Sea-Watch Missions 2017
Sea-Watch’s first mission started at the height of the flight movements to Europe in 2015, when the organisation operated with speed boats on the shore of Lesvos and rescued more than 4.000 people within 5 months. The EU-Turkey Deal, which was introduced in 2016, led to a dramatic decrease in refugee arrivals to Lesvos. In the following years, search and rescue activities moved more and more to different actors like the Hellenic Coast Guard, Frontex, and other state actors funded by the EU. The declared aim of Frontex and its missions is to secure European borders and stop migration movements into Europe. Furthermore, in February 2016 NATO has started a military mission to support and cooperate with Frontex and the Greek and Turkish Coast Guard to “cut the lines of human trafficking and illegal migration“.
While the human rights of refugees have been violated since the beginning of the sea crossings, there were increasing numbers of reports about human rights violations and border violence. This includes so-called pushbacks and pullbacks, during which people are pushed back from Greek to Turkish waters, or pulled back from deeper Turkish waters towards the Turkish shore, and are thus blocked from applying for asylum in Greece. Such operations were regularly conducted by the Greek or Turkish Coast Guard throughout these years. In addition, violent assaults, the intentional capsizing of refugee boats, and interception maneuvers became part of the standard procedures that the Greek and Turkish Coast Guard would use against people on the move. To have the civil eye present in the region again, Sea-Watch decided to change their operations in the Aegean in summer 2017 and focus on human rights monitoring.
During this time there were several actors present in this militarised climate around Lesvos, including many volunteers and activists who worked at sea in solidarity with refugees. Groups such as Refugee4Refugees, Lighthouse Relief, Pro Activa, Refugee Rescue and others were involved in boat spotting and rescue operations on a daily basis.
All of those actors reported about the tightening environment and repression against their work, which hindered them from showing solidarity and supporting people on the move. NGOs involved with rescuing people at sea found themselves in a tense environment and the cooperation with the Coast Guards got harder every day and starting rescue operations got very restrictive. Special regulations made patrolling on sea to watch for boats in distress impossible and it was necessary to get a permit from relevant authorities for missions 24 hours in advance. Fines of over 500 euros were put on NGOs for all sorts of “incidents” and 3-day bans on operations were randomly given out.
This repression got also more intense for organisations working on land. People working for NGOs involved in boat spotting and first aid for arrivals were threatened with weapons by plainclothes policemen, access roads to spotting points were destroyed, spotting points were vandalised with animal carcasses, and the activists were threatened by authorities and local right-wing groups.
Also, Sea-Watch needed to deal with constant harassment by the different state actors. The Hellenic Coast Guard drove around the ship and created waves in its path as a way to intimidate the Sea-Watch team and hinder their navigation. On the 26th of July 2017 the Sea-Watch ship was searched by officials, without a search warrant, and the crew was sent away from their monitoring spot. In the following days, there were several attempts to intimidate the crew.
The list of following acts of harassment was long, and all of this served as a deterrence strategy to eliminate the witnesses who had their eyes on the sea where the coast guards, Frontex and NATO were operating. The authorities were trying to systematically stop NGOs from observing what was going on, although they had heavily relied on their support in case of, for example, mass casualties. The goal of this repression was stated by the Greek state secretary, who declared that all NGOs should be out of Greece until mid-2018.
As a result of the tight environment and the limited possibilities for operations, several search and rescue organisations had pronounced their final retraction from the Aegean over the last years. Therefore refugee boats relentlessly relied on the search and rescue work of the authorities, pushbacks and pullbacks remained unseen, and emergencies of boats at sea were often left undocumented.
In 2018 the monitoring mission from Sea-Watch moved over to Mare Liberum, a new organisation with a similar concept, under which the same ship and an additional sailboat were used to continue monitoring the situation at sea. During Mare Liberum’s three years in the area, we have been confronted with harassment and criminalization like many other NGOs on the island and experienced several attempts to keep us from sailing. This includes a criminal investigation against our organisation, several bans on sailing, and repeated threats by authorities. Despite all of this we were able to conduct two missions in 2021 that we address in more detail below.