The reportage is about the work on our ship Mare Liberum, monitoring the human rights situation in the Aegean. The photographer Valerio Muscella portrayed the crew during the last mission of the year.
Sentinels of the Sea: why NGOs like Mare Liberum are important now more than ever
At dawn, when the first rays of light begin to reflect on the Aegean waters, Mare Liberum’s onboard radio continues to crackle, belching out numbers, coordinates and requests for Turkish Coast Guard (TCG) intervention from the European Coast Guards (ECGs). Only last night, these radiowave communications resulted in the arrest of over 297 people by the Turkish authorities.(Data 2019.11.18 from https://www.sg.gov.tr/) Meanwhile, watching from the bow, the crew can see another military ship gliding across the sea as they prepare for a new monitoring shift. After setting sail again a few days ago for a new mission, the Mare Liberum ship is anchored in Greek waters, merely a few hundred meters away from the maritime border with Turkey. The main objective is to monitor the northern waters off of Lesvos’ shores to ensure that illegal push and pull backs are not being carried out by the various authorities involved in the monitoring missions and that the different European Coast Guards – engaged in FRONTEX operations to control Greek waters – are following the agreed upon procedures for properly carrying out their search and rescue activities (SAR) at sea.
The EU - Turkey deal (2016).
Four years ago, the governments of the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey, officially delegating the management of the eastern migratory flow of asylum seekers to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This deal established that all those entering Greece from Turkey without having asked for international protection (the so-called economic migrants) and "those [migrants] whose application has been found unfounded or inadmissible [...] will be returned to Turkey” 2. In particular, pursuant to the agreement, the National Law n. 4375/2016 has provided that any application from an asylum seeker who transited through Turkey to arrive to the EU is presumed inadmissible, by virtue of the fact that Turkey, since 2016, is considered to be a "safe third country" and the applicant should therefore have requested international protection in Turkey.3 Nevertheless, as argued by a multitude of legal experts and human rights advocates, including research stemming from the IOM, Turkey does not meet the criteria of a “safe third country,” but it is being used as a border management tool regardless of that fact.4 In the EU-Turkey deal’s execution, and to establish if a person’s asylum application is admissible or not, Greece has adopted a special "fast-track border procedure” 5 which greatly reduces the guarantees for an asylum seeker. Depending on the nationality of the asylum seeker, this accelerated border procedure is implemented differently. 6 Applications submitted by Syrian asylum seekers are only examined in terms of admissibility, so once they are satisfied that he has transited from Turkey, which is considered a safe third country, his application is deemed inadmissible. For the Syrian asylum seeker, the only hope for not being sent back to Turkey is to establish at this stage - in which authorities have to decide if his application is admissible or not - that Turkey is not a safe country in their specific circumstance. Applications by non-Syrian asylum seekers from countries with a recognition rate of asylum status of over 25% are examined on both admissibility and merits, the so called “merged procedure”. Only applications from non-Syrian asylum seekers from countries with an asylum recognition rate of less than 25% are examined instead on the merits. The accelerated border procedure does not apply to vulnerable groups nor people who are under the family provisions of the Dublin III rules. (Regulation (EU) No 604/2013 of the “European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2013 establishing the criteria and mechanisms for determining the Member State responsible for examining an application for international protection lodged in one of the Member States by a third-country national or a stateless person”.)
Surveillance of the EU's external maritime borders: a dirty game.
After accepting a total compensation of €6 billion in addition to assuming the burden of accepting returns, Turkey has also officially committed to preventing, in all possible ways, “irregular migrants” from reaching Europe. To date, the maritime control of the narrow corridor most commonly used to reach the Greek islands from Turkey is a joint activity that involves the Turkish Coast Guard on one side, and the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex vessels (eg ships from Croatia, Italy etc.) on the other, all with the additional support of three NATO warships and helicopters. During their patrolling activities of territorial waters, the European Coast Guard aims to use their radars to detect migrants boats that are still in Turkish waters, before they manage to cross the border. After spotting the inflatables, they communicate the coordinates to the corresponding Turkish authorities, asking them to immediately take action and block them. This operation prevents the European CGs from needing to become involved in rescue operations in Greek waters, which would mean the automatic obligation to safely transfer migrants to the mainland, adding an extra burden for the Greek Government to accept more asylum applications and manage the reception of more people. However, there have been multiple reports of such military operations leading to violations by the Turkish Coast Guard; for instance, when the Turkish Coast Guard crossed the marine border, entering Greek territorial waters to "capture" migrants, who had, by then, officially entered European territory but brings them back to Turkey.7, 8, 9 In other cases, the Hellenic Coast Guard has been documented as coercively blockading new migrant arrivals. There are accounts of them creating strong waves that put the small boats in danger, pushing them back into Turkish waters.10, 11 Moreover, always in Greek waters, incidents involving unspecified individuals with masked faces continue to be recorded. These individuals, aboard light motorboats, have threatened migrants who had already arrived in Greek waters, forcing them to retreat again to Turkish waters and to be arrested by the Turkish authorities.12 In both cases, these examples of refoulement of asylum seekers who had already entered European waters, represent overbearing episodes of arbitrary and illegal pushbacks, which profoundly harm the individuals’ rights to request international protection.
According to official data,13 since the first of January 2017 to today 4,028 boats were stopped by the TCG and the Turkish Police capturing a total of 142,438 people. Of these, thus far in 2019 the TCG intercepted 2,560 boats at sea, for a total of 84,166 people.
Migrant Arrivals In Greece in 2019. Source: UNHCR
The direct and indirect consequences of the European policies concerning “the externalization of borders”.
What is certain so far, is that the questionable choice to externalize European borders, by delocalizing the "immigration problem", is not stopping arrivals nor migratory flows. The European repressive policies are only creating new routes --demonstrated by the fact that among the top first 10 nationalities of asylum seekers present in Greece, there are people hailing from Congo, Palestine and Algeria, people who until a few years ago traveled almost exclusively along the route of the central and western Mediterranean 14-- as well as contributing to the growing number of deaths throughout the Mediterranean.15 In 2018, 56 people were registered as either dead or missing in the Aegean Sea. Thus far in 2019, 71 people have lost their lives attempting to reach the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros, Kos and Symi.16 These men, women and children died trying to reach safety, fleeing the madness of war, persecution and misery. In practicality, the EU-Turkey agreement strongly limits the right for forced migrants to request international protection and to live in a safe country where they can enjoy their fundamental human rights. From the legal point of view, the lack of legitimacy of the deals made with third countries is obvious. This is true not only in the case of destabilized countries which currently do not even have a real government, like Libya (for which even the United Nations have declared that the situation is terrible)17, but also in the case of countries considered more reliable in terms of international relations like Turkey. In particular, the absurdity of considering Turkey a "safe third country" (and therefore resulting in the inadmissibility of applications for international protection of those who have arrived to Greece from Turkey where, according to the European governments, they should have to apply for asylum) is exemplified by the fact that the country did not sign the Additional Protocol of the Geneva Convention, which guarantees, to every person, the right to ask for international protection, without any geographical restrictions. (Turkey has in fact only ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention - which is applicable only to events that occurred before 1951 and with the so-called "geographical reserve" which granted asylum only to Europeans citizens - but never adhered to the next "Protocol relating to the status of refugee” of 1967, which removed these limitations. This makes Turkey de facto exempt from any obligation to non-European citizens who arrive in the country to seek asylum. It is important to remember that in Turkey the right to asylum continues to be guaranteed only to Europeans, while Syrians can only ask for so called "temporary protection". All other applicants can only receive a "conditional refugee" permit (which does not allow them to receive many of the essential services guaranteed to those who have asylum. These limitations (for example, they need a specific permit to work) are justified by the fact that their permanence in Turkey is temporary and is allowed until, after having applied to a UNHCR office, they arerelocated to another country.) while waiting to be transferred to a third country. Additional concerns have been raised by international human rights observers regarding the mass deportations of Syrians from Turkey to the territories recently conquered by the Turkish government in Northern Syria,18, 19 as ordered by President Erdogan’s government. Therefore, how is it possible to assume that all migrants can feel safe in Turkey? How can we say that an asylum seeker in Turkey can enjoy the same rights that he or she would enjoy in Europe?
The importance of the NGO missions in the Mediterranean Sea.
We are living in a historical moment characterised by misleading interpretations of international law. Today, many governments are easily succumbing to the logic of nationalist and sovereign policies, signing agreements with third countries to keep asylum seekers confined outside of Fortress Europe. Never before has the role of NGOs been so complex and of such vital importance.
For this reason, Mare Liberum continues its monitoring mission, keeping a watchful eye on governments’ and European Coast Guards’ actions in order to guarantee the respect for the rights of migrants trying to find safety through Greece. The ship’s presence acts also as a preventative measure to ensure that the European CGs correctly carry out the rescue operations to which they are obliged. Arbitrary episodes of violent push backs are most likely to occur in the absence of human rights organizations’ ability to document them. Mare Liberum, as well as other organizations involved in SAR and monitoring operations, are the eyes and ears of civil society, they are the sentinels that are safeguarding the respect for human rights at sea. Raise the anchor again. Hold the ship’s wheel firmly. Take to the sea. Whether in the Central Mediteranian or in the Aegean Sea, saving a single life is equivalent to saving the whole world.
Who will be held responsible for these crimes at sea?
Description: Map displaying the land/river border connecting Turkey and Greece (highlighted in red) and the land/river border connecting Turkey and Bulgaria (highlighted in orange)
The stretch of land connecting Turkey to Europe has long been a zone of migratory transit, and historically was the main route by which early humans coming from the “fertile crescent” of the Middle East—meaning present day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, and Jordan—brought knowledge of farming and agriculture to the west. 1 The modern concept of borders, and the even more nascent prioritization of closing them, has not only changed the way we trade goods and ideologies, but it feeds a kind of primitive tribalism that allows for certain societal groups to determine who lives and who dies.
In 2012, the Greek government and the European Border agency, Frontex, collaborated to seal off this stretch of land, which was considered to be the leak in the faucet allowing thousands of migrants to emigrate into the west. The 130 km long area connecting Turkey and Greece’s Evros region is mostly riverbed with a few points of land connection. The European Union (EU) first lined the land with a human wall of nearly 2,000 border guards, but it soon became a 3.0 m tall barrier of barbed wire and fence. Turkey’s 269 km border with Bulgaria was also soon closed off by a similar fence fortified with razor wire coils.
Since then, many migrants choose to travel to Europe by sea.
Description: Map displaying the principal migratory routes from Turkey to Greece by sea—Lesvos, Samos, Chios, and Kos.
The Aegean Sea is as vast as it is profound. It is as cold as it is temperamental. And it is no secret that taking this route puts a person’s life at risk. According to official numbers, at least 1,664 people 2 have either been found dead or gone missing at sea since the EU-Turkey land border fence was erected. Unofficial numbers due to underreporting could be much higher. Not only is crossing the sea treacherous in and of itself, seemingly systemic abuse from the coast guard further endangers migrants’ lives. In 2014, PRO ASYL published a report citing incidents of refugees being held at gunpoint by the coast guard, beaten from masked men in black clothing, or robbed by those in uniform claiming to help them. 3 The report also mentions incidences where the Greek Coast Guard conducted risky maneuvers resulting in people falling overboard:
“Suddenly a boat of the Greek coast guard appeared. They started encircling our dinghy and making waves. Then they rammed [our boat] on purpose from the left side. Our boat took on a lot of water. When they left us in the Turkish waters they made waves again and six of us—all men—fell into the sea. The Greeks saw that, but they didn’t help, they just left.” – a lawyer from Syria (September 2013)4
Prior to the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal, 5 the Turkish Coast Guard had a more lackadaisical policy of border security for those departing via the Aegean. The Deal provides a €6 billion financial incentive for Turkish authorities to have a more abrasive presence and intervene in migration routes that lead to Europe. The EU and IOM have provided the Turkish Coast Guard with operations trainings and eight search and rescue (SAR) vessels to prevent more refugees from crossing to Greece. 6 The EU’s response of militarization, securitization, and border patrol outsourcing has resulted in a superfluity of human rights violations.
Underreporting incidents of abuse by the Greek and Turkish Coast Guards at sea is a natural result of any psychological trauma that may have been endured, but also, it is a means of self-protection for migrants; everyone is afraid that speaking out about human rights violations will negatively affect the outcome of their asylum applications. Put simply, most people are afraid to publicly condemn the same Greek government that holds the power to grant them access to Europe. In a similar light, those waiting to hear whether or not they will be deported back to Turkey are afraid to speak out against the unruly Turkish government.
What we do know, is that thus far in 2019, 58,157 people 7 have been stopped by the Turkish Coast Guard in their attempt to cross the Aegean Sea. What we don’t know, is how many people have been victims of border force brutality during those encounters. Whispers within the camps lead us to believe there are many.
On September 8, 2019, a video surfaced on Facebook of the Turkish Coast Guard hitting migrants with metal rods, as they were aboard a rubber dinghy attempting to cross from Turkey to Greece. Researchers from Mare Liberum were able to contact—after they were released from Turkish prison—some of those that were on the dinghy that morning who witnessed the attacks. The person that filmed the video, a Syrian man we will call Akil*, confirms that it was taken on Thursday September 5th, a few days prior, via Instagram live and therefore the original video is no longer attainable.
Akil describes his attempted cross to Greece [translated from Arabic]: “We started moving and departed from the Turkish shores at 6:00am. After moving for a while, we entered international waters and we saw the Greek Coast Guard not far ahead of us. We began to approach them and called them for help. They told us that they couldn’t do anything for us because the Turkish Coast Guard was also within sight, and they cannot intervene when they are near. We kept moving towards the Greek Coast Guard, but the Turkish Coast Guard arrived and blocked us from continuing. They [the Turkish Coast Guard] started beating us with metal rods on our heads, even children, even women.”
Description: Screenshot taken from Akil’s video
Violence from the Turkish Coast Guard was most visible in the news back in 2015 and 2016 8 when the so called “refugee crisis” still held the world’s attention. But nowadays these types of human rights abuses are among the many that continue to persist without consideration or action from any government.
Akil continues: “They didn’t manage to stop our motor so they called another smaller Turkish speed boat which was very fast and came extremely close to us. Someone from our boat managed to destroy the motor of the speed boat, and the entire time the Turkish were shouting at us. Another larger boat approached us, so now there are two large coast guard ships surrounding us. At this point, a Palestinian guy took out a knife and put it to his own neck, and he said that he would commit suicide if they take him back to Turkey. They ignored him and took all of the people onboard. Now there are three guys in court, the migrant boat driver, the guy who damaged the smaller Turkish speed boat, and the Palestinian guy, because they said that he threatened the coast guard with a weapon even though he didn’t.”
After verifying the events unfolding in the video, Mare Liberum started reaching out to recent migrant arrivals to begin documenting testimonials and report on the pervasiveness of the problem. Many asylum seekers have taken multiple attempts to cross from Turkey to Greece, meaning most have had some kind of encounter with the Turkish Coast Guard bringing them back to Turkey. We met with a young Palestinian man, Abdullah,* who only managed to cross to Greece on his twelfth try.
Abdullah explains: “During one attempt, this past April, we had made it all the way to Greek waters, and NATO pushed us back into Turkish waters for the Turkish Coast Guard to pick us up. We couldn’t tell what kind of flag was on the ship because it was very dark, but it looked like a large grey military boat. The boat had a lot of cannons. I could tell it was not the Turkish Coast Guard because of the language the officers spoke. Some people on our boat spoke Turkish, they were not speaking Turkish. It maybe sounded like German. They were all in uniform and wearing masks. They were yelling at us and they took our fuel, hitting us aggressively. After yelling and cursing at us, they put a rope on our boat and took us to the Turkish Coast Guard.”
It is important to note that Abdullah described the boat as being a vessel which could be either a NATO vessel, a Greek Navy vessel, or a vessel from the Hellenic coast guard that looks like a warship, all ships that have been actively patrolling the Aegean this year. Though the F220 German Warship “Hamburg” was present, it is possible that Abdullah misidentified the assailants as being from a NATO ship. What is important, is that this clearly is not a Turkish Coast Guard vessel, signifying that the migrant boat had likely entered international waters. This would constitute a “push back”, which is an unlawful maneuver under international law—in violation of both the prohibition of collective expulsion and the principle of non-refoulment. For those working on the ground, it is widely known that this type of illegal activity is happening in the Aegean, but it is very difficult to prove due to a lack of concrete evidence.
Once refugees manage to arrive to the island of Lesvos, the majority of people end up in the infamous Moria camp. Moria is the largest camp on the island, currently housing more than 14,000 refugees. Housing, in this context, is a loose term, seeing as extreme overcrowding leaves many people hungry and tentless. Moria is often described by its occupants as “hell on earth”.
In Moria, Mare Liberum sat down with a Syrian couple that described their four attempts at crossing to Greece. During the third effort, they too experienced a “push back”. The husband explains: “As we were in the water a ship came, took us from the Greek waters and brought us back over to Turkish waters. We know we were in international waters because we saw the Greek shoreline, it was so close to us. We were almost there. And also, a young man on our boat was watching the GPS, and he told us all that we were out of the Turkish waters.”
His wife explains: “The Greek Coast Guard came, shut down the motor, and took the fuel. They started making huge waves. Everyone was screaming and tons of water was coming into the boat. A woman held up her baby to show them that they need to be careful with the waves but they continued anyway, without care or concern. Another woman was so close to suicide because she was so scared. She was about to jump out of the boat but we managed to hold her back. Of course, she can’t swim.”
Once the Greek Coast Guard is able to push the migrant boat back into Turkish waters, the migrants are not only robbed of their right to asylum in Greece, but they are left vulnerable to the abuses of the Turkish Coast Guard. “The Turkish yell and beat you and insult you. Every time you get caught you get beaten,” Abdullah continues, “They call you ‘cowards’, a ‘son of bitch’ saying that you are a sell out for leaving your country and trying to go to Europe. Sometimes the same coast guard members catch you and recognize you, and they intensify the beatings. ‘You are still trying?’ they yell. If you try to film the abuses, the coast guard will jump on you and hit you excessively, trying to take your phone or knock the phone into the water.”
The closed Facebook group @call122 9 formed for those victims of coast guard abuse who are brave enough to semi-publicly publish evidence. This way of documentation is critical for preserving content online before the phone is destroyed or footage is intentionally deleted from the device by the authorities. This group also posts, primarily in Arabic, weather condition updates for those attempting to cross, missing persons posters, and updates on those that are either found alive or corpses washed ashore. All of the above materials could potentially be used to build a case against the routinely abusive practices of the Turkish Coast Guard. Considering the lack of precise geo-location data points, however, proving the guilt of the Greek Coast Guard would be much more difficult.
Testimonials from NGOs working on the island are the most valuable sources of eye-witness evidence to argue against the Greek Coast Guard’s practices. Lighthouse Relief, a spotting organization in the Aegean, and Refugee Rescue, a search and rescue team, published a joint press release announcing their sighting of an illegal pull back on July 2nd of this year. During a search and rescue operation, the team witnessed a rubber dinghy filled with migrants in the sea approaching Greece, so they sent out their rescue RHIB in order to assist in the event of an emergency. The Turkish coast Guard also approached the dinghy, but rather than assist the people to safety, their ship crossed into Greek waters and instead put the migrants at greater risk.
Giannis Skenderoglou, Refugee Rescue Boat crew coordinator, describes that “The dinghy had just entered Greek waters when the Turkish Coast Guard (TCG) started to approach from the East. The dinghy didn't stop and turned, heading eastwards, in an attempt to evade the TCG vessel. The TCG vessel began circling the dinghy, causing high waves, which could have easily capsized the small rubber boat. At this point, the refugees began screaming in panic; we could hear their screams. Then, by colliding with the dinghy on the starboard side, they forced the dinghy back into Turkish territorial waters. After more life-threatening maneuvering, the coast guard officers began violently throwing their ropes at the passengers of the dinghy in an attempt to injure and distress them. After that, two people jumped in the water in a desperate attempt to evade being brought back to Turkey. They too were screaming..."
Describing the same incident, a Lighthouse Relief spotting team leader commented that the “TCG employed an aggressive, hard approach…the team was shocked by the behavior they witnessed. Based on our experience and training as spotters, we feel confident in stating that the dinghy had crossed the border and was pulled back from Greek waters.” These official statements are crucial for combatting abuse, yet they are done sparingly due to both logistical and bureaucratic complications. The Refugee Rescue RHIB is not permitted to cross into Turkish waters, and at times it may not be close enough to the scene of an incident to see exactly what the Turkish Coast Guard is doing.
Additionally, these two NGOs put themselves and their operations at risk if they report something that the Greek Coast Guard wouldn’t want publicized. Refugee Rescue’s ability to deploy its RHIB and facilitate the rescue and safe arrival of migrants within Greek waters is only possible with the prior permission of the Greek Coast Guard. Each time the RHIB is deployed, they must first wait for approval. If the Greek Coast Guard were to deny their permission to launch, the migrants in distress would be the ones that consequentially suffer the most.
Overarchingly, there is a grave lack of tangible evidence, little willingness to report abuses, and nearly no political will to investigate the human rights abuses taking place in the Aegean Sea. Furthermore, the path towards accountability is remarkably unclear. On October 23rd at 4:45am off the shores of Kos, an inflatable Hellenic Coast Guard collided with a boat of migrants traveling from Turkey. Upon impact, all 34 people aboard the migrant dinghy fell into the water. Six migrants were injured. One person is still missing. A 3-year-old boy was found dead. There is no indication that any penalties or retribution will be imposed on those who were aboard the coast guard vessel.
Who will be held responsible for these crimes and in which court of law? Will the blurred boundaries of jurisdiction continue to protect the assailants? And will the European Union ever bother to care? As the list of unresolved questions grows longer, so does the death toll of the current EU border policy.
*All names have been changed for the protection of the victims
The sea should know this.
Mare Liberum was part of the action to renew the Memorial in Korakas. Now we share some impressions about it in a Video.
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 turned 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 fishermen 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."
This was not an accident!
They died because of Europe’s cruel deterrence and detention regime!
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. Many people lost all their small belongings, including identity documents, in the fire. The people imprisoned on Lesvos have fled wars and conflicts and now experience violence within Europe. Many were re-traumatised by these tragic events and some escaped and spent the night in the forest, scared to death.
Over the past weeks, we had to witness two more deaths in the hotspot of Moria: In August a 15-year-old Afghan minor was killed during a violent fight among minors inside the so-called “safe space” of the camp. On September 24, a 5-year-old boy lost his life when he was run-over by a truck in front of the gate.
The fire yesterday was no surprise and no accident. It is not the first, and it will not be the last. The hotspot burned already several times, most tragically in November 2016 when large parts burned down. Europe’s cruel regime of deterrence and detention has now killed again.
In the meantime, in the media, a story was immediately invented, saying that the refugees themselves set the camp on fire. It was also stated that they blocked the fire brigade from entering. We have spoken to many people who witnessed the events directly. They tell us a very different story: In fact, the fire broke out most probably due to an electricity short circuit. The fire brigade arrived very late, which is no surprise given the overcrowdedness of this monstrous hotspot. Despite its official capacity for 3,000 people, it now detains at least 12,500 people who suffer there in horrible living conditions. On mobile phone videos taken by the prisoners of the camp, one can see how in this chaos, inhabitants and the fire brigade tried their best together to at least prevent an even bigger catastrophe.
There simply cannot be a functioning emergency plan in a camp that has exceeded its capacity four times. When several containers burned in a huge fire that generated a lot of smoke, the imprisoned who were locked in the closed sector of the camp started in panic to try to break the doors. The only response the authorities had, was to immediately bring police to shoot tear-gas at them, which created an even more toxic smoke.
Anger and grief about all these senseless deaths and injuries added to the already explosive atmosphere in Moria where thousands have suffered while waiting too long for any change in their lives. Those who criminalise and condemn this outcry in form of a riot of the people of Moria cannot even imagine the sheer inhumanity they experience daily. The real violence is the camp itself, conditions that are the result of the EU border regime’s desire for deterrence.
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. We need open borders, so that everyone can continue to move on, even beyond Greece. Those who escape the islands should not be imprisoned once more in camps in mainland Greece, with conditions that are the same as the ones here on the islands.
Close down Moria!
Open the islands!
Freedom of Movement for everyone!
Is Afghanistan Europe’s Forgotten War? Not for Europe’s Afghan Refugees
At least 15 doctors and patients were killed by a car bombing at a hospital last week.1 An explosion at a campaign rally two days prior took 26 civilian lives.2 Another bomb detonated in the capital city on that same day, killing 22 more.3 The people of Afghanistan are under attack, and they have been for quite some time. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) statistics, at least 3,812 civilians have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan's war during the first half of 2019,4 and the situation has sharply worsened over the past months. For most people it is hard to understand what is happening there, because they can’t, or don’t want to, picture such destruction within the context of their own realities. But these people need your imagination and empathy for you to influence government action.
With the Afghan elections coming up this week, strategically inhumane attacks from the Taliban are intensifying across the country. Thus far in September, at least 339 people 5a 5b 5c have been killed with thousands more wounded. The terrorist group has outwardly stated 6 that the heightened violence is an intentional means of dissuading voters from going to the polls on September 28th, which is when, potentially, a new president is to be democratically decided. “Taliban attacks on political rallies and other election events are part of an apparent campaign to sow fear, undermine the electoral process, and deny Afghans the right to participate in political life,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. 7This is to be Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election.
According to UNAMA human rights chief Fiona Frazer, the data collected by the United Nations “strongly indicates that more civilians are killed or injured in Afghanistan due to armed conflict than anywhere else on Earth.” 8 Moreover, she explained that the official numbers recorded by the United Nations “do not reflect the true scale of harm” considering the rigorous and time consuming methods required for verifying civilian casualties. In essence, the situation is much more dire than what is documented. Not only are civilians being killed by the Taliban and ISIS, but also weapons by the Afghan government itself and its foreign allies.
Greece is considered to be the “gateway to Europe” for many of those fleeing war and extremism, and thus far in 2019 the greatest percentage of asylum seekers are of Afghan origin. 9 According to the UN, nearly half of all migrant and refugee arrivals to Europe have come through the Greek islands, 10and so far 9,935 Afghan people have traveled via the Aegean Sea since the start of this year. 11Here on the island of Lesvos, Mare Liberum sat down to speak with Ahmed and his seven year old daughter Zahra. They are asylum seekers who fled their homes in Ghazni, Afghanistan just over a year and a half ago. Ghazni is one of the most dangerous provinces in the country as it is the center of Taliban control. When Ahmed gathered his loved ones and left their country, his family had four members. Now they are two.
A year and a half ago, the Taliban came knocking on Ahmed’s door in search of his 15 year old son, Mesbah. The fighters told him that now that his boy is old enough, he must come and fight on behalf of Jihad. The Taliban tried three times to abduct Mesbah, and after the third attempt Ahmed decided that they must leave Afghanistan in order to save his son’s life, and his family’s life from this war. They wanted to move to Europe, a place Ahmed describes as “somewhere where there are human rights.”
Their 5,000+ km journey began by going across Afghanistan, through Iran, and into Turkey, which is where tragedy worsens to heartbreak. Ahmed, his wife Latifeh, and his children Mesbah and Zahra left the border town of Urmia and crossed up into the mountains to reach Turkish territory. It was the middle of winter, and at the mountain peaks the snow was waist deep. Ahmed wrapped Zahra in a trash bag and carried her on his back to protect her from the wet snow and wind. “After 12 hours of walking in the deep snow we finally noticed a light in the distance. At around 1:30 am, we started walking towards that light, which we presumed was the Turkish border force. My wife and son were too weak and could not walk anymore, so I decided to go with my daughter to get help.” It took another two and a half hours for Ahmed to carry Zahra down the mountain and through the snow and once he reached the border patrol station, the officers immediately searched them and took them into custody.
They were freezing, Zahra was crying, and Ahmed was pleading for them to help him rescue his family. “No matter how much we cried, they did not listen. I hate Turkish police to my death no matter where I am. They did not take me to my family. They did not help me. They did not want to save them.” Instead, they took Ahmed and Zahra to another border police station to take their photos and fingerprints. Then they transferred them to a different station. Then another one. And finally they put them in what Ahmed describes as “a prison”. In retelling this story, Ahmed’s eyes still plead with confusion when he explains: “I am not a criminal. The only thing I’ve done wrong is to cross onto your land without permission, but I came because I heard you have human rights and that you protect people who are in danger. I came here with my family, but now for three days two members of my family are missing and I don’t know if they are even still alive.”
On paper, he was sent to a refugee camp, but in actuality, this is where refugees are stored and beaten by the police. “They were brutal and kept beating us. We stayed quiet in our rooms and would only go out when we needed to have food. There was no translator for three days, and when he finally showed up, I told him what has happened and I begged them for help but they did not do anything.” After ten days in the camp, they had permission to leave. Once freed, he found the nearest UN offices, but he was told “we can’t help you”. So he decided to put Zahra once again on his back and walk for three days to Ankara to talk to the UN office there. He was told “we will let you know”.
A few days later he received a call that they found 2 corpses that were frozen in the snow. It was Latifeh and Mesbah.
Today, their situation is far from improved. They now live in the overcrowded and under-resourced Moria camp, where there aren’t enough blankets, rotting food, and families with children sleeping on the streets or makeshift tents. Due to outbursts of violence and neglect from the authorities, safety and security are nonexistent. One month ago, two young boys died after being stabbed in a fight that broke out in the camp.12 Just this week, a five year old Afghan boy was inside a cardboard box when he was run over by a truck.13 Ahmed, describing his own daughter, said, “I wish that Zahra was also dead. Or that we had all died in the snow.” He claims that providing for her is the only thing keeping him alive.
In Abrahamic religions, suffering is an innate consequence of life, but meaning and hope make that suffering worthwhile. However, there is a very real point at which suffering is unbearable to the human mind, rendering life not worth living. It’s clear that Ahmed is incredibly resilient considering all he endured, yet his reality as an asylum seeker in Europe is in stark contrast to the hope that fueled his pilgrimage towards a life with human rights. Ahmed’s story is uniquely personal but his suffering is sweepingly common for refugees that land on the Aegean islands. How is it that Afghan migrants are fleeing death only to be greeted in Europe with desolation?
All humans should be met with empathy and compassion, but destination states should be doing more to ensure that asylum seekers are particularly cared for—especially those governments that are involved in the fighting. After all, Afghan security forces and their allied international military forces have killed more civilians so far this year than the Taliban.14
Court rejects political attack on solidarity with refugees
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 the Mare Liberum 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 Επιτροπή Αγώνα) are present on Chios. Over the last few years they have been very active and engaged in violent attacks on refugees, on numerous occasions. Most notably in two pogroms in 2016 when refugees in protest occupied the town hall and people in solidarity with them were attacked by local mobs in the main square, and again when locals threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at refugees from the castle walls situated above the Souda camp. Both of these attacks were organized and planned ahead of time and many fascists traveled from Athens in the days prior in order to carry them out. These larger-scale events are only two examples of countless isolated attacks against refugees throughout the years. Not only are the refugees under attack, but local advocates working in solidarity with them, like Jenny and her friends, have suffered harsh consequences for being supportive of refugees. Jenny and one friend--who prefers not to be named--have both received death threats, intimidations of violence, and direct attacks. These intimidations and attacks have disincentivized helping others, in fear of what might happen.
In 2019, the most recent attack took place 3 months ago where eggs were thrown at refugees; however, currently the violent attacks by the Golden Dawn and other fascist groups have subsided after some heavy prison sentences were given to some of their members after they attacked the chief of police Athanasios Basioukas in 2017, when he wasn’t in uniform and was assumed to be someone supportive of refugees. Therefore, it has been much safer on the streets, both for refugees and local activists, but according to Jenny and her friends, the true danger is bigger than ever. Before, the fascists were visible and open about their views. Now, people with the same ideas of forcible suppression and fear for diversity are dressed in suits and ties, and their views are reflected in the policies they legislate. They know how to captivate public opinion and they disguise their motivations in nationalistic and populist sentiments. On June 3rd 2019, the recent municipal elections in Chios were won by ex-military Stamatis Karmantzis with about 52% of the vote. Karmantziz will become the new mayor of Chios. In the past, he has been quoted as saying: “a good Turkish is a dead Turkish” and he shares many values of the Committee Against Refugees. Furthermore, many seats in the municipality are held by the party Χίος Μπροστά (loosely translated as Chios in Front) which is a new political party with links to the Committee Against Refugees.
Due to the further solidified anti-refugee political climate, local activists in solidarity with refugees fear hate speech will become more legitimized and people’s extreme right-wing sentiments will be backed by those in power. This election is in itself part of a wider national Greek movement towards the far-right and in a few months the far-right is also expected to win the national elections, making these developments even more worrisome as they will be reflected on the experiences and processes of refugees all over Greece.
According to local activists, some of the expected consequences of these political ideologies gaining more power are:
- Vial may become a detention center and a closed camp, meaning people will not be able to leave freely into town to buy necessities or visit community centers run by NGO’s such as Action for Education and others which provide a safe space for refugees to learn new skills, relax and enjoy a community outside of the camp.
- Massive deportations may begin, which is something few people are aware of and public information on this possibility is very limited
- Increase in refoulment, the militarization of the border, increased pushbacks including masked military men damaging refugee boats.
These developments must be resisted and the example of the brave people in solidarity with refugees should be followed: Fighting in the streets against these ideologies and putting public pressure on the authorities not only to treat refugees with dignity and respect but to change the systemic violence currently exerted on refugees within the current political framework both in Europe and in Greece.
Indeed, these developments are not limited to Chios or Greece but are evermore present in many countries and cities throughout the EU. Refugee camps like Vial, not only provide for dire living conditions for refugees but also marginalize and exclude refugees from society, allowing for prejudices and hate to grow. The EU must abolish the Dublin regulation and allow people to freely search for a better life.
Alarming conditions for refugees in Samos
A team from Mare Liberum recently travelled to Samos. Video, photos and report document their observations on the human rights situation on the island.
On the Greek island of Samos, it is only a five minute walk up a hill, from the Vathi central square until the infamous “hotspot” is in sight. This “hotspot”, the refugee camp, pours over the hills on the outskirts of town. Its official capacity is 650 residents, but the actual number of inhabitants is unknown. Official numbers by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, report 3,200 refugees currently living on Samos as of May 2019; other NGOs believe there are more than 5,000.
The numbers change daily as some people are transferred to camps on other islands or the mainland and new arrivals continue to land in Samos. Barely a night goes by without a boat managing to dodge the patrolling coast guard and cross the 1.6 kilometers of water between Turkey and Samos at its closest point. The dinghies carry between 30-60 people on average.
Around the official gated camp where people live in containers, the so called “jungle” spreads, which is where the majority of the refugee population is situated. The terrain is not at all lush, as the name jungle would insinuate, but it is unruly. Hundreds of 5 euro beach tents and shelters made with plastic and spare pieces of wood are placed on the hillside, between piles of trash. The whole camp is covered in garbage as any official waste disposal system is not functioning. NGOs like Refugee4Refugees, founded by Omar, a Syrian refugee who is on the island since 2015, try their best to clean up the site. Refugee4Refugees has managed to dispose of 15 tons of trash in the last few months, but the camp is still a vile dump. Rats are everywhere, some the size of a one liter bottle, which in turn attracts snakes up to two meters in length.
Debbie*, 22, is from Ghana. She arrived on Samos four days ago. She is five months pregnant and alone on the island. She says she does not know who her child's father is: "I was raped in Turkey by two men." When Debbie arrived in Samos, she saw a doctor from the camp who handed her some papers in Greek writing. It's her diagnose and referral to another doctor. She does not know how to read it nor who to ask for its translation. She doesn’t know where to go next. She lives in a small tent with a stranger she met just days ago. There is no sanitation in this area and, therefore, hygiene is extremely poor. The only water available for washing comes from a small hole in the ground near a mountain of garbage.
The camp is informally divided into different sections by ethnicity. To the west of the “hotspot” are mainly people from Palestine and Iraq. 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. One of them shot a video when they opened the body bag during the ceremony. It shows Abduls lifeless torso, grey and bloated from over two weeks in the water, bite marks on his chest.
About five minutes from the camp is Alpha, a community and educational center, where refugees can take courses in English and Greek or music and computer skills. Bogdan, who founded the center with his NGO Samos Volunteers, says things went from bad to worse after September and October 2018 when an additional 4,000 people arrived. He sees his students’ mental health deteriorate in front of his eyes, especially after two or three months of being on the island and living without toilets, showers or any feeling of safety. "Not knowing what is going to happen to them, that is the hardest part," says Bogdan, and he adds that between the thousands of traumatized people, the camp and the jungle share one psychologist.
Several NGOs like Samos Volunteers and Refugee4Refugees try to ease the situation by offering educational spaces and activities, legal support, or aid in the distribution of tents, sleeping bags and hygiene products. However, Bogdan 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.”
Meanwhile, tensions within the camp are rising. In January, the francophone African community organized large protests against the terrible conditions of the camp and “jungle”. They attempted to march again in May, but police forces violently stopped them from speaking out. Volunteers and journalists on the scene were also taken in for questioning; their phones were checked for pictures and videos captured at the protest .
Émery, from the Congo, was there that day. He lives in a tent he set up for him and his wife just a few meters from the main road, where the African portion of the “jungle” begins. The hills here are steep, which makes it even harder to put up an upright tent, and the area is closer to the garbage dump, were the stench is the worst.
Émery and his wife have been living here for 10 months, without any change in sight. Hopes turned into frustration and frustration turned into anger. Émery is a learned man. He speaks English, French and Portuguese and talks about the colonial powers that have been exploiting Congo's mineral resources for generations, about racism and capitalism in Africa and Europe. “We come to take back what the West has stolen from us. They exploited our bodies and minds for hundreds of years. If they don't want us here they should leave Africa for Africans. How can we survive?" He says that all his suffering might be worth it, if it allows his grandchildren have a better life.
But his optimism is interrupted by thoughts of how inhumane life is in Samos, where he says he and his neighbors are treated worse than animals. After demonstrators were beaten down by the police, his patience came to an end. "There will not be a next protest," says Émery, and he sounds like he means it. "Next time there will be fire. We will light this place on fire."
*The names of all residents of the camp and jungle have been changed to not jeopardize their asylum application process
Mare Liberum operations 23.5.2019
During our watch at the east coast of Lesbos, mission coordinator Farshad took some time to explain Mare Liberum's operations in the Aegean Sea. The situation between Turkey and Greece continues to be precarious for many people fleeing to safety in Europe. We are here and we are working for the human rights of anyone attempting to cross the waters.
Mare Liberum sets sail! 19.5.2019
We are finally back at sea and now on watch on the East coast of the Greek Island of Lesbos, facing the Turkish border. We are delighted to continue our mission monitoring human rights in the Aegean, after the courts lifted our illegal suspension in port. As people continue to attempt to cross the sea everyday, we work to bring the public an independent and accurate account of Europe’s border. Video
Life-jacket graveyard at Lesbos' North shore. 16.5.2019
In the hills near the Greek town of Molyvos ten-thousands of life-jackets paint a picture of what migration looks like at the European border. Almost all of them are so-called "fake life-jackets", sold in Turkey for around €10. They are filled with layers of plastic material that allows them to float for a short while, before they soak up and become an additional weight for people after capsizing. These jackets are often the only ones refugees can afford, especially when they need multiple attempts to cross the Aegean. The worst jackets are those for children. They are plastic jackets for swimming pools, not meant to be used on a boat, with a written warning: "Will not protect against drowning." Many people trying to come to Europe cannot swim. In an emergency, these fake life-jackets are their only hope. Creating safe migration routes for refugees seeking asylum is possible – but the European Union has chosen not to. Mare Liberum will set sail soon, hoping to make the Aegean Sea a little less deadly.
Photos: Mare Liberum/Dylan Lebecki & David Fischer
Mare Liberum is ready to set sail once again
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.1 Shortly 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.2 During 2018 alone, 174 people lost their lives trying to cross the Aegean Sea. Since the beginning of 2019, sixteen refugees have already drowned.3 On 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.
MARE LIBERUM with new paint.
From the beginning
The search and rescue NGO Sea-Watch had performed a monitoring mission in the Aegean in 2017.5 Though 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 Deal 6 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 8 were 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. 11 These 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 12 was 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.15 Monchi 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
Refugge 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. 21 We 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
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: https://harekact.bordermonitoring.eu/category/monitoring-the-eu-turkey-deal/ https://sea-watch.org/en/why-we-demand-the-cancellation-of-the-eu-turkey-deal/ https://www.msf.org/euturkey-two-years-deal-continues-fail-thousands-people-seeking-asylum ↩
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: https://www.borderline-europe.de/unsere-arbeit/ein-gef%C3%BChl-von-ohnmacht-auf-der-gef%C3%A4ngnisinsel-lesbos ↩
See report on Monchi on Mare Liberum: https://www.spiegel.de/plus/feine-sahne-fischfilet-ostdeutschland-auf-den-punk-gebracht-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000160086114 Video: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1530480907052285 ↩
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 (https://media.ccc.de/v/35c3-9909-updates_von_der_europaischen_aussengrenze) and thank you to Plus 1! (http://www.taz.de/!5508734/) ↩