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 sought new ways to restrict freedom of movement. Since the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016, people arriving on the islands have been prevented from traveling to the mainland. The agreement, whose incompatibility with human rights was widely discussed elsewhere, basically meant high payments to Turkey in return for accepting refugees. The agreement also contains the examination of applications for asylum limited to the Greek islands and the deportation to Turkey of persons, including those whose applications for asylum in Greece have been rejected and who can now be deported back to Turkey.

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 deal as a success because it has saved many lives, the border remains deadly. In 2018 alone 174 people lost their lives, in 2019 70 people and since the beginning of the year already 71 people died (last update: 26.08.2020)

The human rights of refugees have been violated since the beginning of the sea crossings. Pushbacks and pullbacks, where people are pushed or pulled back into Turkish waters and thus denied the right to asylum in Greece, are regularly conducted by the Greek or Turkish coast guard, as well as Frontex. In addition, violent assaults and interception maneuvers are part of the standard procedures of these actors.

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 leads to long waiting times in legal limbo and overcrowded reception centers 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 is present in the Aegean Sea with various teams and vessels from the different European Member States. The declared aim of the agency and its missions is to secure European borders and stop migration movements into Europe. Frontex is also involved in rescue operations. Furthermore, in February 2016 NATO has started a military mission to support and cooperate with Frontex and the Greek and Turkish coast guard in order to “cut 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.

After Turkey instrumentalized migrants in early 2020 to exert political pressure on the EU by allowing migrants to pass through for a short period of time, and after right-wing and racist positions received stronger support on the Aegean islands, the situation is even tenser than before.

Greece has further developed new border "defense" strategies. Barely any boats manage to cross the Aegean Sea anymore. The Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex have created a tight militarised net to keep refugees from reaching Greek territorial waters. If they do anyway, there have been many reports of migrant boats being attacked by the Hellenic Coast Guard, beaten by masked people in boats, being shot at, their motors being disabling and them being dragged back into Turkish waters. Push backs have thus not only increased in number, but the methods have also become more offensive and violent.

This development, together with the change in the asylum law has led to a situation where the chance of a successful asylum application in Greece is close to zero - the EU is sealing itself off!

The EU has a universal right to asylum, but access to it is prevented by laws, a lack of visa opportunities and the EU's aggressive deterrence policy. We demand to respect existing law, human rights and that the Geneva Convention on Refugees be applied in the Aegean Sea. Freedom of movement for all people and global justice!

Mare Liberum i. A.

Gneisenaustraße 2a
10961 Berlin