Late in August*, a young man went missing in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Samos.
His story is by no means unusual, and highlights a serious flaw in the – illegal and immoral – behaviour of European states in response to people travelling to seek safety.
The young man, from a state in the Middle East, had boarded a boat near to Kusadasi, south of Izmir. Along with around 30 other people, he travelled roughly six kilometres until the boat neared Samos, where it was – entirely illegally – intercepted by the Greek coastguard.
Instead of guiding the vessel safely to land, as is required under international law, the Greek coastguard stopped the boat, removed its engine, and set it adrift.
This was an entirely illegal act. Not only coastguards, but all sea travellers – especially those representing a nation-state – are required, under international law to aid any person or people who are in danger at sea, and are prohibited from undertaking any act which would create or increase that danger.
The survivors, who were rescued from being illegally set adrift by a Greek unit supposed to be saving lives at sea later that morning by the Turkish coastguard, one of their number had – instead of remaining onboard the boat – dived into the sea to attempt to cross the short distance to the Greek island.
In the month which has passed since then, no-one has heard from the young man. He had previously been in regular contact with his family, some of whom are still in his homeland, and others of whom now live in Europe.
Increasingly desperate for news, they have employed solicitors in Greece and Turkey to search the manifests of camps, reception centres, and quarantine zones, but his name appears on none of them.
Of course, they have also been forced to consider the worst, and have contacted agencies and organisations working on the Aegean Sea. As yet, no deaths have been recorded in this region of sea in either August or September.
And this is all we know. Another young man lost – and at the moment at least, that is not a euphemism for something even worse – in the region of the Aegean Sea.
The problem is, it is not really all we know.
Because we know the young man has a name. We know that like all of us he has dreams and ambitions. We know that he fled a region in which he feared for his safety, to try to find a place to live, work and contribute to his community. And we know that he is not – in any of this, including being a victim of an illegal activity by the Greek government’s operatives – alone.
In fact, it is quite fitting that we are writing this piece when we are, just hours after the Danish Minister for Immigration and Integration, Mattias Tesfaye, congratulated Greece’s Minister for Migration Notis Mitarachis for ‘fulfilling his task’ and ‘keeping immigration numbers low’.
Because this young man’s situation, and Tesfaye’s scarcely-believable comments, give us an ideal opportunity to remind our readers of the following facts.
The Greek government, which had been elected in July 2019, began to use ‘pushbacks’ as a means of ‘reducing refugee numbers’ on 1 March 2020.
Since then, up to and including 19 September 2021, the Greek government has registered 5,666 new arrivals on the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. It has pushed back 17,950 people. That is, the Greek government has pushed back 76 per cent of all men, women and children who have attempted to reach Greece. More than three of every four people.
From 1 January 2021 to 19 September 2021, the figure is even higher. In that period, 1,693 people have been registered as new arrivals on the Aegean islands. 9,009 have been pushed back. This means that in this year so far, the Greek government has pushed back 84.18 per cent of men, women and children trying to find safety: considerably more than four in every five.
And so far in September (from 1-19 of the month) just 38 people have been registered as new arrivals on the Aegean islands. 1,818 have been forced back.** That is, an astonishing 97.95 per cent of people who have travelled to Greece in search of safety and an opportunity to live and work, have been prevented from doing so. Considerably more than 19 out of every 20 people have been illegally forced back.
At this point, it might be worth noting what these pushbacks are.
In some cases, such as that experienced by the young man and his fellow travellers, boats are boarded, prevented from continuing their journeys, stripped of their engines, and set adrift on the open sea. This is illegal for on more than one count, immoral and extraordinarily dangerous.
It is, almost unbelievably, better than what happens to the people who are pushed back after reaching land. Those people are routinely beaten by police or coastguard staff, are stripped of their phones, papers, money and other possessions, and forced onto inflatable life rafts which are then set adrift.
This is of course extraordinarily-dangerous, and on 19 March 2021, four men drowned as a result of this practice.
It is also illegal. It is a fundamental human right of every man, woman and child on the planet to leave their home country and travel to any destination they choose, with or without paperwork, as long as they declare their intention to apply for asylum to the appropriate legal authority, as soon as possible after their arrival.
This is what this young man faced.
This is what Tesfaye praised Mitarachis for: breaking the law, robbing men, women and children of their money, papers and possessions, risking their deaths, and stripping not only them, but all of us of our fundamental human rights. Because a human right is exactly that: something which applies to all human beings, regardless of where they are from, and as soon as any government, anywhere, starts picking and choosing who it applies to and why, it is no longer a right for any of us.
But as noted at the top of this piece, the policy of pushbacks – which is, of course, also being carried out by Italian, Spanish and now UK operatives as well – is not only illegal, terribly dangerous and unjustifiable: it is also deeply flawed.
Because even though governments all over the world claim to want to ‘stop people smuggling’ (or, in some cases, deliberately misrepresenting smuggling as ‘trafficking’), people smuggling is as strong – if not stronger – than it ever was.
The very laws some states are passing – in direct breach of international laws to which their states actively signed up – are in fact driving an increase in smuggling. Because when people understand they cannot travel by so-called ‘accepted’ means, and that they will be pushed back if they try, they of course turn to smugglers. Because what else can they do?
If a person is faced with war, terror, chaos and likely death where they live, and the possibility of building a new life, in which they can thrive, learn, contribute and succeed – particularly when to travel to do so is their right as a human being – of course they will travel. They have almost no choice, and neither should they be forced to choose anything else.
So, as a policy it is doomed to failure.
But even this is not its most fundamental flaw.
Because if we had a properly-regulated asylum system, under which people could board safe transport to take them to the country of their choice, enter and have their asylum application processed, not only would we be able to end smuggling as a practice, we would also know where people are.
Right now, we do not. This young man’s whereabouts are completely unknown. That is a disaster for his friends and his family, but it is also a problem for governments, which are because of their own decision to break the law now unable to be sure even who is in their country, let alone to protect them and the other people it is their duty to serve.
The fact is, as we have already said, this young man is not alone. Not only because of all we already noted, or even because anyone who cares about their fellow man, and indeed for the law, stands with him, but because he is yet another person who has disappeared because governments continually break the law in the name of ‘defence’ and ‘order’.
Even were those their genuine aims, pushbacks and attacks on people exercising their right to travel are not reducing the problem. They are increasing it, enormously. It would be better not only for refugees and other travellers, but for every single person on Earth if those policies were abandoned, immediately, and replaced with a regulated system of safe transport for all who need it.
As a final note, on the off-chance the young man who is central to this piece ever reads it, if you can, do get in touch with your family. They miss you, and are desperate to hear you are OK.
*All details relating to this young man have been deliberately kept vague, to prevent him being identified. However, if he reads this himself, your family are worried and would really appreciate a call, text, or e-mail to confirm you are OK.
**Numbers courtesy of Aegean Boat Report
(for more information about pushbacks, including action you can take to help end them, visit www.koraki.org/end-pushbacks)