• Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Evros islet not Turkish after all

We often try to use the standalone here to describe the story in a few words: this time it is simple. The Greek government lied about the status of the Evros islet on which it left a five-year-old girl to die.

As we, other NGOs, journalists across Europe and the world, and many, many others have said from the start, the islet on which 39 people were trapped, and a five-year-old Syrian girl Maria died, is not in fact Turkish. The Greek government and police simply lied that it was.

The claim that the islet belonged to Türkiye was first made by the Greek Police on Friday 12 August, three days after they, following the orders of the Greek government, had left Maria to die. At the time, we advised that this was a lie.

Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis seized upon the claim one day later, when he Tweeted:

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.

This too, was of course, a lie.

And it was one Mitarachis soon placed at the heart of his attacks on NGOs and journalists who reported the Greek government’s despicable treatment of these and other people attempting to find safe places to live, learn and work in Greece and the wider EU.

Effectively, he argued, should one make a mistake like this and attack ‘Greece’ (in fact, he and his government) for it, how can anyone trust any other part of their claims?

Certainly, it was effective. People who (claimed they) had ‘supported NGOs in the past’ lined up to attack them for their ‘attacks on Greece’, even though no such claims had been made.

At the time, we advised and urged caution. We pointed out that it was extraordinarily-unlikely that multi-national corporations would have carelessly made a mistake regarding the ownership of any part of one of the most militarised borders – and one in Europe, at that – on the planet.

Perhaps more importantly, we noted, the Greek military had issued only a spectacularly-noncommittal statement about the claims. It said the ‘islet was contested’, which even then read like a cough and mumble to avoid contradicting the government in a moment of crisis.

Sadly, this advice was not taken (in fairness, most people did not see it). Mitarachis – entirely illegally – used his position as Minister of Migration to threaten HumanRights360 with de-registration as a Greek NGO, fines, jail and being banned from sites where new arrivals are (illegally) detained, unless it issued a statement apologising for saying the islet was Greek.

For ‘good measure’, he also demanded the organisation have its finances investigated for ‘money-laundering’, despite having absolutely no reason to believe this was happening. He then illegally leaked this information to the media.

On Thursday 15 September 2022, HumanRights360’s director Epaminondas Farmakis issued a public statement that they had been wrong about the ownership of the islet (which, we should note, was in any case irrelevant. It is entirely legal to rescue people from territory belonging to others if you know they need rescuing, and can carry out such a rescue), as well as hanging the journalist Giorgos Christides out to dry (another demand of Mitarachis’: Christides had been in regular contact with the group and had done more than perhaps any other individual to bring their situation to the attention of the public).

In doing so, Farmakis absolutely compromised the organisation’s ability to work independently and in the best interests of those with and for whom it is supposed to work. One confirmation of this was Mitarachis’ response to the statement: he used it to pretend that it proved Maria had never even died. This was, of course, reported as fact by virtually every Greek newspaper and broadcaster.

Farmakis wrecked his organisation: 15 HR360 staff, including its co-founder and deputy director Eleni Takou, resigned from the organisation in disgust at his statement.

But we should remember that while he did the wrong thing, he was forced to by illegal activity by Mitarachis. A Greek minister of state abused his position to gain what he knew to be a false ‘confession’, and then used that to pretend it proved things it did not even touch upon. Mitarachis crucified HumanRights360 in order to ‘reinforce’ and harder push a lie.

And it was a lie. Because seven opposition Greek MPs submitted a question to the Greek military, through the country’s Defence Ministry, asking it to clarify and specify precisely the status of the islet.

They responded that the islet is crossed by the border between Greece and Türkiye. It does not belong to Türkiye, but to both. And while the Defence Ministry now states that the group ‘was on the Turkish side of the border’ – a significant change from the claim that it is Turkish and could not be reached by Greek people (which itself would not have been true even had it been Turkish) the evidence shows very clearly that they were regularly on the Greek portion of the islet.

They could have been rescued at any time.

The Greek government and police chose not to rescue the group, and a five-year-old girl is dead as a result.

And Mitarachis based his whole argument about ‘what really happened’ on this lie (using a statement you know to be false or do not know to be true to build a narrative and attack those who oppose it is lying), in the process treating the Greek public as morons, destroying an organisation designed to help people, and trying to shirk blame for the death of Maria.

We should make no mistake:

Mitarachis is to blame for the death of Maria, a five-year-old girl. He has lied about it, and we must ask: if he is prepared to lie about this, how can we believe anything else he says?

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