On June 29th the Turkish Coast Guard picked up a dinghy in distress. The boat had reached Greek waters before but was stopped there by the Hellenic Coast Guard. Instead of rescuing the people from the absolutely unseaworthy dinghy as it would have been their duty, the Coast Guard took away their fuel and pushed the 40 people on board back to Turkish waters. The Turkish Coast Guard managed to rescue 35 survivors, but four have been reported missing. They found one dead body by now and it is very likely, that the other three are dead, too.1 Pushbacks by the Hellenic Coast Guard are not new and happen almost on a daily basis. The loss of life in these operations is alarming, but not surprising. The Turkish and Hellenic Coast Guard as well as FRONTEX and the NATO play their brutal power games on the backs of refugees, who try to cross Europe’s deadly border, and thereby make the crossing to a life and death struggle. Clearly, in these dynamics the surviving of refugees becomes trivial. There are many reports about the illegal and inhumane methods used by the authorities: engines are being destroyed or taken away, the tubes of the dinghies are slit open, people in the boats are being abused and have to stay on the water for hours, the Hellenic Coast Guard creates waves to push the boats to Turkish waters or tows them there directly, refugees are being left at sea in so called life rafts - the list is endless.
In some cases, refugees had already reached land on one of the Aegean islands before they were brought back to Turkish waters. On May 22nd 2020 a boat with 31 people on board arrived on Samos. The police came to the scene and put everyone in a bus, but instead of bringing them to a camp, they were brought back to the shoreline, put in a tiny dinghy (like a children’s toy) and were taken to Turkish waters by the Hellenic Coast Guard. One of the refugees on board fell in the water during the pushback and drowned. We talked to two of his friends: The young man was afraid of crossing the Aegean for a long time. He was scared of the sea. But when almost all of his friend made it to one of the Greek islands, even though none of them succeeded on first try, he decided to try it after all. Knowing this, it is even more dramatic that he made it to Samos first and then drowned in the pushback. He was buried in a forest in Turkey and his family in Congo probably doesn’t know about what happened to him. The Hellenic Coast Guard is responsible for his death. And they remain silent. For May 22nd there are no arrivals reported on Samos and they don’t mention the death of a person anywhere. Only the Turkish Coast Guard remarks this in the notification about the rescue.2
According to the Missing Migrants Project by IOM over 20.000 migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea since 2014 and this is only a fraction of the people who actually try to cross Europe’s deadly border. Since not every shipwreck is reported on, nobody really knows how many people have died trying to reach Europe. Crossing the Central Mediterranean is extremely dangerous, but also in the Aegean Sea migrants die regularly. The Aegean islands are visible from the Turkish shore and the distance in some parts is only a few kilometers. Still, at least 71 migrants died in the Aegean only in 2020.3 The shoreline with its rocks and the fastly changing weather conditions can turn out to be hazardous and deadly and smugglers often let people cross in broken boats.
We talked to a woman who tried to cross the Aegean Sea on March 1st 2020. Her boat sunk off the Turkish coast and a Congolese woman and her two children died in the shipwreck. She told us about what happened on that day.
„It was around 7:00 in the morning, 8:00 in the morning, we went in, we inflated the dinghy, we put the engine on but it wasn't a good machine, and when we got in we didn't even make it for 20 minutes. We didn't even get too far. There was a hole under the dinghy. There were many stones off Çanakkale. When we left shore, water came in.
When we went in, the water came in. And there are the children, two children, in fact it was a family. But the two little ones were next to us. In fact, we tried to pull them out but we couldn’t because they had clothes and vests on them and I was in a bad position. I was crouched down, I couldn't even see what was going on around me.
The water was rising, the water was rising, I didn’t know what to say. I just had my personal bible because I was asked to leave everything, as we were already so many people. They were afraid that the boat would capsize. When we stood up, the water was rising. The water came to my neck, we were screaming. We called for help and no one came and we were there, we were dragged into the water and the water took the dinghy away. We told ourselves it was death for us.
And then there's the kids crying, the two girls crying, the mom screaming on the left. All of a sudden, the children stopped crying, there was nothing more going on. Waiting for the Turkish Coast Guard to come. When they came, they threw a rope towards us.
We pulled the children onto the boat but the children were no longer there and the mother was in a state of shock. When we picked her up, she had a backpack and with the water it became too heavy. We pulled her out with an iron thing. When we took her to the boat, she was the first one we picked up to take to the emergency room. By the time we got her there it was too late. We'd already told her that her children were dead.“
Defending Europe’s borders with all means claims many victims. Not only are migrants forced to risk their lives trying to cross in unsafe boats, but also the behavior of Turkish, Greek and European authorities worsens the situation.
- On January 2nd 2020 14 people died outside Fethiye and only eight bodies could be recovered. One body was identified as Yollande Hamdan from Syria. His name is one of the few we know of.
- On January 5th 2020 five people from Afghanistan died, because their boat collided with a TCG vessel.
- On January 11th 2020 eleven people, including three women and eight children, drowned outside Çeşme.
- On March 1st 2020 a Congolese woman and her two children died off the coast of Çanakkale.
- On March 2nd 2020 a four-year-old child drowned outside Lesvos.
- On May 22nd 2020 a Congolese refugee died in a pushback.
- On June, 29th 2020 at least one person drowned off the coast of Ayvalik after a pushback. Three people are still missing.
The number of people who died is higher but this is almost everything we know about the missing or dead migrants in the Aegean this year. In some cases, the bodies are identified and their names appear in reports, but usually they are only numbers in a data base. And even finding the numbers is difficult since no one keeps track, no one really knows how many people actually try to cross the Mediterranean and how many of them don’t make it. Most of the information about deaths at sea are not entirely verified because no official authority takes the time to investigate the cases. This lack of interest in migrants’ deaths shows that Europe doesn’t value their lives and simply does not care about their survival.
The deaths in the Mediterranean – be it in the Western or Central Mediterranean or in the Aegean Sea, are the deaths of the European Union. They are the consequence of Europe’s deadly policy of deterrence. The behavior of national authorities, FRONTEX, as well as the criminalization of civil sea rescue and monitoring operations4 contribute to the dying in the Mediterranean. Europe is to blame and needs to take responsibility!
If those who drown were white, the topic would probably get a lot more attention and there would be memorials, speeches, wreath-laying ceremonies and most importantly: Political changes. But since whose who drown are black or PoC, they are simply being forgotten. But black and migrant lives matter and we cannot allow Europe to forget that!
To counter the continuous dying at sea, we need safe and legal flight routes. Until then, civil rescue and monitoring operations need to be supported, not blocked. Until then, we need to remember all the people who didn’t make it. The ones who drowned on their way to Europe with the hope of a life in safety. The ones whose families and friends often don’t know what happened to them. The ones whose names we don’t know. The ones, of whom every single death is too many already. For them, and for all the people who will be in distress at sea in the future and will not be rescued because of their heritage we have to increase our efforts in fighting the deadly border regime and abolish the European policy of deterrence!
- See for example the recent change of law by German authorities that blocks our operation: https://mare-liberum.org/de/news/verkehrsministerium-verhindert-einsatz-fuer-gefluechtete/