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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

The doomed - and deadly - 'travel prevention' policy

At 6.10am today (26 October 2021) a boat with a capacity of ten people, but carrying 27 men, women and children capsized[1] southeast of Chios.

After hours of searching and rescue by the Greek coastguard, 22 people were rescued, four - three children and a woman - were found dead, and one more was still missing, though it is sadly hard to imagine they had survived so long in the open sea. It's unusual to 'step outside' a piece like this one under any circumstance, but there were a lot of possibilities for the sentence following that paragraph. Because there is a lot that should be, and is not being, said.

We should note what Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis said at around 1pm today, just after the fourth body had been recovered:

'This is the reality of the exploitation of migrants by criminal gangs in the Aegean - unscrupulous smugglers putting lives at risk in heavily laden unseaworthy dinghies off Chios.

'Tragically in spite of the best efforts of the Hellenic Coastguard, 4 children - all between the ages of 3 and 14 - are confirmed dead, 1 person is missing, 22 were rescued and are being cared for ashore.

'The Turkish authorities must do more to prevent exploitation by criminal gangs at source. These journeys should never be allowed to happen.'

It's important to remember that Mr. Mitarachis has and had absolutely no idea how this disaster took place, the reasons for it, or indeed anything at all, except the details he shared (though even then, he was wrong) about who was involved.

This statement was - it is impossible not to conclude - a cynical exercise in self-service and blame-shifting.

Not only does Mr. Mitarachis know his (and wider EU) policies are exactly what drives people into the arms of smugglers and that his policies prevent people contacting the coastguard when they are in trouble (because acting on Mitarachis' orders the coastguard to attack those people and set them adrift in engineless life rafts), he also knows that despite his desperation to blame Turkey (in a statement for which the phrase 'dog-whistle politics' might have been invented) it is:

a) illegal under international law to prevent people from travelling and

b) in 2019, the Turkish coastguard prevented 60,366 people from reaching the Aegean islands from Turkey, out of a total of 120,029 people who attempted the journey, a prevention record of 50.3 per cent.

In 2020, 9,105 men, women and children were registered as arrivals on the Aegean islands, compared with 19,511 who were stopped by the Turkish coastguard. Even when we factor in that the Greek government itself illegally pushed back 9,741 people, the Turkish coastguard prevented around 51 per cent of refugees leaving Turkey for the Greek Aegean islands.

This year, to 25 October, the Turkish coastguard prevented 16,610 men, women and children from travelling, compared to just 2,101 who were registered as arrivals on those islands. Once again, we must factor the Greek government's own brutal and illegal pushbacks, which saw 9,965 people denied their fundamental human rights, but even considering this, the Turkish coastguard prevented 58 per cent of those who have tried to make the journey, from arriving.

That is, in total, Turkey has blocked 51.6 per cent of the 187,062 men, women and children who have attempted to reach Greece in the last three years.

That is absolutely illegal (and demanded of Turkey by Greece and the rest of the EU) but it also means that - Mr. as Mitarachis knows - the number of people who would have arrived on the Eastern Aegean islands since 1 January 2019 is more than double the number who have actually done so.

Despite this, Mr. Mitarachis tells the Greek public that every incident in Greek waters is somehow the 'fault' of a Turkish coastguard which is in fact breaking international law at his (and others') demand.

To take his statement line by line:

'This is the reality of the exploitation of migrants by criminal gangs in the Aegean - unscrupulous smugglers putting lives at risk in heavily laden unseaworthy dinghies off Chios.'

It is very true that large numbers of men, women and children - described here by Mr. Mitarachis as 'migrants' to deflect from the reality that anyone travelling to the Aegean islands (as opposed to attempting to find other entry points) is almost by definition hoping to enter the asylum system, and elsewhere described by him and others quite deliberately incorrectly as 'illegal immigrants' - are being exploited by smugglers. But not in the way Mr. Mitarachis implies.

Because these men, women and children are not being taken across the Aegean against their will. In EVERY case we know of, they have WANTED to travel. The exploitation comes because the smugglers charge astronomically-high fees for the journey, and pack the boats so full that they are fundamentally unsafe.

In this morning's disaster, a boat meant for ten people had very nearly three times that number. We do NOT know for certain exactly why that boat capsized this morning, but it seems almost impossible to imagine that the number of people packed into it was not a factor.

If Mr. Mitarachis is actually interested in preventing deaths on the Aegean, or indeed in ending the exploitation of innocent people by smugglers, he must work to provide those people safe transport on safe routes.

This would wipe out the smugglers' 'business' at a stroke, and even at worst would massively reduce the number pf people killed on the tiny journeys between the Turkish west and Aegean islands' east coasts.

It is, in fact, reasonable to suggest that Mr. Mitarachis' policies - especially the illegal pushbacks under which people are beaten, stripped of their possessions and set adrift on engineless craft if they come into contact with Greek sea, port or land authorities - are actually directly causing those deaths and that exploitation.

He continued: 'Tragically in spite of the best efforts of the Hellenic Coastguard, 4 children - all between the ages of 3 and 14 - are confirmed dead, 1 person is missing, 22 were rescued and are being cared for ashore.'

In fact, three children and one adult. The fifth person - alive or otherwise - is yet to be recovered.

'The Turkish authorities must do more to prevent exploitation by criminal gangs at source.'

As we have noted above, the EU - with Greece as the current major cheerleader and loudest demanding voice - is already forcing the Turkish coastguard to break international law by preventing people from travelling: the right to leave the country in which one finds oneself is a fundamental human right, which therefore means every man, woman and child is entitled to do so without let or hindrance from any authority or other person or group. Equally, under refugee law, any person may enter any country of their choice with or without paperwork, as long as, at the earliest opportunity after their arrival in that destination country, they inform the relevant authorities of their intention to apply for asylum.

Even then, the Turkish coastguard has stopped more than half the number of people who have attempted to reach the Aegean islands since 1 January 2019, from doing so.

Even as Mr. Mitarachis claims that Turkey is not breaking international law enough, he knows that without their action, the number of new arrivals in Greece over the last three years would have been more than double what it was.

'These journeys should never be allowed to happen.'

In combination with the previous sentence, this is a clear effort by Mr. Mitarachis to further blame the Turkish coastguard for 'failing' (to break international law as much as he wishes it would).

But in fact, these journeys - run by smugglers, at enormous cost and direct danger to the lives of all the people who travel - should NOT be allowed to happen.

As we have noted many times before, including within this piece, the only way to prevent them - and a way which is guaranteed to work - is for Greece (and the wider EU) to provide safe transportation and safe routes on which people can travel.

This will, at a stroke, end the smugglers' business - who would pay ludicrously high amounts for demonstrably unsafe transport when affordable and safe alternatives are readily-available? - slash deaths on the Aegean, and mean the Greek government and wider EU could be certain at all times how many people were entering Greece as asylum seekers, and where they are at any given moment.

Just as simply - and truly - the Greek government's policy is not only illegal and immoral, it is unworkable.

It is failing, and has done since it began.

Today's disaster is yet another reminder that we must change our approach, to deliver something that saves lives, and actually works.

[1] information later gathered by Aegean Boat Report suggests that the boat's bottom may have collapsed into the sea.


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