek Court decision.pdf
The human rights monitoring organisation Mare Liberum, registered in Berlin as a non-profit, is operating a 20 meter long vessel under German flag in the Aegean Sea, also called “Mare Liberum”. The ship is patrolling the waters around the Greek islands where refugees are trying to cross from Turkey. The mission of the vessel is to spot boats in distress that cannot be spotted from shore, as well as monitoring and documenting illegal push-backs by Greek, Turkish and EU authorities.
The government of Germany is trying to block us from doing this important work, but two administrative courts in a row have ruled in our favour and deemed the registration of our vessel legal for the kind of volunteer work we are providing in defence of human rights for refugees.
The Mare Liberum is a former fishing vessel which had been converted into a motor yacht decades ago. Since then, it had been consistently registered as a non-commercial ship. By demand of the German Federal Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Berufsgenossenschaft Verkehr as the national ship safety authority had previously ordered Mare Liberum to stay in port in order to hinder us from helping people in need and saving lives. Ironically enough, the authorities are citing safety concerns, unlawfully requesting a small motor yacht to fulfil safety standards for large commercial vessels, that are not even binding for government-owned rescue cutters.
After the Administrative Court of Hamburg had already blocked this seizure from staying into effect on 13th of May, the authorities have appealed the ruling. The Higher Administrative Court of Hamburg has now confirmed the decision in their second instance decision on 5th of September 2019.
Both courts came to the conclusion that the ship Mare Liberum is correctly registered as a non-profit vessel, and is allowed to continue sailing, being operated by its international crew of volunteers. We can therefore continue our important human rights monitoring mission, ensuring that both international law and human dignity are respected along this part of the European Union border.
Over the past two weeks, the Mare Liberum crew witnessed various landings of migrant boats and is investigating a possible illegal pull-back. Over this past month alone, approximately 8.000 people crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands, meaning the number of arrivals has increased 55.3% compared to July of this year. It is the highest number of crossings since 2016. The majority of the refugees trying to cross stem from the war-torn countries of Syria and Afghanistan. The numbers of children among those fleeing are staggering.
Considering the recent statements of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it is possible that he is building pressure for the enlargement of his power beyond Turkish borders. President Erdoğan stated: “How will Turkey bear the burden of 4 million refugees?..there will be no solution left but to open the gates. Should the onus remain on us alone to always be considering [this matter]?” Various sources on the ground affirm that he might be purposefully letting more boats pass over the sea border into Greece in an attempt to strongarm the European Union into allowing the establishment of a refugee safe-zone in the mostly Kurdish area of northern Syria. If this is the case, our monitoring vessel is greatly needed at sea to ensure that migrant boat interceptions are done legally and the coast guard is responding adequately to what may be a continual increase in distressed vessels.
Greece has responded to the surge in migrant arrivals with a worrisome seven point plan that will increase border surveillance in conjunction with the European Union’s border patrol agency Frontex and NATO, boost police patrols across Greece to identify rejected asylum seekers and deport them, and abolish the second stage of appeals in the refugee asylum process. Government spending on further militarization and deportation is undoubtedly being prioritized over humanitarian action. Mare Liberum urges the new Greek government to ensure that search and rescue missions at sea are handled efficiently, legally, and with human rights at the forefront of policy decisions.
Germany has the responsibility to use its resources and influence for the betterment of safe passage for migrants. The federal government must allow more refugees to continue their journeys to Germany.
The Higher Administrative Court’s ruling should lead to the German government finally dropping the case against Mare Liberum and stop harassing human rights defenders. Rather than attempting to sabotage solidarity organisations, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure and all other government institutions should support the fight for human rights for all. The vessel Eleonore of Mission Lifeline is also a German-flagged human rights monitoring vessel that is being seized by the Italian government. Hopefully the Mare Liberum case will set the proper precedent and they will be as successful in court later on as we were today.
Now that we are able to continue with our operations, we are in need of funds to continue with our mission. Become a valuable part of our work by contributing to Mare Liberum on the crowdfunding page
Migrants keep coming to the Greek islands
Despite the EU-Turkey deal, migrants keep making the dangerous treck to Europe in search of a decent future. According to the NGO Aegean Boat Report, 2.198 migrants reached the Greek islands between the 1st and the 11th of August.
Most of them arrived on the island of Lesvos, followed by Samos, Kos and Chios. From the 5th to the 12th of August 2019, about 1.400 refugees came to Lesvos on around 26 boats. That might be the highest number of migrants arriving on the Greek Aegean islands in a two week time span since years. Most of the migrants come from Afghanistan (35%), Syria (16%), Kongo, Iraq and Palestine.
Up to the 4th of August, the UNHCR has counted a total of 18.474 arrivals on the Greek islands in 2019. At least 57 have died during the passage in the Eastern Mediterranean.
However, the Turkish Coast Guard has stopped more than 1.400 refugees since 1st of August placing them under temporary arrest in Turkey. There has also been a report of at least another illegal pushback by the Turkish Coast Guard, while the Greek Coast Guard just stood by.
This is more evidence that migration can neither be prohibited nor stopped. We still need a safe passage for migrants and the right to migrate.
The photo shows Greek and Turkish coast guards work together to illegally push back migrants to Turkey on April, 11. Photo: alarmphone.org
"I was like a bird in a cage looking for freedom."
We chatted with a man who was recently deported from Lesvos to Iraq. The Greek authorities took him from Moria Hotspot Camp to Turkey. From there he was taken to Iraq. It was a tragic experience for Farid (changed name). However, he is not the only one. More and more refugees are facing the same problem. They are deported to countries they wanted to leave in the first place. Unfortunately, such deportations are everyday examples of the structural violence of the border regime.
Farid came to Europe because he had political problems and no longer felt safe in his country: " Humanity is bleeding because of weapons makers and clergymen", Farid openly expresses his opinion about the role of the USA, Great Britain, Israel, Russia and criticises clearly terrorists as well as clergymen. However, the Greek authorities rejected his asylum application. That was after he reached Lesbos and was taken to the Moria hotspot camp. That's how Farid got into the deportation system.
First he was isolated in detention for 10 days in the closed section of the Moria Hotspot Camp. When asked how he had felt, he replies: "I was like a bird in a cage looking for freedom".
In the afternoon of 2nd July 2019, the authorities took him to the port of Mytilini. He knew what was coming. The previous day he had been told by the authorities to prepare for deportation. The deportation to Turkey was carried out by ferry. "The Greeks sent me politely. We were not handcuffed," stresses Farid.
In Turkey, the group of rejected refugees was handed over to the Turkish police. The police immediately took them to a prison near Izmir. Farid describes the prison as a bad experience: "The prison was overcrowded. There were no beds, only blankets to sleep on. Access to the toilet was restricted. Communication with the outside world was also forbidden. The police shouted all the time. I also saw a policeman kicking someone wildly with his feet."
Farid stayed in this prison for two days. Then the police handcuffed him and brought him to a bus. "It was a big, crowded bus. We were handcuffed during the whole time. Five policemen with guns kept us under constant observation. Access to the toilet was again restricted. When it was my turn, the policeman forced me to clean the toilet. They humiliated us."
After 23 hours, the bus reached the border to Iraq. The Turkish police removed the handcuffs from the refugees and handed them over to the Iraqi police.
Fortunately, no one was arrested. Today Farid is free. However, he has to live with the same problems he faced before his emigration and he risked his life to get to Europe for nothing. In whose favour?
I tried 13 times before I reached the Greek islands
Our interview partner is a Palestinian psychologist from Gaza. He left Gaza to come to Europe. Currently he lives living in the hotspot camp in Moria on Lesvos. Before he arrived on Lesvos, he was pulled back 12 times by the Turkish coast guard and once even pushed back by German Frontex. This interview helped us grasp what it is to be on dangerous dinghies, pushed and pulled back to Turkey and arrested again and again.
Could you explain how you came to the Greek islands?
In Izmir, I was looking for someone who brings me to Greece. I found a person without too much effort. My first try took place in the end of January 2019. Our boat left the Turkish shore at midnight. We could only move very slowly because we were 45 persons on an only 9-meter long dinghy. One kilometer before reaching the Greek waters, the Turkish Coast Guard saw us. They crashed against our vessel two times to stop us. After that we were picked up onto their boat. Basically, the Turkish coast guard treated us well. However, they informed us that we were doing an illegal thing and that they will bring us to Aydin - a Turkish jail. The jail was clean. I saw only a few persons there. After three days they let me out. I think, this is because the Turkish Government is close to the Palestinians. With another nationality, things could have been different.
You tried to cross the Aegean Sea several times. How was it figured out who will drive the boat?
I knew that the drivers of the boat could get into serious problems if the Greece authorities caught them. The smugglers also know this. The drivers are mainly persons who don’t have enough money for the passage. This is the price they pay for the passage. Sometimes the drivers don’t have any experience on sea. They just know that they have to target a red light on the Greek shore.
What about the other attempts?
Out of jail, I met again the person who tried to bring me to Europe the first time. He brought me to a two-room-apartment. I stayed with 25 other persons. We were not allowed to leave the apartment. In the night a small bus took 45 of us to a place from where the boats are starting. But in that night, the Turkish coast Guard caught us again. While they tore me out of the dinghy, my shoulder dislocated. I asked for help but no doctor came. Not even the next day in jail. They kept me five days in jail before letting me out. Again I went to the person that was supposed to bring me to Europe. I tried four further times with him. Each time I had to pay 240 Dollar for the apartment and 700 Dollar for the passage if I would have succeeded. But with him I was never successful. Once we were even stopped before we reached the dinghy. We were so many in the bus that we couldn’t breathe anymore. The bus was stopped and the police discovered us and brought us to jail again. I decided to look for another person to bring me to Europe.
What about your experiences with this second person trying to bring you to Europe?
I realized the dinghies were to slow because we were too many. So I was looking for a better option. I found someone that promised to bring me to Greece on a boat with fewer passengers. First, I had to pay 40 lira per day for a hotel room and for each try he asked 100 lira in advance. In case of a successful passage I would have to pay 700 dollars. I accepted the deal. However, he cheated: On the boat we were 37 instead of the 25 we agreed on. One more time, the Turkish coast guard stopped us and brought us to Yabangi, another prision. Yabangi was dirty and worse than Aydin. I stayed there for three nights. Then they let me out and I wanted to try again. Every time, I had to pay, pay, pay. I tried five times with this person. We were always much more than the promised 25 persons. Finally I changed strategy. Some people said that I could only make it with a speedboat.
Did you find a person with a speedboat?
Yes, I found this man in March 2019. He proposed a passage on a speedboat with only 16 persons on board for 1200 euro. I accepted the deal. But when we reached the boat, I realized that he also fooled me. Instead of a speedboat, I saw a normal dinghy. Some insisted on getting life jackets for the children. However, we had to leave without life jackets because there was no time. The situation was tense. That night, the Turkish coast guard didn’t stop us. For the first time, I entered Greek waters. There a German Frontex vessel intercepted us. They said that we have to wait for the Greek coast guard and they would bring us to the Greek shore. But instead, the Turkish Coast Guard came. Although we were in Greek waters, they pulled us back to Turkey. We got no further information.
Why did you know that you were in Greek water?
The people that sent us were watching us from the hills on shore. They were in contact with one person on the boat. At one point, they called us and said we crossed the border. On the dinghies there is always such a contact person and a second person with a GPS.
How did your last border crossing take place?
That night, the sea was extremely agitated. Water came into our boat. It was dangerous but the Turkish coast guard didn’t catch us. After we crossed the border, the Greek coast guard picked us up and brought us to the port of Mytilini on Lesvos. They treated us well.
Now you are in Europe. You said it was a dream to come to Europe. How is your life here?
If I would have known how life would be here I would never have come. I expected a better situation. In Gaza, I lived in camps. Now in Europe I lived in another camp. This is a big problem. I hope that my asylum application will be accepted. I would continue my journey to find a better life.
Did you get information regarding your rights as an asylum seeker?
Yes I got information. But when you see things, you realize that there is a difference between words and reality. I will give you an example. They said there are rooms, a kitchen, toilets and showers in the Hotspot Camp in Moria. Now in Moria, I am living in a tent burning hot during the day, I have to share six toilets with 600 others and I spend a lot of time waiting in a line for a toilet or food.
You had a lot of problems getting to Europe. What do you think is the reason for this?
Ask the Greek government for an answer but not me. I am here because I had problems in my country. But I cannot cause a problem here by criticizing the government. I hope to find a job and a good life later. Here I have to be patient.
Right wing tendencies in Chios and Greece threaten safety of refugees and activists
The island of Chios, located in the Aegean Sea, is the unforgiving ‘temporary’ home of around 2000 refugees. The vast majority of them live in Vial refugee camp, located 6.8km from Chios’ main port and town. Vial is no exception to most refugee camps in Greece; the conditions are dire and overcrowded, toilets are lacking, the food is appalling, snakes and rats are incessantly intruding residents and neighbors. NGOs on the island provide for most of the services and provisions, including medical care and the distribution of basic goods. Chios Eastern Shore Response Team (CESRT), for example, provides for 90% of the provisions of Vial camp according to their founder Toula Kitromilidi, who is a Chios local.
One of the main difficulty’s refugees face in their asylum process, according to a local legal organization, is that the process is very unfair. People are not informed about their rights or the procedural steps required, which are very long and complicated. Some interviews are being scheduled for as late as 2023, and the interviews themselves can last as long as 9 hours where people relive traumas and revisit very painful parts of their past.
In contrast to the miserable condition’s refugees experience on Chios, Chios itself has always been a wealthy island and even the Greek financial crisis of the last decade barely touched it. Attitudes from locals in Chios have, over the years, shifted with regards to refugees. When the first boats began arriving on the island in 2015, people were supportive. Local groups of people cooked for the arrivals in the park to show their solidarity with the refugees, and they made up to 700 meals per day. Once refugees were taken to the no longer existing Souda camp, local teachers and Jenny, a local activist, organized open playgrounds for the children of all the camps and supported refugees along with other friends. As Jenny points out, even those who did not actively help refugees were accepting of them because “in the beginning, many refugees came from wealthy families, they slept in hotels, went to restaurants and in some cases were taken advantage of, with locals charging them up to 10 euros for a sandwich or 5 euros for a bottle of water.”
Currently, however, apart from Jenny and her group of solidarity friends, and a few other local NGOs including CESRT and FEOX, public perception of refugees has shifted. Disinformation and misinformation about refugees feed xenophobic attitudes, and perceptions range from people fearing that refugees on Chios are there to convert society and religion into Islam, or that people should not get too close to refugees because they might catch an illness.
Added to the mix, the neo-Nazi, fascist political party Golden Dawn and other likeminded informal groups like the no longer active Committee Against Refugees (Παγχιακή Επι