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.

While many people in Europe showed solidarity with arriving refugees, the EU found new ways to restict freedom of movement. Newcomers to Greek islands were prevented from continuing to the mainland. The latest attempt 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 Coast Guard, more than 26.000 migrants have been intercepted and returned to Turkey in 2018. Still in that same period, around 32.500 migrants crossed the Aegean Sea into Europe . While the EU sells the deal as a success in having saved many human lives, the border remains deadly: In 2018 alone 174 people lost their lives, in 2019 71 people and since the beginning of the year already 63 people (February 2020).

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 provide 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 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.

Critical background reports

In the report 10 YEARS AFTER THE NOBORDER CAMP LESVOS 09 the network „Welcome to Europe“ summarizes what has been built up in a decade and how the migration routes developed during this time. (July 2019).

The Aegean Regional Report published by Alarmphone provides a good overview of current figures including their critical analysis (June 2019).

The booklet „Prisoners of the Deal“ (only in German) published by the association contains detailed information on the erosion of the European asylum system on the Greek hotspot island Lesbos (May 2019).


Aegaen Boat Report is a Facebook page with detailed, daily updated information about almost all pull or push-backs in the Aegean. The project is run by Tommy Olsen.

Deportation Monitoring Aegaen is providing statistics and analisis on deportation from the Greek islands towards Turkey. The project is part of the association

HarekAct aims at contributing to a critical and analytical knowledge production on the question of migration with a focus on Turkey. The blog was initiated by a network of researchers, activists and artists from Turkey, Austria and Germany.

The Missing Migrants Project tracks deaths of migrants, including refugees, who died or have gone missing along migration routes including the Aegaen Sea. Missing Migrants is a project of the IOM (International Organization for Migration) of the UN.

The operational portal for refugees is provided by UNHCR. The site contains a map and monthly reports on the number of new arrivals on the Greek islands.

The PUSH-BACK MAP documents push-backs at the borders of the European Union, including the Aegaen Sea. The project emerged from comitted groups and individuals.

Mare Liberum i. A.

Gneisenaustraße 2a
10961 Berlin