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Monitoring human rights violations in the Aegean: an interview with Mare Liberum


CN: this article contains discussion of anti-refugee violence and trauma


Evidence of human rights violations continue to mount against Greek and Turkish border forces, whilst both the EU’s Frontex border force and NATO are accused of facilitating or ignoring violence against refugees headed for Greece. As the presence of human rights monitors and NGOs increases in the region, Politika News sat down (virtually) to discuss the situation on the ground with Mare Liberum, which has been monitoring human rights violations in the Aegean since 2018. Its 2020 Pushback Report assessed the array of evidence of violence being perpetrated and/or ignored by various institutions against boats and dinghies carrying refugees. Mare Liberum researcher, Saskia, answered our questions on violence against refugees, human rights violations and accountability.

Your 2020 Pushback Report calls the Aegean Sea a ‘militarised zone’ where ‘brutal tactics’ are used against refugees, violating international law and human rights. How is international law being violated by these pushbacks?

According to the Geneva Convention on Refugees, everyone has the right to seek international protection. Under the non-refoulement principle, states may not turn away anyone who enters with the intention of seeking asylum. This is laid out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights as well as in international law. Most of the times people on the move cross a border in groups. Collective deportations, which in this case also include group pushbacks, are also prohibited under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Whereas this applies to all pushbacks, there are some specifics about pushbacks at sea. If a boat gets into distress, as overcrowded and broken dinghies usually do, then according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Convention on Maritime Rescue, every captain is obligated to render assistance to those in distress. Pushbacks obviously violate these conventions.

In the Aegean this means that once a boat has crossed the border, the people on board have the right to ask for asylum or international protection in Greece. If they are pushed back or pulled back across the border, the migrants are denied this legal access to the European migration system without a hearing, a case review or consideration of the circumstances.

How has it become possible for laws to be violated like this in the Aegean?

Pushbacks in the Aegean have been going on for years. Only in the last year have we seen a massive increase in human rights violations, which is also linked to the number of groups now monitoring in this area.

Europe has always turned a blind eye to the ‘border management’ of countries on the external borders. After all, it is very much in the interest of Northern and Western European countries if Greece does the ‘dirty work’, the illegal part.

On the other hand, Greece, like many other Southern European countries, has had to deal with the rising numbers of people on the move seeking safety in Europe since 2015, without much support.

While six years ago many people in Greece welcomed those fleeing and tried to help where they could, many feel left alone by the EU, which does nothing but throw money at the situation. In this political environment, right-wing and conservative parties saw an opportunity to promote their anti-migration agenda.

In your report, you discuss the various illegal methods used by Greek border forces to push back boats headed for Lesvos to Turkish waters. What is the most violent tactic used against refugees that you have recorded or been made aware of?

It is very difficult to say which practice is the most violent, as they are all incredibly brutal and degrading. However, a pushback does not necessarily have to be physically violent to be traumatising and in violation of human rights.

In our report, we described how the Hellenic Coast Guard sabotages inflatable boats with sticks or firearms, how people are actively put in distress at sea, pushed back and forth at sea by Turkish and Greek border guards, left in life rafts at sea or on tiny islands.

In recent months, we have heard of cases where people without life rafts or boats have been thrown into the water and then had to swim to the Turkish shore to survive. All these tactics are extremely dangerous and can certainly be deadly.

From what you are seeing every day, is the violence being perpetrated by border forces easing or getting more intense?

I would say it is becoming more intense as pushbacks are becoming more normalised in Greece, but also at other European borders.

It seems to be generally accepted that pushbacks take place and there is a lack of outrage at a European level. This also makes it easier for border authorities, including Frontex, to carry out pushbacks or turn a blind eye.

As pushbacks are now no longer the exception but the norm at most borders, border authorities are developing ever more ‘efficient’ techniques to deport people illegally, which in many ways means an increasing level of brutality.

In your report you say that these violations of international law and human rights include ‘the participation of NATO and Frontex’. What does this participation look like and who is holding these institutions to account?

Both Frontex and NATO vessels are operating in the Aegean and are on the scene when pushbacks are carried out by the Greek border authorities. As I said before, pushbacks clearly violate various laws and it is therefore outrageous when NATO and Frontex officials simply stand by and neither intervene nor report the incidents later.

There is no evidence of a pushback in the Aegean carried out by Frontex or NATO, but both actors must have much more information than they are sharing. This may seem like passive involvement in human rights violations, but it gives the Greek authorities the security to continue with their strategies.

It is very difficult to hold both actors accountable. There are some complaints against Frontex and the EU Parliament can put pressure on the agency to investigate incidents that have become public. Unfortunately, this has not led to major results so far.

Despite the increase in violence perpetrated by border forces against refugees, President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, recently thanked Greek border guards ‘for maintaining order’. What role does the EU play in the ongoing violence that has developed over the last decade?

In recent years, we have seen a trend towards externalising borders in the EU’s migration policy. This means that Europe is trying to externalise asylum procedures further away from its borders so that people do not reach the EU in the first place and get the chance to apply for asylum there.

The EU-Turkey deal of 2016 is a good example of this. Syrian refugees are supposed to stay in Turkey and are deported straight back to Turkey as soon as they enter Greece.

Moreover, Western and Northern European countries pay a lot of money to Southern countries with external borders to protect these borders and take care of the people coming into the EU.

In short, the EU pays for camps and reception centres in the so-called hotspots (currently located in Greece and Italy) and for border police and coast guards, who then use the money and equipment to carry out illegal pushbacks in the case of Greece.

With the presence of Frontex at almost all external borders, the EU also actively participates in the blurred field of border protection and is thus almost automatically involved in semi-legal or illegal actions.

In November 2020, the EU’s Frontex launched its own internal investigation into alleged pushbacks perpetrated by its personnel. Frontex head, Fabrice Leggeri, admitted that Frontex vessels ‘were in the vicinity of pushbacks’ but denies that they were aware of any violation. As an organisation that monitors the violence unfolding in the Aegean, what is your response to Mr. Leggeri’s conclusions?

Pushbacks take place every day in the Aegean and Frontex is on the ground with hundreds of officers and several ships and planes. I find it very hard to believe that they know nothing about violations and were only present in the few cases they investigated.

This seems somewhat hypocritical and shows that Frontex’s main mandate is to prevent people from entering Europe and not to protect human rights.

Further investigation could also lead to the conclusion that Frontex cannot continue to operate in Greece if there are too many violations of fundamental rights, which of course they want to avoid.

Finally, what is one testimonial that has stayed with you to this day?

I took a testimony last year with some young women and men who told me about their friend who had reached Samos by boat and was then pushed back after landing. (This has become a very common practice of the Hellenic Coast Guard, by the way.)

They were intercepted by the police on the beach, put into a small dinghy and left to drift in Turkish waters. They told me that their friend had fallen into the water and drowned.

He had been terrified of crossing by boat from Turkey to Greece and only after most of his friends had made it did he find the courage to try.

It is incredibly tragic that he made it to Samos alive and then drowned due to an illegal pushback. He was buried in a forest in Turkey and his family in Congo probably don’t know what happened to him.

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