Thessaloniki, 2 December 2020
An open letter to Greek, EU and international specialists in migration, asylum and law.
We were alarmed and disappointed to read the statement of Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachis, earlier today regarding two women drowning after a boat carrying 36 men, women and children, sank in Greek waters just off the coast of Agios Stefanos, Lesvos at 6am (2 December 2020).
He said: ‘I would like to express my sorrow at the shipwreck that happened today in Lesvos and at the loss of human lives, despite the immediate intervention of the Hellenic Coast Guard, that rescued 32 passengers.
‘It is inconceivable to allow inflatable boats, that do not meet any safety requirements and are being steered by people without permission and knowledge of the rules of the sea, to cross the Aegean.
‘Those who allow it, in addition to violating the EU-Turkey Joint Declaration, are knowingly (unfortunately), putting human lives at great risk. Based on the testimonies of the rescued migrants, the Turkish coastguard vessel that located them initially (the migrants called an emergency number) did not help, or rescue them but allowed them instead to illegally cross the maritime borders of the European Union.
‘Additionally, NGOs encouraging these behaviours (unintentionally perhaps), need to realise their actual mission and immediately stop contributing to the loss of lives.
‘The international community must, through crucial and rigorous interventions, protect human lives, effectively contributing to the complete cessation of the illicit trafficking routes.’
We share Mr Mitarachis’ sorrow regarding the deaths of the two women, and feel this is a good time to raise some issues regarding the rest of his statement.
He states that the Turkish Coastguard 'allowed them (the refugees) instead to illegally cross the maritime borders of the European Union.'
As Greece’s Minister of Migration and Asylum, he is of course aware that it is absolutely not illegal for any person to cross a border anywhere, maritime or otherwise, if their intention is to apply for asylum on arrival at their destination. It is a shame that he has chosen to repeat (unintentionally perhaps) a suggestion that it is.
He then says: 'Additionally, NGOs encouraging these behaviours (unintentionally perhaps),'
Once again, this is not particularly helpful, and it is startling to read such a statement in relation to the deaths at sea of two innocent women, and the rescue of 34 other men, women and children. Equally, it is not the case.
NGOs are working to save people’s lives by preventing them from drowning, and by providing them with warm clothing, food and water when they arrive in the EU. This is in fact the duty of any organisation – political or otherwise, and including governments and political blocs – which seeks to obey international law.
With this in mind, it is also disappointing to hear the Minister state that NGOs ‘need to realize their actual mission and immediately stop contributing to the loss of lives.'
The only way it is possible to claim that NGOs saving people from drowning and preventing people from starving or freezing to death on their arrival in the EU are ‘contributing to the loss of lives’ is if the proposal is that NGOs should let people die, in order to make sure other people do not die. This is, of course, both an immoral and illegal way to reduce the number of people travelling to the EU.
Mr Mitarachis was correct, however, when he said: 'The international community must, through crucial and rigorous interventions, protect human lives, effectively contributing to the complete cessation of the illicit trafficking routes.'
The only sensible way to do this is for the Greek government, the EU, and the entire international community, to open safe routes and provide transportation for all those who need to come.
The EU-Turkey Statement Mr Mitarachis cited was enacted in March 2016. In the four years, eight months, since then, close to one person has died in the Eastern Mediterranean for every 200 who have reached the Aegean islands. This year, 2020, that figure is almost exactly one in every 100. If December continues the way the year has to date, 2020 will record the worst death rate in the history of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Yet despite the high-risks, and the terrible behaviour of people-smugglers, and in spite of the Statement’s attempts to outlaw it, people continue to try to make the journey.
Nor can this be blamed on Turkey. Whatever the faults of its government, the Turkish Coastguard has carried out the illegal activities demanded of it by the EU-Turkey Statement with some success.
In every year since the Statement was enacted, the Turkish Coastguard has stopped far more than four in every ten people who have attempted to reach the EU from Turkish waters.
Last year, it stopped 50.3%. This year, to 29 November, it has stopped 66%. That is, far from being ‘the fault’ of Turkey or its coastguard, without it twice as many people would have arrived in Greece last year, and almost three times as many this year, as have actually done so.
After almost five years, and on all possible criteria, the EU-Turkey Statement has failed.
Despite two national coastguards and the EU border force breaking international law by preventing people reaching a place in which they wish to apply for asylum, people are dying at sea at a greater rate than in 2015 or 2016, people have not stopped trying to reach the EU (as is their right under international law) and smuggling continues.
But an alternative exists.
A system of safe transportation provided by nations and political blocs for people who wish to seek asylum, would immediately and hugely reduce the number of deaths of innocent people on the Greek and wider European coast, and immediately put people-smugglers out of business by ending any need for their so-called ‘services’.
It would also mean Greece, the EU, Turkey, and the hard-working coastguards and border patrols serving any and all of them, would no longer be being used to break international law and deny innocent men, women and children their fundamental human rights.
We very much hope that we can be of assistance in helping you realise this most sensible of outcomes,
(if you would like your name, or the name of your organisation added to this letter, please let us know in the comments below)