Shifting Routes

From the locations where the Turkish Coast Guard reports picking up boats and rafts of migrants who have been pushed back from Greece, we can try to draw conclusions about the routes that the people are taking when trying to cross the Aegean. However, it is often difficult to determine which Aegean island was a group’s original destination, because they may be discovered quite far from where they were apprehended by Greece. Reports indicate that the Hellenic Coast Guard often leaves people at sea in places that are kilometres away from where their boat was first stopped. Still, we estimate from the reported locations of post-pushback rescues, as well as reports of successful island landings, that crossings were relatively evenly spread across the Aegean in 2021. Reports detailed numerous pushbacks from the areas of Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Rhodes, indicating a broader geographic occurrence than the year prior, as in 2020 most pushbacks were reported from the area around Lesvos in particular.

An important development during the last year is the increased use of the maritime route from Turkey to Italy. This so-called Calabrian route, from Turkey to the southern Italian region of Calabria, bypasses the Greek mainland but usually passes through Greek territorial waters. It has been known for years that this route is used by people on the move who are trying to leave Turkey and reach Europe. Those who take this route are exposed to the open Mediterranean Sea for days. They usually cross in overcrowded cargo or sailing ships. The people often stay below deck, which can become a "death trap" in the case of a shipwreck. These large ships are also more difficult to navigate compared to small inflatable boats. The systematic criminalisation of the people who steer the boats in Greece1 and Italy2 probably leads to the fact that the ones who take over the task of steering the ship are under pressure and do not necessarily have the required expertise. This factor also makes the long crossing from Turkey to Italy much more dangerous and deadly (see chapter "Shipwrecks").

The route to Calabria is not only much more dangerous than the route to the Aegean islands, but also much more expensive. The fact that it has been used so much over the last year can reasonably be presumed to be related to the systematic and brutal pushbacks by the Hellenic Coast Guard. While in 2020, a reported 2,507 people fled from Turkey across the Mediterranean on the Calabrian route, between January and November 2021 it was reported that 11,616 people had taken the Calabrian route.3

It is crucial to note that pushbacks are also reported on the Calabrian route as well. There are several reports of migrants’ ships that entered into distress at sea on their way to Italy or were intercepted by the Hellenic Coast Guard, after which their trace was lost. It can be assumed that these people were then abandoned in Turkish waters.As already mentioned, we do not always know where the people found by the Turkish Coast Guard were located before they were pushed back. There were many cases in 2021 in which groups of 70 to 120 people were found by the Turkish Coast Guard in Turkish waters, adrift in life rafts. Most people who flee in boats across the Aegean do so in rubber dinghies with about 20 to 30 people on board. When large groups are found pushed back into Turkish waters, it is possible that they are either collective pushbacks – i.e. several groups picked up by the Hellenic Coast Guard at sea or on the islands and expelled together – or that they are groups that had been stopped by the Hellenic Coast Guard on their way to Italy in one of the larger ships and brought back to the Aegean. That the Hellenic Coast Guard is prepared to carry out these long and elaborate pushbacks was demonstrated by, among other things, a failed pushback attempt at the end of October 2021. Almost 400 people were on a cargo ship near the island of Chrysi when the boat fell into distress. At first it seemed that the Hellenic Coast Guard wanted to take them back to Turkey illegally, but then decided against it, presumably due to public pressure. Nevertheless, the ship was towed from island to island by the Hellenic Coast Guard for days before the people on board were finally brought to Kos.4 In another case, 82 people experienced engine failure on their ship en route to Italy and were therefore forced to dock at Kastellorizo. They were then brought to the sea between Samos and Kuşadası by the Hellenic Coast Guard and thereupon abandoned in four life rafts.5

The increased use of the Calabrian route shows that the closure policy of Greece and the EU is not only misanthropic, but is also not an effective means of border enforcement. It is not possible to seal off Europe and close flight routes. The routes are instead shifting, and in fact becoming more and more dangerous, and claiming more and more victims. Safe flight routes are the only way to prevent the violence and deaths in the Mediterranean and at all other EU external borders.

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