Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki
Nea Dimokratia attempts largest ever pushback
Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Early on 28th October, a ship containing 382 men, women and children sent messages to aid organisations including Aegean Boat Report, having the previous day entered a state of emergency after its engines failed between the Greek islands of Crete and Chrisi.
The ship, a cargo vessel, had left Turkey and was travelling towards Italy, where the people aboard planned to exercise their rights as human beings to apply for asylum.
It broke down just 7.2km from Ierapetra, Crete. Roughly a 20-minute sea journey.
Very quickly, Greek and international media began to ask questions: had the Greek Coastguard sprung into action? Presumably the boat would be towed to Ierapetra and the people allowed to disembark?
The Coastguard claimed that it had not found the boat – a claim that would have been disappointing for a sea rescue service in a 21st-century European state. But that potential disappointment was soon abated when Aegean Boat Report shared photos and videos literally showing a Greek Coastguard vessel alongside the boat, others showing that Greek Coastguard officers had literally boarded the vessel and finally, images and videos of the Coastguard vessel literally towing the boat.
What happened next was quite remarkable.
Instead of towing the boat to Ierapetra, just 7.2km away, the Greek Coastguard chose to tow it north and east, towards Turkey.
With international media asking questions, and Aegean Boat Report amongst others posting updates on the ‘progress’ of the ‘rescue’, the Greek government refused to comment.
What it did while not commenting was have the Greek Coastguard – a body which is supposed to rescue people in distress at sea – tow the boat for 56 hours.
The Coastguard did not provide the people on board with water, food or medicines as one might expect from a life-saving service.
But what it did do was circle close to Turkish waters.
It would be unreasonable to claim to know for certain all of the details of something which took place at sea over the course of several days, but it seems absolutely impossible not to conclude that:
a) The intention of the Greek Coastguard, under direct orders from the Greek government, was to illegally force these men, women and children into Turkish waters, and
b) The only reasons they did not do so were the intense international media interest in the incident and – and this is almost certainly the most important factor – the fact that it was logistically impossible to force 382 people into Turkish waters without the Greek Coastguard vessel itself illegally entering Turkish waters
The Greek government, faced with the impossibility of carrying out the pushback it wanted, instead attempted to demand that Turkey take the boat, as it was sailing under its flag. There is no possibility that the Greek government seriously believed that this would work, not least because a country’s flag on a ship demands no responsibility for a vessel other than to ensure it is sea-worthy and that its staff are employed in keeping with that state’s laws. Of course, Turkey refused.
So earlier today (31 October 2021), after 56 hours of being pointlessly towed around, deprived of food, water and medicine, the men, women and children were finally allowed to disembark the vessel, more than 280km from where their vessel fell into trouble and they raised the alarm.
After they were finally allowed to set foot on land, eat food and drink, the Greek government issued a series of statements, none of which bore very much relation to reality.
Notis Mitarachis, the Greek Minister of Migration, claimed: ‘Earlier today, the Hellenic coastguard safely disembarked 382 migrants from a Turkish flagged vessel after its engine failed in international waters off Crete.’
This is of course, incorrect. We do not claim that Mr Mitarachis is a liar, but if he is not, he was horrifically poorly-informed. The vessel was simply not in international waters. It was, as we have already noted, 7.2km from Ierapetra, and between it and Chrisi, also a Greek island.
He also claimed: ‘Greece has once again proven that it protects human lives at sea and provides protection, the moment others are indifferent to their obligations.’
Of course, the ‘others’ here are Turkey, which as we have noted have absolutely no legal reason – no ‘obligation’ – to take vessels from Greek waters. Especially not when the people on board are deliberately leaving Turkey in order to find safe, decent places to live elsewhere.
Equally, as Aegean Boat Report points out, it is a little much for the Greek government to claim it ‘protects human lives at sea and provides protection’ when it has illegally pushed back more than 20,000 men, women and children – and stolen the clothes, mobile phones and other possessions of many of them – this year alone.
And if the Greek government’s aim were really to ‘provide protection’ and ‘protect human lives at sea’ why did its Coastguard spend 56 hours towing a vessel around when it had sent out an emergency distress message just 7.2km from a Greek port?
We often talk about international law when we share incidents of pushbacks, and on this occasion we will share another: the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, which was drafted and came into effect in 1982.
Greece is a signatory to this law, which states clearly that every nation has a duty to assist anyone in distress at sea, and bring them to the closest safe port. There was a safe port just 7.2km from the vessel in distress.
Instead of bringing them there on Wednesday when the distress signal was sent, the Greek government instead towed the vessel for well over 500km, and did not allow the people on board to disembark until four days had passed.
It is impossible to imagine that this direct and deliberate breach of international law by the Greek government could have been undertaken with any target other than to carry out another illegal act – the forced pushback of 382 men, women and children to Turkey.
On this occasion, that aim was foiled by the actions of humanitarians, international media and the sheer logistics of such a desire.
But we can – and must – act now to ensure no such illegal and inhumane acts are carried out in future. Visit https://www.koraki.org/end-pushbacks to find out how you can help.
With thanks to Aegean Boat Report for its work on this case, and many others.