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Contested Spaces: Border Patrol in the Aegean Sea

In 2015 and 2016, the Aegean Sea became one of the hotspots of one of the biggest mass movements since Second World War II when 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.

Europe’s responses to this mass movement were militarization, deterrence and further fortification. The latest attempt to harden this tendency became apparent in the form of EU-Turkey deal. The agreement whose inhumane nature and incompatibility with human rights has been largely discussed elsewhere, basically meant large payments to Turkey in exchange for the reception of refugees, assessment of asylum claims limited to the Greek islands and deportations back to Turkey for those whose asylum claims were rejected.

The EU paid large sums of money to Turkey, and with the support of IOM gave several high-tech vessels to the Turkish coast guard in order to increase search and rescue operations and border patrol. According to official statistics by the Turkish CG, more than 35.000 migrants have been intercepted and returned to Turkey since the EU-Turkey agreement. Still in that same period, more than 50.000 migrants crossed the Aegean Sea into Europe despite the border patrol and militarization measures. While the EU sells the deal as a success in having saved many human lives, the border remains deadly: During 2017 alone, 54 people lost their lives.

While human rights violations against refugees at sea - such as push-backs, pull-backs and violent misbehavior by official vessels - have decreased in the last few years, they are still happening.

Since March 2016, all asylum claims are being processed on the Greek islands which turned them into open prisons. Slow, erroneous procedures and many negative decisions result in appeals before the court which lead to long waiting times in legal limbo and overcrowded reception centres with inhumane living conditions. The Legal Center Lesvos or HarekAct provides more information on the situation on the Greek islands with a focus on Lesvos.

Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency continues to be present in the Aegean with changing teams and vessels from different European member states. While the aim of the agency and their mission clearly is to secure European borders and stop migration movements into Europe, Frontex is sometimes also involved in rescue operations. In addition, NATO started a military mission in February 2016 in support of and cooperation with Frontex, and the Greek and Turkish coast guards cutting “the lines of human trafficking and illegal migration.“ (see: NATO).

Despite this militarized climate, there are still many volunteers and activists who resist and work in solidarity with refugees. Refugee4refugees, Lighthouse relief and Refugee Rescue e.g. are still involved in boat spotting and rescue operations on a daily basis.

This complex interplay of different actors in what has become a further and further militarized border zone shows the need for a civil eye on developments and changes. Mare Liberum with its monitoring mission in the Aegean will serve exactly this purpose - operating as a civil counter corrective to current European border politics.