Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki
A story of Maria: how the Greek government killed a five-year-old girl
Maria, a Syrian girl seeking a safe place to live, was five when she was killed by the actions – and deliberate inaction – of the Greek government and police. We must understand how this outrage was carried out, and the ways in which the excuses currently being thrown to obscure it are demonstrably false.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis travelled yesterday (Tuesday 16 August 2022) to the Fylakio Prison in Evros, where Greece is (illegally – it is illegal to detain people merely for entering your country if they are seeking asylum, except under extraordinarily specific and rare circumstances, none of which apply in this situation) detaining 38 people who had for nine days been trapped on an islet in the Evros river.
Mitarachis, as he has several times in the past, used this occasion to mislead and misdirect the Greek public, but before we address that, we must first of all offer some context to this ‘visit’.
At its most stark and basic, of 50 people who attempted to reach Greece as part of this group, in search of a place to live, learn and work, at least four are now dead, killed directly or indirectly by the actions of the Greek government and its uniformed employees.
The most recent of those killed was Maria, a five-year-old Syrian girl. She and her sister Agia, nine, are believed to have been stung by a scorpion on the islet on Tuesday 9 August. She died and Agia suffered delirium, fever and vomiting for several days.
Both girls were denied medical assistance, and both were only on the islet because of consistent, deliberate and obstinate law-breaking by the Greek government and those it pays.
For a little more context – and we will be as brief as possible – on Thursday 14 July 2022, a group of 50 men, women and children arrived on the Greek side of the Evros river hoping to apply for asylum, as is their legal right.
Instead, they were met by Greek police who beat them remorselessly, killing one man. They then forced another man and his two sons into the river and told them to ‘swim back to Türkiye’, even though the men and boys told them they could not swim. The man and one boy drowned. Another is still missing.
The police forced those they had not killed onto an islet in the river, without food or clean water, and left them to die.
Of course, every single part of this was illegal, and to compound the crime, the government and its employees then ignored an order issued by the European Court of Human Rights that the people on the islet must be given food, shelter, medicine, water, and allowed to apply for asylum.
Despite having put them on the islet, the Greek Police claimed not to know where the people were, a claim made even harder to accept because, on Monday 25 July, as the people trapped on the islet screamed for help, a group of people arrived on the Greek side of the river and shouted ‘Here is a boat!’ Before deliberately smashing it in front of them.
The following day, Tuesday 26 July 2022, in direct contravention of international and EU law, in obstinate defiance of an order from the European Court of Human Rights, and after 12 days in which three people had been murdered, the Greek authorities forced the group back to Türkiye.
In Türkiye, the group was again beaten, and in most cases refused re-entry. They were told to return to Greece.
Which is how, on Saturday 6 August 2022, 40 of the original group, along with 30 other people, came to be back on a Greek islet in the Evros river.
The European Court’s order still stood, and aid organisations and journalists repeatedly shared the group’s location, but Greek police claimed, once again, to be ‘unable to find them’.
On Monday 8 August 2022, police entered the islet, divided the group in two, and sent the 40 to another islet on the river.
The following day, Tuesday 9 August, Maria and her sister Agia, Syrian children fleeing a war which was the only reality they had ever known, were killed and injured, on an islet they were on solely because of the Greek government and its employees’ law-breaking.
Maria’s mother could not bury her youngest daughter. She kept her body in the river in the hope that finally, someone would rescue them, and help her elder daughter survive.
Instead, nothing. The police continued to deny any existence of the group, or its whereabouts.
And then, on Friday 12 August 2022, only after complaints and demonstrations from members of SYRIZA (Greece’s main opposition party), KKE (Greece’s Communist party) and some MEPs, as well as increasing pubic concern and anger, the story changed.
Suddenly, the Greek police said that the islet on which the group was on – an islet the Greek police had not even known existed for two days short of a month before – was not Greek, but Turkish. And that they could not find the group. The contradiction inherent in this statement: ‘we do not know where the group is, and the location we know them to be at does not belong to Greece,’ apparently did not strike the police, or many backers of Nea Dimokratia (the Greek government) as at all remarkable.
When questioned further, the police said that in fact the ownership of the islet was ‘contested’ and that only secret military maps showed that, even as every single public map in existence showed it belonged to Greece.
Turkish government representatives ‘did not deny’ this, but even if it were a lie, why should they deny it? Suddenly, they had been handed an islet in a militarised and highly-contested border region. Why would they ‘hand it back’?
And what of Notis Mitarachis? He remained steadfastly silent on the matter (apart from an embarrassing attack on sea-rescuer Iason Apostolopoulos late on Thursday 11 August) until the weekend.
Then, he began to Tweet.
On Saturday 13 August, just (!) four days after Maria was killed (and a month after at least four other people seeking safety had been) he tweeted that:
‘We are also deeply concerned about migrants stranded by smugglers near our borders. The incident however, as reported by the Hellenic Police @hellenicpolice is outside Greek territory.’
Of course, the islet was not ‘outside of Greek territory’, as he knew well.
Even were it ‘contested’ (and only ‘secret military maps’ show this, apparently) that is still not the same as ‘Turkish’.
And while we have little to no faith in Mitarachis’ knowledge or capacity to do his job, someone in his ministry must certainly have been aware that even had it been Turkish (and it is not) the Greek police would have been perfectly within their rights under international law to carry out a rescue of the group.
(‘extraterritorial rescue’ is absolutely allowed under international law. In order to carry out a rescue a state needs to be able to show or hold awareness of risk and capacity to respond. Greece had both.)
They did not because they did not want to, and because Greece’s Migration Minister, Notis Mitarachis, did not want them to. They would literally rather have killed a five-year-old girl, risked the death of a nine-year-old, and handed an islet to the Turkish government, than carry out one of the simplest rescue operations in human history. And that is what they did.
On Sunday 14 August, his first tweet having convinced nobody at all, Mitarachis tweeted again. This time, he said:
‘As announced by @hellenicpolice for #εβρος police made successive searches, as well as by every suitable technical means, without detecting a human presence. It has been confirmed that this is a point outside Greek territory. ELAS immediately provided two updates to the Turkish authorities.’
Now. As we have noted, the only thing the Hellenic Police, ELAS, did ‘immediately’ was, on Thursday 14 July 2022, beat one man from the group to death, then kill one other man and at least one – probably two – boys, by drowning them in the river.
What they did in the immediate aftermath of Maria’s death was nothing at all. For four days. And then, they made up a transparently false excuse involving a ‘secret map’, and perhaps contacted the Turkish authorities.
But effectively, Mitarachis made two points. The same points the police made: the group of 39 people, whose precise coordinates have been sent to the Greek authorities several times a day for eight days by several different groups and individuals, cannot be found because they are not on the islet, and don’t exist, and simultaneously, they do exist, they are on the islet, and the islet they are definitely on is Turkish, according to a secret map we have.
What he did not explain, however, was why – if the group was not on the islet, as he claimed – the Greek authorities were contacting their Turkish counterparts at all. One of life’s mysteries.
And then, on Monday afternoon (15 August 2022) the group reached the Greek river bank again. Maria's mother, well aware by now that no recue was coming, brought herself to bury her youngest daughter, and the group reached the bank.
Mitarachis Tweeted that he would ‘meet’ them at Fylakia, where they are being illegally detained, which was in itself something of a miracle as he had been so clear just a day before that they did not exist.
And so he did.
In a statement to the media, made from outside the prison into which the Greek government has illegally forced a grieving mother and her still extremely sick surviving daughter, Mitarachis claimed that he had ‘seen statements’ from the group (the ethics of this are pretty extraordinary: the people arrived only yesterday at the prison. Does this mean Mitarachis sat in on the interviews and is now revealing to media what he heard under those, supposedly confidential, conditions? And why were these interviews carried out so soon after such a clearly traumatic experience?), which he said stated they were ‘taken from Turkish cities’ by Turkish authorities.
He said they had been ‘pushed forward’ to the islet by those authorities.
This is pretty much impossible for three reasons.
First, we know that every one of these people was part of a group of 50 men, women and children who had crossed the Evros on Thursday 14 July 2022, and that Greek police killed at least three of those people.
Second, we know that having been illegally pushed back to Türkiye, the group was beaten by Turkish guards and then forced back: that is, it is certainly the case that Turkish border guards illegally beat (though did not, unlike Greek police, kill) some of the group, and illegally denied them entry to Türkiye (although they did not want to be in Türkiye and it is their legal right to choose where they go to apply for asylum). Though, once again, this happened only after Greek authorities illegally pushed them back from Greece.
But what this means is that Mitarachis’ claim that they were ‘taken from Turkish cities’ and then ‘pushed forward’ to the islet is fundamentally untrue.
It may be that Mitarachis does not know that this is untrue – though as Greece’s Migration Minister it is his job to know – but it is vital that Greek people are not led to believe by Mitarachis, who at absolute best simply does not know what he is saying is false, that this is what happened. It simply did not.
(as a note, some of the group have certainly told newspaper reporters in the last month that they felt they had to leave Türkiye, because they were terrified they would be deported to Syria, and it is likely that most of them lived in cities. But this is not the same as ‘Turkish authorities taking them from several cities and pushing them forward to the islet’: it is simply these people using their right to flee persecution and seek asylum somewhere safe.
(Equally, we feel we must point out that this situation hardly strengthens Mitarachis’ case. Mitarachis claims that the Geneva Convention requires Türkiye to look after these people, and it does, as long as they are requesting asylum in Türkiye. But. As Mitarachis must surely know, Türkiye is not a signatory to the section of the Convention [in fact, the Refugee Protocols, but such mistakes are absolutely to be expected from the Greek minister] under which countries must provide asylum to people from outside Europe.
(That is, despite Mitarachis’ claim, and his pretence that Türkiye is a ‘safe state’ for people from Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, no-one from those states automatically qualifies for asylum in Türkiye: they may simply be deported, as thousands of Afghan and Syrian people have been in the last six months alone, tens of thousands since 2016).
So, what Mitarachis says happened, simply did not happen, and these people have very good reason for wishing to leave Türkiye.
And we must also note, if the Turkish government were to ‘push forward’ a group of refugees, it would still be Greece’s duty to provide care and shelter for them. We should, of course, also note that not only do we know that the Greek Police, rather than Turkish authorities, illegally forced the group onto this islet, the Turkish government could not ‘push forward’ a group who remained in Türkiye, as Mitarachis claimed had happened. It simply would not be a ‘push forward’. Because they would still have been in Türkiye.
This, Mitarachis certainly knows. As a result, his use of ‘push forward’ is a deliberate deception.
But we must once again come back to the fact that a five-year-old girl, Maria, has died as a result of the Greek government’s orders, and the activities the authorities employed by that government have carried out.
She was a little Syrian girl, a child who had known nothing but war, chaos, terror and destruction for all of her short time on the planet.
And when she reached a place that was supposed to be better, where she could live, learn, thrive as a little girl should do, she was trapped on a deserted island, with no food, no shelter, no clean water, and no medicine, and killed.
She was reportedly killed by a scorpion, but we must make no mistake:
Maria was also killed by the indifference and illegal behaviour of the Greek government and its uniformed employees. She deserved far better. We all do.