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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Notis Mitarachis' race to shift blame for Christmas killings

Sixty-one people died in Greek waters in the four days up to and including Christmas Eve.

For most countries – and certainly most people who held any responsibility for the safety of men, women and children within their territory – this would be a cause of absolute, unutterable shame.

Yet in the nine days since the first catastrophe killed at least 38 people on 21st December, the Greek government – and its minister for migration Notis Mitarachis – has done nothing but blame others for the sole predictable outcome of his, his government’s, and the EU’s deliberate and consistent breaking of international law.

The catastrophes and their causes

At 7.30pm on Tuesday 21st December, 38 men, women and children died when their boat sank off Folegandros.

At 12pm on Thursday 23rd December (Thursday) 92 people survived when their boat ran aground in the bay of Gyalia.

On the same day a boat sank off Antikythera. Though 90 people survived, seven – five men and two women – were killed.

And at nine pm on Christmas Eve, 16 people: 12 men, three women and an infant, died – another two people may still be missing – after another boat sank 8km from the island of Paros. Sixty-two other people were rescued.

In the wake of these catastrophes, which took place in the immediate run-up to the major festival of the Western world, one in which people are supposed to gain joy and contentment from the generosity, openness, warmth and happiness they spread to others, the Greek government has – predictably but incredibly disappointingly – looked to attack others and deflect blame from itself.

And with that in mind, we may wish to look at a couple of things.

It is every person’s right to travel, and in the case of people seeking asylum, to enter the country of their choice, with or without paperwork.

The Greek government and wider EU refuse to provide safe transportation and routes.

This means people who wish to travel – which is their legal right, and is codified in specific international law, included in the Refugee Convention and Refugee Protocols, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on which all international law is founded – have only less safe transportation, run by ‘smugglers’ (though they are not smuggling anything and are not breaking any laws) on less safe routes, on which to do so.

In turn, the Greek government, backed by the EU, has systematically, viciously and brutally attacked men, women and children who have managed to reach Greece, stripping them of their possessions and illegally forcing them out of Greece, often on unsafe inflatable engineless life-rafts.

As a result, these people are forced onto ever longer, and more dangerous routes. These four vessels were all travelling from Turkey not to Greece, but to Italy, far further away and far harder to reach, because the people aboard knew what despicable behaviour awaited them should they even arrive in Greece. And the longer and more dangerous a route, the more likely something is to go wrong. Usually, when something goes wrong, people die.

The simple fact is that these deaths – and those which are likely to follow – have happened because the Greek government and the wider EU have deliberately broken the law. That is not to say there is no other factor also at play, but at its simplest, the Greek government’s policies, and those of the EU, have killed at least 61 people off the Greek coast in the four days before Christmas, 16 of them on the night before Christmas itself.

Mitarachis’ Christmas message

On Christmas Day, Notis Mitarachis took time out of his family celebrations to Tweet about the Christmas Eve catastrophe.

Instead of acknowledging the fact that his policies and practices – and he is of course part of a government which took power two and a half years ago – led to this disaster, and apologising for the senseless, unnecessary deaths caused by his outright refusal to live up to Greece’s responsibilities under international law, instead even of sending a message of sympathy and love at Christmas to those who had lost loved ones and family members, Mitarachis chose to blame everyone else he could think of.

He Tweeted: ‘Greece continues to save lives at sea and fight the smuggling networks, but it’s not enough. The loss of life in the Aegean is shocking. We must all condemn this criminality while calling on Turkey to redouble its efforts to prevent illegal departures.

Now, a major problem with this astonishing message is not just that it is so wantonly defensive and unpleasant a way to mark the deaths of 38 people – a message sent on Christmas Day! – but also that in fact the Turkish coastguard – acting illegally, but at the direct demand of the EU (and repeated public demands by the Greek government) – has in fact stopped 22,657 people from reaching Greek waters and the Greek islands so far this year, compared with just 3,514 people who have been registered as new arrivals so far in the same period.

Even if we add the 14,972 people illegally pushed back to Turkey by Mitarachis, his government and its employees from 1 January to 30 November this year, the Turkish coastguard has still prevented more people from arriving in Greece than the number who actually did reach Greek waters and/or land.

Nor is this new. In each year since 2017, The Turkish Coastguard has stopped no fewer than 42,5% (2017) and up to 68.2% (2020) of people attempting to reach Greece.

This year, the proportion is far higher, 86.7 per cent. If we include those who have actually arrived but been illegally pushed back by Greece (which the Greek government does not, as it repeatedly denied this ever happens) the Turkish coastguard still forces back more than half of all those who make the journey – 51.9 per cent in 2020 and 55.1 per cent so far this year.

And while ‘smugglers’ (who are of course not, in fact, smugglers) do not deserve our love or support, the idea that they are ‘to blame’ for deaths at sea when the Greek government and EU have closed down all safe routes and transportation, and violently expel anyone who takes less safe routes, is a wild misrepresentation: ‘smugglers’ are meeting a ‘market need’ and filling a ‘gap in the market’ which has been created by the Greek government and EU deliberately and consistently breaking international law.

‘The law’

On 28 December, the Greek government announced that three men, two aged 31 and the other 40, who were on board the boat which sank off Paros on Christmas Eve, have been arrested and will be charged with murder, intentional manslaughter, causing an accident at sea, and membership of a criminal organisation.

It is almost impossible to imagine a fair, decently-governed country in which such charges could be upheld by a criminal court – not least because ‘smugglers’ absolutely never travel on the boats they send out.

But Greece has already found people guilty of smuggling for ‘crimes’ as terrible as ‘steering the boat which had capsized and on which we would all have died, to safety’ (the sentence was 146 years!!!).

So we believe it is important to repeat this simple point-by-point:

1. The Greek government refuses to provide safe transportation or even safe routes for people who wish to travel.

2. It is every person's right to travel.

3. When people travel using the unsafe transport which is all that remains open to them because of the Greek government's refusal to provide assistance to anyone at all, the Greek government sends uniformed, armed officers to beat them, steal their possessions, and illegally push them back - often in unsafe and engineless life-rafts.

4. So, these people are forced onto unsafe routes, in unsafe transport.

5. On 24 December this year - Christmas Eve - at least 16 people died as a direct result of this.

6. Today, five days later, the Greek government announces it will try other people (survivors of the catastrophe the government itself caused) for murder. Other people.

7. It is not illegal to travel. And while the people governments call 'people smugglers' are often pretty unpleasant people, (though some are normal people, driven by circumstances to behave unpleasantly) they are NOT, in fact smuggling anyone. That is, they are not people smugglers. Nor are they actually breaking the law. The Greek government (and those of Poland, the UK, the US, and indeed the EU) is breaking the law. Yet, to defend itself, it is now hoping to wreck the lives of another three individuals.

How to save lives

This afternoon (30 December 2021) at 4.30pm, Notis Mitarachis, presumably still feeling he had not ‘defended’ himself enough against his own actions and their entirely predictable consequences, repeated his accusations, against Turkey and ‘smugglers’.

We have already stated above some of the many reasons why in fact Greece and the wider EU must bear the majority of the responsibility for these deaths – not least as the only ‘actors’ in the situation consistently and deliberately breaking international law.

We have also noted that in fact the Turkish coastguard has prevented a huge proportion – and indeed number – of people from reaching Greek waters, because it is being paid by the EU to break international law: literally any complaint from the Greek government on this point is effectively the Greek government saying the Turkish government is not breaking international law enough to satisfy it.

But Mitarachis’ comment does bear repeating and on at least one point, answering. He said: ‘The European Union and Greece are opposed to any attempt to 'instrumentalize' the migration crisis, and obviously border protection makes Europe strong in the face of excessive demands.

‘This is the mission of Frontex, this is the sovereign responsibility of our country.

‘We protect our borders with determination and in compliance with international law.

‘Of course, Turkey, by implementing the Joint Declaration, should have prevented the illegal departures.

‘In this way, the recent deadly shipwrecks, would have been prevented.

‘Every boat that does not sail saves lives are helps crackdown smuggling networks.’

Greece is not ‘protecting its borders in compliance with international law’.

In fact, international law specifically does not allow one to ‘protect one’s borders’ from refugees.

At least as importantly, if Mr Mitarachis’, or indeed any part of the EU’s, priority were seriously to prevent dangerous boat journeys, tackle ‘smuggling’ (though of course no actual smuggling is in fact taking place) and reduce deaths, there is one very simple way it can do so: provide safe transportation on safe routes, either cheap or free, to all who want and need it.

This would be in line with international law. It would wipe out ‘smuggling’ at a stroke, as no-one would pay someone a vast sum of money to take a leaky dinghy on an unsafe route when they could get in a safe boat and travel safely, for free, and it would cut deaths at a stroke.

The Greek government and wider EU could do this. It knows it could do this, and it knows it could work.

It chooses not to.

There is no other way of putting this, nor of summarising the situation: Mitarachis, the Greek government and EU have chosen to force people to pay vast sums to die at sea, rather than providing them with the means to travel safely to find decent places to live, learn and work.

It is time it owned this decision, which killed 61 men, women and children in the week before Christmas.


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