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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Sea blindness: Greece’s Maritime Ministry attacks EU’s legal watchdog

When the contents of the OLAF report were first made known, many people speculated how the Greek government would respond.

Now it has been published, we know the answer: silence from almost everyone, and a deranged denial of fact, attack on the EU’s legal watchdog, and detachment from even what the report says by the Maritime Ministry.

It is time for the Greek government to go.

Greece’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy, which has direct responsibility for the country’s Coastguard, has issued a statement in response to the OLAF report’s final publication which is remarkable mainly for its lack of connection either to reality or to what the report actually said.

As we noted yesterday, the OLAF report into the illegal activity of EU border agency Frontex, which also clearly shows that the Greek government has carried out thousands of pushbacks since 1 March 2020 – indeed, hiding and participating in some of these is one of the report’s major findings about Frontex – has finally been published so the public can read it.

The publication was not done by the EU Commission, to which OLAF – the EU’s legal watchdog – handed its report at the end of February this year – but by the German newspaper Der Spiegel.

The Maritime Ministry is, as we noted, responsible for the Greek Coastguard, which is a major focus of the report, but we should note that the Migration Ministry has the overall say on matters relating to people coming to Greece. It has made no direct comment, though its head, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis, took part in a supposed interview which reads rather more like a hagiography, on CNN Greece.

The Maritime Ministry, however, has issued a statement which manages to both entirely misrepresent reality and refers to the EU’s actual legal watchdog as if it were a group designed to lie about Greece.

We will deal with the statement line by line.

It begins:

The officers of the Hellenic Coastguard who are responsible for guarding the Greek and European sea borders…

This is of course a direct misrepresentation of the role of the Coastguard. The Coastguard’s duty is to protect first the lives and second the property of people in and close to Greek waters. It is the duty of the Greek navy to ‘guard’ the Greek waters, which is why it is the navy, rather than some Coastguard vessels, which is sent when Greece is ‘threatened’ by another nation.

Equally, even if the Coastguard’s job were to ‘guard the Greek and European sea borders’ it is illegal to do so against unarmed, vulnerable men, women and children who are seeking asylum, which was the topic of the OLAF report.

It continues:

… have for months maximised their efforts, operating around the clock with efficiency, a high sense of responsibility, perfect professionalism, patriotism, and also with a respect for everyone’s life and human rights.

Many of these claims may be true, though quite why one would want the Coastguard to act with ‘patriotism’ is beyond us. But since 1 March 2020 (not ‘months’ but close to three years) the Greek Coastguard has pushed back at least 43,807 people.

In almost every case, they have been stripped of their possessions. In most cases they have been beaten. In many they have been sexually assaulted, and in some they have been killed. In all, they have been pushed back from Greece.

It is no longer ‘just’ us saying this, or NGOs, journalists, the United Nations and on occasion even the EU Commission. It is the European Union’s body charged with ensuring the EU’s regulations, are followed by its member states.

It is absolutely not respecting someone’s life to kill them. Nor is it respecting their human rights to rob them, beat them, sexually assault them, kill them or push them back. It is our right as human beings to travel and to seek safe places to live, learn, and work.

We are perfectly happy to accept that the Greek Coastguard – whose role and purpose the Ministry in charge of it either does not understand, or has chosen to deliberately misrepresent – works hard, and is ‘patriotic’.

But it is simply incorrect to claim it has acted in respect of human rights or people’s lives. It has done the absolute opposite.

The statement then claims:

Their actions are carried out in full compliance with the country’s international obligations, in particular the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.

This is an interesting comment because it deliberately ignores Greece’s legal obligations to allow people to enter to apply for asylum, but even if we ignore that howling hole in the Ministry’s argument, its statement simply is not true.

Because in all of the conventions noted by the Ministry, the priority is for the Coastguard to carry out rescues swiftly – and we know a huge number of cases in which people on boats who call 112 are simply shouted at and then ignored by operators for the Coastguard (perhaps the Ministry’s ‘patriotism’ in action) – and to take survivors to the closest port.

Instead, the Greek Coastguard consistently does not take people to any port. Instead, it disables boats by breaking their engines – in direct contravention of all conventions on sea activity – and sets them adrift towards Türkiye. It literally puts people’s lives in greater danger, once again in direct contravention of even the conventions the Ministry cherry-picked for its statement.

It goes on:

Furthermore, thousands of migrants have been rescued, in particular by the Hellenic Coast Guard, throughout the refugee/migration crisis, drawing the acknowledgement and praise of the international community.

So, first of all, the word ‘migrants’ here was chosen deliberately to misrepresent those making journeys towards Greece. People travelling to Greece to apply for asylum may accurately be called ‘asylum seekers’ or even at a push ‘refugees’. They should simply be called ‘people’. But to say ‘migrants’ when talking about them is simply to attempt to trick people into believing that these are people travelling without rights or legality. The Ministry knows this is not the case.

The Ministry should also not be referring to a ‘crisis’ of any kind: the EU has a population of 448m people, and in the last eight years – from 2014 – 1,210,348 people have entered the EU via sea crossings to Greece. That’s just 0.27 per cent of the EU population: just over a quarter of one per cent.

Even if people arriving as refugees were a negative thing – and economically, socially and culturally they clearly are the opposite – the increase in the EU’s population of just 0.27 per cent would hardly be a ‘crisis’. It wouldn’t even really qualify as a minor inconvenience.

And to call it a ‘refugee/migrant’ crisis, is once again an effort by the Ministry to deliberately mislead. The overwhelming majority of people who have arrived by sea to Greece have at least attempted to apply for asylum: there is simply no sensible reason to throw in the word ‘migrant’.

But there is another point to be made about this part of the statement. When it says ‘thousands of [people] have been rescued… by the Hellenic Coast Goard,’ that’s fine, but first of all that is the sole actual job of the Coastguard, and so demanding praise for it is a little like saying we should praise Greek painters for painting a lot of walls: sure, we are grateful, but it is also what you are there for.

But we must also note that what OLAF is talking about is not the bits of the Coastguard’s job which the service has done properly, but the parts it has refused to do, done badly, or where it has done the precise opposite. It may have rescued thousands of people in the last nine years, but it has also pushed back tens of thousands in the last three.

What the Ministry is doing here is a little like if a painter had been found to have burned down 15 of the 25 houses they had worked in since March 2020, and their boss had said ‘he has painted 50 houses since 2014, and has not burned down 34 of them’ as if somehow that was worthy of praise. Not burning down houses is the absolute least we should expect, and not burning down 34 out of 50 still means they burned down 16 houses (one of them in, say, 2017). The first does not somehow outweigh the second and mean it should not be highlighted, punished, and prevented from ever happening again.

And while it is certainly true that if we take the refugee response from the beginning, the Greek Coast Guard and Greek public certainly did deservedly win praise from the international community, this rather ignores the fact that since July 2019, when the Ministry’s current occupiers came to power, it has received none.

Instead, it has been strongly criticised by: NGOs who are experts in their activities and analysis, legal experts, news reporters, the governments of 17 EU member states, the EU Parliament, the EU Commission and the United Nations.

The only way one can pretend that ‘the Greek Coastguard won the praise of the international community’ is the whole story is if one insists history ended in 2019, at the precise moment Nea Dimokratia took power in Greece and made Greece and its Coastguard one of the most widely criticised legal and governmental organisations in the entire developed world.

The statement concludes:

As for the tendentious allegations of supposed illegal actions, we must emphasise that the operation practices of the Greek authorities have never included such actions. What’s more, internal investigative and disciplinary control mechanisms are fully implemented in cooperation with the judicial authorities and other competent bodies, whenever it is necessary.

We’ll deal with the second half of this section first. It’s simply untrue to suggest that ‘judicial authorities’ have been engaged in pushback investigations. Not one of the 1,920 pushback incidents carried out by the Greek authorities has made it to a court. There has simply been no ‘judicial’ involvement or engagement.

It’s also a little worrying to read that investigations are carried out ‘whenever it is necessary’. One would not expect the police to say they keep an eye open for crimes ‘whenever it is necessary’.

And so far, there has been one ‘internal investigation’ into pushbacks carried out. One, for at least 1,920 incidents in which 43,807 people have been illegally forced out of Greece.

This investigation was carried out earlier this year by Greece’s National Transparency Authority, which issued its findings in a swiftly-deleted report on Thursday 12 May 2022.

But the Authority was created in September 2019 to investigate allegations of fraud against the Greek government.

It was clear at the time – and many people noted this – that in fact, it was a merely symbolic creation, designed to offer the appearance that Nea Dimokratia was ‘cleaning its house’ following members of the party accepting bribes from Novartis which led to a Europe-wide fixing of medicine prices.

This fear was heightened when the Greek government dissolved the case against Novartis, and dismissed its lead prosecutor Eleni Touloupaki, claiming she and the entire case were corrupt, and working solely to attack Nea Dimokratia.

In essence, even if it wanted to, the Authority is not capable of investigating pushbacks. Its members have absolutely no experience either in humanitarian work or investigations of this kind. Nor does it have the capacity to carry out an investigation into whether the Greek government (which appointed all its members), Greek police and Greek Coastguard have been deliberately breaking international law over a long period of time. It was simply never created to do so.

Even if it were capable – and it is not – it may in fact not want to. It was appointed directly by the Greek government and pushbacks is not about individual members of that government, but the government itself. Should the government ever be found guilty of breaking international law it is not only the duty of its head, Kiriakos Mitsotakis, to resign as he has ultimate responsibility for the government and its activities.

And it is widely reported that not only was the Authority directly appointed by the Greek government, and not only is its governor, Angelos Binis, a close personal friend of Greece’s Prime Minister Kiriakos Mitsotakis (both of which are undeniably and certainly true), he was the best man at Mitsotakis’ wedding (we must note that we have not yet seen definitive proof that the latter is the case).

That is, not only is it not capable, it is also perhaps not willing, to properly investigate pushbacks carried out by Greek government employees under Greek government orders.

This was clearly demonstrated by its ‘investigation’ into pushbacks, the only one ever carried out in this government’s period in power. Because it claimed there had been ‘no evidence’ of pushbacks in a case it ‘investigated’.

But its report showed that it had not spoken to a single person who has been pushed back in the course of its ‘investigation’ and had used the guidance of the Greek Police – who are themselves named as protagonists of pushbacks in the pushbacks cases – that it should not accept any of the videos, photos and transcripts from people who had been pushed back as ‘evidence’. It’s like showing a burglar footage of him breaking into a house and stealing a TV, then asking him whether this should be used as ‘evidence’ of his burglary.

So there has, as the Ministry well knows, been just one ‘investigation’, and this was so severely flawed – to the point of ridicule – that it simply served to prove that the Greek system is unable and/or unwilling to do a proper job on this subject.

But we must also look at the first part of that comment.

Because to date, when presented with actual video footage of pushbacks taking place, along with photographs, testimonies from those pushed back, and direct criticism from the EU and UNHCR, the Greek government has consistently countered with claims that every piece of evidence is ‘Turkish propaganda’ and stated that anyone sharing it is either in the pay of the Turkish government, directly allied to it, or has been tricked by it.

In effect, the Greek government, in a piece of paranoia seldom seen outside of asylums in comic-books, has created a narrative in which every national and international NGO, almost every major news agency in the Western world, the governments of most EU member states, the EU Parliament, the EU Commission and the actual United Nations are all conspiring with the Turkish government to attack Greece, a tiny country in the far south-east of Europe. It has not, as yet, bothered to explain why these disparate agents would wish to do this.

But when the OLAF report was first released and when parts of it were leaked, some people believed that surely now the government must at least begin to try to understand that it could not simply blindly lie about its actions.

This statement proves that this is not the case. By calling the OLAF findings ‘tendentious allegations of supposed illegal actions’ it is implying that there is significant doubt that pushbacks have happened (there is not) and that there is somewhere some other body better qualified and better positioned than OLAF – the EU’s actual legal watchdog, the undeniable authority on whether EU law is being broken, and whether EU member states are breaking international law – to decide whether the Greek government is breaking the law.

There is not. OLAF is what there is.

If the Greek government does not accept the EU’s appointed specialist body’s findings, it must leave the bloc altogether.

And this is where we now are. Greece has a government so deeply committed to racist activity, to assault and law-breaking, that its Ministries make simply astonishing statements – official releases that bear almost no relation even to their supposed subject – to cover up their behaviour and attempt to simply carry on regardless.

The Greek public must be aware: the EU’s member states, the EU itself, the world’s news reporters, the world’s NGOs, the EU Commission, the EU Parliament, the United Nations and now the EU’s own legal watchdog are not in some conspiracy against Greece, as the Greek government claims.

The director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, resigned when this report was first discussed by media. Because what it said about him, his agency and therefore also the Greek government, was true. He recognised it and left.

The Greek government is behaving, instead, like a toddler, jamming its fingers in its ears and shouting lies in the hope it will somehow be allowed to carry on behaving wildly and terribly.

The difference, of course, is that the Greek government’s wild and terrible behaviour is actually illegal, actually wrecking the lives of tens of thousands of people, and actively killing many others.

The government should resign. And Notis Mitarachis – perhaps along with several others – should face criminal trial.


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