The mass pushback of more than 230 refugees in the night of April 2nd/3rd is a prime example how pushbacks and the lives of migrants are being instrumentalized in the geopolitical conflict between Turkey and Greece in order to influence European politics and in another attempt by Greece to legalize pushbacks.

The Greek version of April 2nd

On April 2nd Notis Mitarachi, Greek minister of migration and notorious for denying the existence of pushbacks, published a video statement in which he accused the Turkish Coast Guard of “accompanying flimsy migrant boats to the border of Europe in an effort to provoke an escalation with Greece." [1] A worrisome scenario that reminds of the events in March 2020 at the Turkish-Greek land border, when Turkish forces actively brought migrants to crossing points in a political power move. This led to chaotic scenes and an escalation of violence in which many migrants were wounded and at least one person, Muhammad Gulzar, was killed with a bullet coming from a Greek firearm [2].

But this time, over one year later, Mitarachi failed to deliver proof of his accusations, except for two videos that show a Turkish Coast Guard shipnear a migrant boat and one where a TCG ship drives dangerously close past a Hellenic Coast Guard ship [3][4]. The latter can certainly be seen as a provocative manoeuvre, but itis no proof of migrant boats being accompanied by Turkish authorities. Greece and Turkey have a relationship rich of conflict and tension – to say the least – and near-clashes of Coast Guard ships like this have happened before.

The Turkish version of April 2nd

The same day the Turkish Coast Guard responded by publishing (unusually fast) the details and pictures of 7 incidents with migrant boats, of which 5 ended up being pushed back [5]. They also posted a videowith footage from that day including testimonies of two pushback survivors [6]. The video was also shared by the Turkish interior minister Ismail Çataklı, calling Mitarachi’s statement “lies” [7].

The first man in the video says that they had been approximately 15 min away from Mytilene, Lesvos when the Hellenic Coast Guard came: “A few of them boarded on our boat, removed the engine of our boat and started to beat us [..] for half an hour." In the second testimony a man claims to have been 20 min away from Lesvos. “A Greek boat came, removed the engine and threw it into the sea. Some children fell in the sea. And then Greek boat sailed away." It is questionable how reliable these testimonies are, since the people were probably in a Turkish detention center and it is not clear if the statements were given voluntarily. But the behaviour of the Hellenic Coast Guard described is very similar to hundreds of testimonies collected by the Border Violence Monitoring Network and its partners.

© Photo: Turkish Coast Guard

So far there has been no evidence that Turkish authorities have accompanied migrant boats to Greek waters. And Mitarachi’s claim seems like a pre-emptive strike after a night of at least 5 pushbacks in the presence of the Turkish Coast Guard and Frontex. And 2 days after MEP Erik Marquardt announced to have received 166 GB of video footags of pushbacks from Turkish authorities [8]. To discredit the Turkish Coast Guard and its surveillance footage as propaganda would clearly be in the interest of the Greek government.

The migrant version of April 2nd

A Palestinian family, who was in one of the boats that was pushed back by the Hellenic Coast Guard and wishes to remain anonymous, said, that they were not accompanied by any ship on their way to Lesvos.They were approximately 2 km away from the shore when a ship approached "with a Greek flag" and blocked them. Shortly after a Turkish Coast Guard ship arrived. What followed next has been known under the cynical term "Greek water polo" . While the overcrowded rubber dhingy drifted in the middle both Coast Guard ships tried to push it towards the opposing side by driving past with high speed and thus creating waves. This kind of manoeuvre knowingly endangers the lives of the people in the overcrowded flimsy boat and exposes them to deadly terror. Ithas been documented many times in the Aegean in the past year. The migrants in the dhingy were then later taken aboard the Turkish Coast Guard ship and taken back to Turkey and are currently recovering from that traumatizing experience.

This is only the testimony of one of the 7 boats that tried to reach Lesvos that night. But it shows how people on the move are being instrumentalized by two nations with no regard for migrant’s lives or the truth. Although several pushback survivors in similar instances have expressed gratitude towards the Turkish Coast Guard for saving their lives.

The Greek attempt to legalize pushbacks

Two days later, on April 4th, when Ursula von der Leyen was scheduled to meet with Turkish president Erdogan to renegotiate the infamous EU-Turkey deal - NotisMitarachipublished an open letter to Ylva Johansson, EU commissioner for home affairs. In this letter he referred to the events of April 2nd and again blamed Turkey for supporting migrants in their attempt to cross the Aegean [9]. In the letter he doesn’t speak of Greek but of the European border and by this positioning Greece as "shield of Europe"as once called by Ursula von der Leyen and implying that pressuring Turkey to stop migrants from crossing and demanding Turkey to accept the deportation of 1.450 migrants is a common interest. [10].

In the letter he is also raising the question that in the case that migrants are crossing with active support of Turkey if the Geneva convention – especially Article 31-33 - still apply. Those articles include the non-refoulment principle, which make pushbacks illegal. What Mitarachi is trying here is to partly suspend human rights in the Aegean and to legalize pushbacks. And this is not his first attempt:

In March 2020 Mitarachi announced via Twitter that Greece would suspended the right to seek asylum for one months [11].

In June 2020 Giorgos Koumoutsakos, the Greek Alternate Minister for Migration and Asylum, wrote a letter, co-signed by Bulgaria and Cypress, to the EU (among others to Ylva Johansson), calling for the addition of an emergency clause in the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum [12]. The clauses aim was to give frontline states the freedom to deal with an exceptional migration flow effectively by being able to use preventive and response tactics. "Preventive and response tactics" is diplomatic talk for pushbacks and other measures normally considered illegal and/ or violations of human rights.

Human Rights and the Geneva Convention mustn’t be pause or suspended. They stand for the globally agreed upon minimum standards to preserve humanity and dignity. They don’t just apply for people within European borders and they don’t just apply in peaceful times. The status quo in the Aegean where people on the move are stripped of their rights, abused, tortured, dehumanized, left to die and killed is in no way acceptable. The instrumentalization of human lives for political power moves or for deterrence must stop and the responsible actors of those crimes must be held accountable.

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