Monitoring at Sea

In 2015 and 2016, the Aegean Sea became the location of one of the biggest mass movements since Second World War II, as hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, and families made their way from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan through Turkey, the Aegean Sea, Greece, and the Balkan States in search of a safer space in Europe.1

While many people in Europe showed solidarity with arriving refugees, the EU sought new ways to restrict freedom of movement. For example, the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’, a statement of cooperation signed in March of 2016, set in place new policies and practices which continue to restrict access to and movement within Greece today.2 Under the EU-Turkey deal, the EU gave Turkey billions of euros in humanitarian support to bolster Turkey’s infrastructure for hosting refugees, in exchange for Turkey’s agreement to increase efforts to reduce unauthorised arrivals to Greece from Turkey. Turkey also agreed to accept the return of any migrants who did successfully reach the Greek islands without authorization. In exchange for each Syrian individual returning to Turkey from a Greek island, the EU agreed to accept one Syrian refugee residing in Turkey. The deal also included other agreements, such as new permission for Turkish nationals to visit the EU without needing a visa.

At its core, the EU-Turkey Deal was a way for the EU to pay Turkey to retain and contain migrants and asylum seekers, to deter their ability to reach Greece, and to then accept the return of those who did reach Greece. All while encouraging asylum seekers to wait in Turkey until granted permission to reach Europe the ‘right’ way. The incompatibility of the EU-Turkey Deal with human rights has been widely discussed in recent years.3,4  Among its many impacts on fundamental rights and freedoms, the deal created a containment policy which trapped thousands of people on the Greek islands, preventing them from travelling to the mainland and forcing them to remain in overcrowded camps for extended time.

The EU paid large sums of money to Turkey and, with the support of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), handed over several high-tech vessels to the Turkish coast guard to strengthen search and rescue operations and border patrols. According to official statistics from the Turkish Coast Guard, more than 60.802 migrants were intercepted and returned to Turkey in 2019.5 In the same period, about 59,726 migrants crossed the Aegean Sea to Europe.6 While the EU is selling the deal as a success because it has purportedly saved many lives, the border remains deadly, and at least 462 people lost their lives from 2018-2021.7

The EU-Turkey Deal was a dramatic change for the rights of refugees in the region and had many implications for people on the move trying to reach Europe. These complex changes in what has become an increasingly militarised border zone have illustrated the need for a civil eye on developments and changes. This became particularly urgent at sea, as state actors, unlike on land, could act in secrecy without any monitoring by civil society. In 2017 Sea-Watch started its first monitoring mission in the Aegean Sea. This project would later be continued with the same ship under a new name and organisation, “Mare Liberum”. Using Sea-Watch’s missions’ reports and those that we have conducted as the Mare Liberum team, we want to reflect on the changing operational freedom for human rights monitoring operations and search and rescue missions in the Aegean Sea over the last years.

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.

Test Mission Summer 2021

Early in July, six activists came together to take the 'Mare Liberum 2' on a test mission in the Aegean Sea. Following raids, criminalisation attempts and fascist attacks on the ship 'Mare Liberum 1' in summer 2020, our small grassroots NGO had no longer been operational at sea. The aim of this test mission was to develop a better understanding of the operational challenges and to exchange with protection seekers and solidarity networks (about needs and overlaps) on different islands in the Aegean. Another important aspect was to shed light on the situation on other islands' hotspots, as media interest continues to focus on Moria 2.0. The mission took the team of human rights defenders from Lesvos to Samos to Chios and back to Lesvos.

On the islands, the crew made it their mission to meet people on the move, local activists, small NGO actors and networks that sustain the criminalisation of migration and solidarity. Among others they met the 'Project Armonia' which provides food for many vulnerable people, talked with 'Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario' about their medical support in Chios, and talked with the 'Hope Project' about their art space for people stuck on Lesvos. The activists met legal networks and advisors from 'Equal Rights Beyond Borders', 'Refugee Law Clinic', the 'Human Rights Legal Project'. They also visited ‘Glocal Roots’ safe space for women, ‘We Are One Center Samos’, and the founders of the 'Stop Pushbacks Campaign'.

We made friends who are stuck on islands, such as Shaker, whose story we published some weeks ago, and Ahmad, a videographer and photographer working with the children in Camp Vathy. Many friends the crew met are stuck in the limbo of lengthy asylum procedures, often for years – a draining process that steals lifetimes from people.

What stood out was the very contrasting solidarity infrastructure on the islands. While we see many NGOs in the centre of Samos, there are almost none on Chios. But why? We believe a crucial aspect is proximity in daily life. While on Samos the camp is right next to the town centre of Vathy, on Chios people are locked up in camp Vial far away from the island’s town centre. Out of sight, out of mind, out of interaction. This is a frightening picture, especially in light of the fact that in the past year the European Union invested 270 million euros in building new hotspot camps on Samos, Leros, Kos, Chios and Lesvos.8 New camps that will be even more isolated, closed and farther away from cities.

During the mission, about 100 people arrived on the Aegean Islands, while about 500 people were reported to have been illegally pushed back to Turkish waters. We were also informed about people hiding in the forests fearing to be pushed back after arriving on Greek soil. Reasonable fear, as we know it has become common practice to force people back in liferafts to drag them back to Turkish territory – violating fundamental rights while Europe just celebrated 70 years of the Geneva Refugee Convention.

On the way between the islands the crew encountered numerous patrol vessels of the Greek and Turkish authorities as well as Frontex. The militarisation of Europe's external border is constantly visible and characterises the atmosphere on the Aegean islands and at sea. The expansion of the new, closed camps, the daily pushbacks and the increasing criminalisation of migration are highly alarming. At the same time, the activists are very glad to have met so many people who demand their rights or stand together in solidarity – joining us in confronting Fortress Europe.

Ocotber Mission 2021

Mare Liberum's most recent monitoring mission began on 21st October 2021, after a long absence due to efforts in both Greece and Germany to hinder our operations at sea. Even before the mission started, it was clear that Greek authorities were intent on keeping a close eye on the team, visiting and telephoning them several times before departure.

Mare Liberum was initially planning to monitor the situation north of Lesvos – the site of a high number of pushbacks during the last year. En route to this location the team had several encounters with various authorities present in the Aegean Sea, including the Port Authority, Hellenic Coast Guard, Frontex and Greek Navy – a telling sign of the level of securitisation at this part of Europe's external border. The Mare Liberum vessel was checked, followed, photographed and ultimately ordered to leave the area. After several email exchanges with the competent authorities, the monitoring team was forced to return to leave the anchoring spot at 2 a.m. the following day and make the six-hour trip back to the ship’s port.

The initial justification given by the Greek authorities was that the Mare Liberum vessel posed a threat to the operations of the Hellenic Coast Guard and a danger to other boats by anchoring in the sea. Later, however, they invoked a recently-adopted law that requires NGOs operating in Greek waters to be registered by the government and to operate under the command of the Hellenic Coast Guard. This is an extension of a law passed in 2020 that requires all civil actors working in the field of migration to register with Greek authorities, a nearly impossible task that has been used to restrict NGO and solidarity activities. Despite arguing that this law should not apply to the monitoring of human rights violations, Mare Liberum was ordered to return to port and discontinue monitoring activities with immediate effect.

Although the team was only at sea for around 24 hours and was therefore not able to properly monitor or actively prevent any pushbacks, the team still observed several manoeuvres by the Hellenic Coast Guard, including irregular patterns of movement, the use of searchlights and one ship quickly moving towards Turkish waters and turning off its positions lights.

The Mare Liberum vessel was allowed out of port only once more in 2021, with the specific purpose of holding a commemorAction in honor of the people who died at sea as a result of the European border regime. The authorities' permission, however, came with a list of strict conditions, requiring the crew to abstain from monitoring, stay far away from the border and call the authorities every hour, stating that “any deviation” from their orders would result in “criminal sanctions.”

As a result of the countless reports of systematic atrocities committed against people on the move by Greek and European authorities, the European Commission and numerous civil society groups have demanded that Greece implement an independent monitoring mechanism at its borders. The Greek government, however, continues to adopt laws that guarantee them total control of the sea and inhibit any civil society groups from monitoring human rights violations.

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