Annual Report: The Aegean Sea, where human rights are less and less important

Mare Liberum Annual Report 2019

2019 saw a heightened number of arrivals in the Aegean Sea

In 2019, the number of arrivals via the Aegean Sea reached the highest number since the EU-Turkey deal was struck in spring 2016.1 59,726 migrants reached the Aegean islands – of which about 20% were women, 40% children and 40% men, according to the UNHCR. In comparison, only about 30,000 people had arrived in Greece in 2017 and 2018 in each year. The Aegean Sea was the most important route for fleeing to Europe in 2019; the UNHCR recorded 11,471 arrivals via the Central Mediterranean, while 26,168 people arrived in Spain via the western Mediterranean.2

With the onset of the summer, the number of boats arriving to the Aegean islands began to increase: Around 3,000 migrants arrived in June, there were approximately 5,000 arrivals in July, another 7,000 arrivals in August and in September the number jumped, and peaked, to nearly 11,000 arrivals. The number remained high until the end of the year. Within the last three months of 2019, approximately 28,503 migrants arrived, which is around half of the total number of arrivals for that year.3 On the 29th of August, sixteen boats arrived on Lesvos’ shores. According to Greek authorities, these boats carried a total of 547 people, including 177 men, 124 women and 246 children, making it the largest number of arrivals in a single day since 2016. With the increase in numbers came heightened tension on the islands. These months were filled with riots and protests resultant of further deteriorating living conditions in the extremely overcrowded camps.

In comparison to the number of arrivals, a slightly larger number reflects the number of people – 60,544 – who were rescued or intercepted by the Turkish Coast Guard, ultimately sending them back to Turkey.4 Migrants who are returned to Turkey are arrested by the police and, except for Syrian nationals, normally detained in detention centres. Due to the fact that migrants in Turkey do not have a safe and stable residential status, an attempted crossing to Europe puts them at further risk of deportation under Turkish President Erdoğan’s administration. However, citing the terrible conditions for migrants in Turkey, many have attempted to cross multiple times until they eventually reach the Greek islands.

Human rights violations at sea

Crossing the Aegean Sea in unseaworthy small dinghies is very dangerous. There are numerous conditions that increase the risk of distress, psychological trauma, or death. For one, the natural conditions — winds, waves, rain — are a grand impediment that can cause turbulence in an insecure vessel. Additionally, most of the boats are largely overloaded, with passengers sitting along the sides and often not wearing lifejackets. If they are wearing lifejackets, they are often fake, stuffed with a cheaper foam material that actually sinks rather than floats. The flimsy plastic boats are poorly manufactured and in poor condition and surely not fit to carry 40-50 people, which is the average number of migrants per boat. We noticed that many more boats were being re-used, with duct tape patched holes and missing floorboards. Ultimately, the travellers face the Greek, Turkish and European border guards whose operations are not primarily focused on saving lives but rather on impeding a fast rescue and on protecting Europe’s borders. Therefore, migrants are being swayed to choose even more dangerous routes. We often heard reports of coast guards prolonging rescue operations or using violence against rescued people. 

In 2019, we continued monitoring the situation at the maritime border between Turkey and Greece. Our crew witnessed and documented several incidents in which Frontex personnel as well as the Greek and Turkish coast guards operated on the edge of their legal framework. We want to highlight some of these incidents: 

On August 25, at 06:16am our crew observed a migrant boat approaching Lesvos along the North-East of Cap Korakas, which was then picked up by the Hellenic coast guard. The Greek authorities never dropped off its passengers in the harbour of Mytilene as confirmed by UNHCR staff and several spotting groups. Subsequently, our captain wrote an email to the Hellenic coast guard asking for the whereabouts of the migrants and more information on the incident. We never received a reply. When we went to the coast guard’s office, they confirmed having received our request but stated that they “do not like receiving these types of accusatory emails” and thus would not respond. The “missing” boat has never been accounted for and our investigations were blocked by the Greek authorities but considering several other cases of push backs have been reported, it can be assumed that the boat had been pushed back to Turkey. 

On September 8, the account Through Refugees Eyes posted a video that showed the Turkish coast guard hitting migrants with metal rods, as they were aboard a rubber dinghy attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece.

“Dear coastguard: I hope you never have war in your country and you have to leave. I hope you never face people who have no humanity in their heart as you have no humanity in yours. I just wanted to let you know that water might have more mercy on these people than you do.” 5

Our crew was able to contact some of the migrants that were on the rubber dinghy after they had been released from Turkish prison. We were able to verify the video and collect further testimonies from the person who filmed the attacks, followed by further interviews with recent arrivals in order to assess the pervasiveness of coast guard abuses. 

In general, our crew on the ship was able to observe and document patterns of cooperation between Frontex, the Greek and Turkish coast guard: Frontex boats together with the Hellenic coast guard are patrolling the border line aiming at protecting their EU external borders from people seeking protection. Once they spot migrant boats in Turkish territorial waters, Hellenic coast guard units inform their Turkish counterparts for the boats to be intercepted before reaching Greek waters. Migrants are then picked up by the Turkish coast guard, sent to prison or detention centres before many of them make another attempt to cross. 6

By opting to pass off the responsibility for those on the boat to the Turkish authorities, the Greek coast guard perpetuates existing border enforcement strategies that make it more difficult and dangerous for those seeking asylum to reach safety. This process, often described as the externalization of EU borders, blocks migrants before they even reach European shores. This strategy is an enactment of policies created under the EU-Turkey deal of 2016, in which Turkey is promised to receive €6 billion over the course of several years to prevent those on the move from reaching Europe. The fact that the Hellenic and Turkish coast guards are cooperating to intercept dinghies shows that they make very strong efforts to prevent people from crossing the borderline – despite the fact that Turkey cannot be considered a safe country for migrants. 7

The realities of crossing

The realities migrants face when crossing the Aegean are often unimaginable. People cross under dangerous conditions, in unseaworthy dinghies, are being pushed or pulled back to Turkey and arrested time and time again. In June, we interviewed a Palestinian psychologist from Gaza, who was pulled back to Turkey 12 times by the Turkish coast guard before he finally arrived in Lesvos. He left the unbearable situation Gaza to find safety and piece in Europe but is currently living in the hotspot camp in Moria on Lesvos.

“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 kilometre 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.” 8

He even described one instance that was clearly a push back, though we should note that it is not confirmed what type of vessel actually made the illegal manoeuvre:

“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.” 9

Commemorating those who lost their lives at sea

 Foto: Daniel Kubirski

According to IOMs Missing Migrants Project, 71 migrants lost their lives in the Aegean Sea in 2019.10 The number of unrecorded cases is most probably much higher as shipwrecks and the loss of lives at sea can either go unreported or unknown. The Welcome2Europe network regularly holds commemoration ceremonies to commemorate all those who lost their lives at the borders of Europe in an attempt to reach safety for themselves and for their families. In October, our team participated in the renewal of a memorial in Korakas, Lesvos that was established to remember the many children that died in a shipwreck on 27 October 2009. One year after the shipwreck, Welcome2Europe set up a memorial next to the Korakas lighthouse where the victims had drowned. In 2019, the memorial site was refurbished, and the memories rejuvenated, in commemoration of all those that make the ultimate sacrifice in search of safety.

“Together we renew the memorial we had set up here 9 years ago when we came with little Marila and her parents in October 2010. We remembered together with them the night on 27 October 2009, when they had been on a boat together with Afghan women, their small children and some minors. Short before landing at Korakas, the boat flipped over and all people fell in the sea. Yalda (8), Neda (10), Mehdi (4), Zakia, Tsima, Sonia (6), Abdulfasl (3) and Zomaya lost their lives. The baby Marila and her parents were rescued by Stratis, a brave fisherman who jumped into the water to save them. One year later they came together to meet again. And we put this memorial on the lighthouse to commemorate." 11

Only a few days after the memorial service, on 27 September 2019, one baby, four children, and two women drowned after a migrant boat capsized off the coast of Chios. Along with Lesvos, the islands of Chios and Samos remain as target destinations for many migrants attempting to enter Europe. When Mare Liberum travelled to Samos in June, we met Mahmoud who actually managed to swim to Samos from the Turkish coast, but he lost his friends in the waves:

“Sitting in the sun, with an absent-minded look, is Mahmoud. His friends say he is crazy. Mahmoud crossed the Aegean swimming from Turkey to Samos with his friend Abdul because they could not afford to pay the smugglers. At sea they became separated. Mahmoud immediately alarmed the police when he arrived on the island. After an unsuccessful search and 17 days without news, Abdul’s body was found. Mahmoud and a group of other refugees held a small funeral for Abdul.” 12

Living conditions for migrants equate Moria to hell

Foto: Dylan Lebecki

Year after year, alarming reports about the horrible living conditions for refugees in the European hotspots on the Greek islands continue to accumulate and worsen. With more arrivals - and the number of relocations to the Greek mainland remaining low - the living conditions in the hotspots, especially in Moria on Lesvos, have deteriorated to inarguably inhumane levels far worse than what migrants have experienced in previous years. Towards the end of September tensions in Moria reached a tipping point, when a fire broke out in the camp, that was caused by a lack of electrical breaker maintenance. Together with the WatchTheMed Alarm Phone and Welcome2Europe we published a statement condemning the living conditions and calling for the closure of Moria camp. A few quotes from the statement:

“Yesterday, on Sunday 29 September 2019, a fire broke out in the so-called hotspot of Moria on Lesvos Island in Greece. A woman and probably also a child lost their lives in the fire and it remains unclear how many others were injured. We raise our voices in solidarity with the people of Moria and demand once again: The only possibility to end this suffering and dying is to open the islands and to have freedom of movement for everybody. Those who arrive on the islands have to continue their journeys to hopefully find a place of safety and dignity elsewhere. We demand ferries to transfer the exhausted and re-traumatised people immediately to the Greek mainland. We need ferries not Frontex.” 13

Deportations from the Greek islands to Turkey within the framework of the EU-Turkey deal are still happening regularly. In July we talked to Farid about his experience of being sent back to the country he fled from, who had been deported from Lesvos to Turkey and then from Turkey to Iraq. He described the situation in the Turkish prison:

“The prison [in Turkey] 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. 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.” 14

The situation in Chios and Samos similarly difficult

A crew of Mare Liberum activists travelled to Samos and Chios in June 2019, where conditions for refugees are horrendous. Lesvos remains the prime destination for migrants, and it is also the operational center for humanitarian and human rights NGOs. The other Greek islands do not receive the same amount of attention or resources, and while there are NGOs operating, there are far fewer. In Samos, we went to the infamous camp where the “hotspot” pours over the hills onto the outskirts of town. Its official capacity is 650 residents, but when we visited, around 3,200 refugees were living there according to the UNHCR. Other NGOs believe the number of occupants is actually far higher, closer to 5,000 migrants. The overcrowded facilities, lack of basic hygiene, and infestation of rodents and snakes are all motives for concern and constitute human rights violations by any standard. A resident of the camp shot a two-minute video of camp for us, showcasing the appalling conditions. 15

We met with many organizations working on Samos and Chios, giving us the opportunity to exchange information and concerns about the happenings within the Aegean region. Everyone we spoke to in Samos asked us to return again and to remain present there. Several NGOs like Samos Volunteers and Refugee4Refugees are actively working on the islands to give migrants much needed support by offering educational spaces and activities, legal support, or aid in the distribution of tents, sleeping bags and hygiene products. However, Bogdan, one of the volunteers we spoke to, says the conditions in the camp do not seem to be improving; instead they are getting worse: “Nothing functions. Everything is broken. What do you want to prioritize? I don't want to prioritize anymore.” We were particularly lucky to meet Sofian, who runs a grocery store that offers Arabic products but at the same time his store serves as an open space for welcoming refugees. Sofian himself arrived in Samos as a refugee from Algeria many years ago and now helps other refugees in finding a place to sleep and work, all the while acting as familiar face and source of moral support. 16

Later, we also sailed to Chios and met with local activists and NGOs working on the island. The conditions we witnessed in the local hotspot Vial were similarly horrifying. 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 on the daily lives of residents and neighbours. NGOs on the island provide for most of the services and provisions, including medical care and the distribution of basic goods. The 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. Fascist groups, like the neo-Nazi, fascist political party Golden Dawn, were very active and engaged in violent attacks on refugees on numerous occasions over the years. Security tensions still run high and there is a great amount of fear considering refugees still remember the violence of 2016, when locals threw rocks and molotov cocktails.17

Shrinking Space for human rights defenders in Greece

All across Europe, people are being criminalized for their solidarity work with migrants. Citizens are being targeted for helping migrants reach police stations, offering them food and shelter in border regions, or rescuing them at sea. Public prosecutors in Italy are investigating against Carola Rackete and the Iuventa10. Prosecutors in Malta are working against the three youngsters from the ElHiblu. The French judiciary have spoken out against Cédric Herrou. And these are just a few examples.

Volunteers and activists in Greece are likewise being criminalized for their solidarity work. For example, Sara Mardini, Sean Binder and Nassos Karakitsos, who are active in shore response efforts in the south of Lesvos, were arrested in August 2018 and released on bail only after more than 100 days in custody. The authorities accused them of espionage, smuggling, and membership in a criminal network, but the case still hasn't been brought to court. Thus, leaving them still facing an uncertain future even after 18 months. Salam Aldeen from Team Humanity, who had been targeted for his solidarity work in Greece in the past, was again arrested at the end of 2019. On 27 December, he was finally released without charges after 16 days in prison but with the order to leave Greece within three days.

We at Mare Liberum feel this closing space as well. These cases of defamation and criminalization are conscientious attempts to intimidate civil society, to tear down solidarity, and to further the divide between us - Europeans - and them - migrants. But we refuse to be intimidated. We will not be divided. We will take a stand against the injustices we see. Now more than ever, we are determined to stand up for our rights, for the rights of other civil society organisations, and, above all, for the rights of refugees. Those who shy away in response to these threats or remain silent ultimately leave our fate in the hands of anti-democratic forces.

Mare Liberum wins appeal in court

ntimidations do not only target individual people directly. In 2019 we were fighting a court case in Germany concerning whether our ship, the Mare Liberum was correctly registered as non-commercial vessel in Germany. 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. Ironically enough, the authorities were 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 13 May, the Berufsgenossenschaft Verkehr appealed against the ruling. On 5 September the higher administrative court of Hamburg confirmed the decision in their second instance decision. 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 under the operational watch of its international crew of volunteers. We can therefore continue our human rights monitoring mission at sea.18

Towards 2020

Despite the legal case, we were operational from May until the beginning of December 2019. We see ourselves as the ‘civil eye’ in this highly militarized border zone. Our presence as an independent observer, our corresponding documentation and informative media work are thus important in influencing the situation migrants face at sea.

Since the political situation of Europe’s external borders is not likely to change for the better, we will continue our mission in 2020. According to the IOM, 63 people already lost their lives in the Aegean Sea in just the first month of 2020.19 With arrivals continuing in such high numbers, the situation for refugees on the islands is getting more and more desperate. We are convinced to put our efforts towards changing the dangerous situation migrants endure in crossing the Aegean Sea. Mare Liberum will continue to fight for safe passage and freedom of movement for everyone.


  1. The number of arrivals via the land route or rather the Evros river remains high. In 2019, 14,887 people reached Greece via this route according to UNHCR. Pushbacks by Greek authorities are the order of the day (https://bit.ly/2RiGxwk). 
  2. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179 
  3. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179 
  4. https://en.sg.gov.tr/irregular-migration-statistics-in-the-aegean-sea 
  5. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=532092830664474 
  6. https://www.facebook.com/MareLiberumOfficial/photos/a.198832504178994/508742946521280/ 
  7. Besides, Turkey is not safe for many of its citizens likewise. 
  8. Translated from englisch. 
  9. https://mare-liberum.org/de/news/who-will-be-held-responsible-for-these-crimes-at-sea 
  10. https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean?migrant_route%5B%5D=1377 
  11. https://bit.ly/2vARCQQ  
  12. https://mare-liberum.org/de/news/alarming-conditions-for-refugees-in-samos 
  13. http://Lesbos.w2eu.net/2019/09/30/this-was-not-an-accident/ 
  14. https://mare-liberum.org/de/news/i-was-like-a-bird-in-a-cage-looking-for-freedom 
  15. https://vimeo.com/340971725 
  16. More information on the situation on Samos: https://mare-liberum.org/de/news/alarming-conditions-for-refugees-in-samos 
  17. More information on the situation on Chios: https://mare-liberum.org/en/news/right-wing-tendencies-in-chios-and-greece-threaten-safety-of-refugees-and-activists 
  18. https://mare-liberum.org/de/news/court-rejects-political-attack-on-solidarity-with-refugees 
  19. https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean?migrant_route%5B%5D=1377

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