The following text was written by Ermioni, a solidarity activist from Chios.
People living on the islands have a special relationship with the sea: it's present in every moment of our life; it's the barrier and the "road", the connection with the rest of the world; cargo and sailing boats pass up and down; and sometimes, you might think that the white sheets of sailing boats on the deep blue are there solely for a picturesque view for tourists who visit. The sea is not just for swimming in the summer; it’s not just an attraction for the tourists. The rough sea isolates islanders during winter; the shelves in the stores are empty when the boats can’t reach the islands due to the weather. But, still, we love the sea; it’s part of our identity; we learn to swim as we learn to walk and speak…
Refugees were always arriving to the islands; until spring 2015, in smaller numbers (in 2014 the arrivals in Greece, both sea and land arrivals, were 43,318 people). In the second half of 2015, the “refugee flows” increased. Thousands of people arrived on the north Aegean islands. Until autumn 2015 when the Balkan route was still open, people passed by the islands, stayed for a couple of days and then travelled to Athens to continue their trip to Europe. Greek society stood in solidarity. But things gradually changed and the EU-Turkey deal in March 2016 put an end to local solidarity. People got stuck on the islands, the inadequate camps were overcrowded and the locals started to realise that people would stay for indefinite periods of time on the islands. The narrative changed; they stopped being the poor people chased by the war, and became enemies, threatening our wellbeing.
The EU and the Greek governments’ policies fed nationalism, racism and fascism. Refugees who arrived on the coasts were seen as “invaders” who came with the goal to “Islamize the islands’ populations”, implementing Erdogan’s plans for “conquering the North Aegean islands”. It’s a reality that Erdogan is not an easy-going neighbour, but these arguments escalated racism in the local societies. NGOs and local grassroots solidarity groups were accused of supporting refugees’ arrivals in order to continue getting funding, even in cases in which no funding was provided. Sea rescue teams were banned from the seas. The living conditions in the camps were getting worse, asylum processes became slower, and people had to fight to survive.
When the Greek government changed in 2019, asylum legislation changed and it became even more difficult for refugees to get papers and be able to travel to mainland Greece or elsewhere in Europe. In February and March 2020, during Evros river events,* the new governmental policy was deployed: refugees arriving on the coasts were disappeared mysteriously, and gradually evidence emerged that they were sent back to Turkey. Eventually we realised that the new plan was not only to carry out pushbacks in the sea (by raising waves or pulling overcrowded rubber boats into Turkish waters). It also involved the Greek coast guard putting them by force in life rafts (rescue boats with no engine) and simply leaving them stranded in Turkish waters.
NGOs and grassroots groups started registering all these new pushbacks cases. The testimonies (photos and messages) were published by the refugees themselves or by the Turkish coast guard. The majority of the groups who publish the pushback cases and refugees’ disappearances from the islands found themselves accused of being smugglers and Turkish spies by the Greek state. The same policy is applied to individuals, lawyers or people acting in solidarity in other ways, attempting to meet the refugees who arrived on the island and support their effort to get properly registered and apply for asylum. Solidarity is a crime, according to the Greek government. And all this has happened with the support (political and financial) of the “humanitarian” EU.
The constant pushbacks (in the sea, but mainly the “disappearance” of people arriving on the islands) and the horrible conditions in the camps resulted in a change of the trip routes. Instead of trying to reach the nearby islands (at a distance of 5-10 miles from the Turkish shore), refugees actually use bigger, non-seaworthy boats to try to reach Italian coasts. This is a much more dangerous trip, which has tragically already resulted in tens of dead people in the Aegean Sea.
Infuriatingly, the people who wish to, cannot help in any way. Even if we know that people have arrived on the islands’ coasts, we’re unable to search for them or support them to reach the competent authorities in order to apply for asylum. The ones who dared to help, even if lawyers, found themselves in police stations, interrogated and accused of being smugglers or spies. The ones who are fighting these policies are smeared as anti-Greeks and Turkish propagandists by the state and the local communities. Local societies are happy because Greece is "finally guarding its borders”, ignoring the law of the sea and the international law.
All these events do not make it to the press, not even as minor news. There are very few media outlets in Greece publishing news on the crimes at the borders. The mainstream narrative revolves around the right of the Greek state to guard its borders and fight Turkish nationalism, by feeding Greek nationalism, racism and fascism.
So, during all these years, the way we perceive the sea changed. Instead of looking at white sails, we’re looking at warships, Greek or Turkish or NATO ones, crossing the narrow sea strip between the Greek islands and Turkish coasts. Instead of thinking of nice, sandy beaches, we’re facing dead bodies of adults and children lying on the gold sand. The sea, our sea, is now the tomb of tens of innocent people without names, who were trying to flee war or poverty.
This cannot be changed by fighting these policies in Greece alone. It’s a European issue, as the policy of the Greek state is insidiously encouraged by many other European governments, and similar tactics are used across all European borders. It’s a fight of the rich against the poor.
The rights of the refugees are connected to the rights of us all.
* Editor's note: On February 28, 2020, the Turkish government declared a unilateral opening of the border with Greece for people on the move. More than ten thousand people tried to enter EU territory to apply for asylum.