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.
Arrivals & Deaths
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 47,179 migrants were intercepted and returned to Turkey in 2019. In the same period, about 59,726 migrants crossed the Aegean Sea to Europe. While the EU is selling the agreement as a success, the border remains lethal. In 2018 alone 174 people lost their lives, in 2019 70 people and since the beginning of the year already 71 people (as of 23.07.2020).
Push- and Pullbacks
The human rights of refugees at sea are still being violated. Push backs and pull backs, where people are pushed or pulled back into Turkish waters, thus denying them the right to asylum in Greece, have subsided, but violent misconduct, attacks and interception manoeuvres by the Greek or Turkish coastguards continue.
Asylum in Greece
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 Lesbos 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.