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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

The simple way for the EU to end people smuggling: do a better job

Updated: Nov 26, 2021

Statements from Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis following the drowning of three people in the Aegean Sea are characterised by a shifting of blame and a tendency to mislead people on refugee and other international law. But they are not alone. If the EU and its member states are serious about ‘ending people-smuggling’ there is a simple solution, which will end the practice and save lives. But they must act, now, and accept that their current policies have failed.

On 30 July 2021, at around 4.30am, three people, including one child, were killed and ten rescued from the water, when their boat capsized in the Aegean Sea.

These 13 men, women and children were seeking safe places to live. As with any person travelling with such an outcome in mind, they may or may not have been offered asylum in the country they hoped for, but it was their right to ask. Instead, three of them are now dead.

In the days which have followed, only a tiny amount has been said about these deaths, which were both unforgivable, and entirely avoidable.

And what has been said reveals a major problem at the heart of international ‘efforts’ to uphold the law, and safeguard the lives of innocent people. This negligence is a major cause of the deaths of men, women and children on all major crossings in the Mediterranean Sea, including the Aegean. It could be stopped immediately, if governments were willing to do so. And it is beyond time that they did.

The death of three people, and rescue of ten more

But before we move onto solutions, we should first address what happened, alongside the major statement made by any European (or indeed Turkish) politician on these avoidable and inexcusable deaths.

The problem we have with what happened is that the sole politician who has spoken about this incident differs in his account from the sole statement we know of made by anyone close to those who actually witnessed the event.

What we do know, however, is that the boat containing the 13 people launched from Altınova, in the Turkish city of Balıkesir, around 13km by sea from Lesvos, and around 15km from the island’s capital Mytilene. At around 4.30am, one person was rescued from the Greek Aegean Sea, and nine from the Turkish Aegean, by the Greek coastguard and some Greek fishermen who had been fishing in Greek waters.

Altınova, from where the vessel set out

Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis released on 3 August the contents of a letter he had sent to the European Commission’s Vice President Margaritis Schoinas, its Commissioners for Home Affairs and Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Ylva Johansson and Oliver Varhelyi, respectively, and Fabrice Leggeri, the Director of Frontex, about the incident.

Its contents were relatively unsurprising, featuring a series of accusations against the Turkish coastguard and government, alongside Mitarachis’ increasingly familiar misrepresentations of international law.

We will look at its major points in turn.

Mitarachis’ response

First, Mitarachis claimed that the Turkish coastguard had not only allowed the vessel to leave the Turkish coast, but had reached it as it neared Turkish waters and caused it to sink. He said: ‘The dingy was approached by the Turkish Coast Guard at around 3:50am. The coast guard vessel did not attempt to stop it or divert its course. Rather, it allowed the dinghy to continue, and ultimately to enter the waters of the European Union illegally.

The water was calm when the Turkish Coast Guard vessel approached the rubber dinghy who, according to the same testimonies, started manoeuvring close to the dinghy, causing waves and apparently the capsizing of the rubber dinghy.

We will come back to the issue of ‘entering the waters of the European Union illegally’ in a moment.

But it is first worth noting that this version of events differs significantly from that Mitarachis shared with the Greek parliament on 30 July, hours after the three people drowned, when he said: ‘Turkey failed to rescue the passengers as it should have done inside Turkish territorial waters and the Greek coast guard, which puts the protection of human life above all, was forced to enter Turkish territorial waters, rescuing 10 people.’

Now. There is no doubt that the Greek coastguard did in fact rescue nine of the ten survivors from Turkish waters (they were still around 900 metres from Greek waters when rescued; the tenth was in Greek waters), and should be congratulated for so doing. And no-one reading this should be under any misapprehension that we believe the Turkish coastguard is beyond criticism or reproach (though it has been placed in a disastrous position by its own government and the EU as a whole).

And it is of course true that new information comes to light in the course of an investigation, which may be how the story has changed. The ten survivors were reportedly taken to Lesvos and are now in ‘quarantine’, so it is very possible they added this detail.

But we must note that, in the sole ‘eye-witness’ statement made to Greek police or the Greek coastguard that we know about, no mention whatsoever was made of the Turkish coastguard.

One person, a partner of one of the eyewitnesses, explained: ‘The survivors were found by Greek fishermen. They were close to the Greek-Turkish border. My family started throwing the fishing lines in the water around 2 am. Then they waited a couple of hours at the same place before pulling in the lines again. They didn’t see or hear any other boats during this period except a small polyester fishing boat which was also fishing in the same area.

Around 4am they heard a strange noise, and it took a couple of minutes to realise that the noise came from people and not birds. They called the {Greek} coastguard at 4.06am. The coast guard vessels took roughly 20 minutes to arrive.

They couldn’t see the survivors, only hear them. One of them was swimming towards the lights of their boat in Greek waters, the others were in Turkish waters. The coast guard immediately phoned other fishermen to come and search for survivors as it was not clear how many people were in the water at that time. There was no Turkish coast guard so they also rescued those in Turkish waters. My family had to travel to the Hellenic coast guard in Molyvos the next day to make an official statement of what happened that night.

Once again, we would like to note that we write extensively and often on the Greek coastguard and its wrong-doing, of which, sadly, there is a great deal. Its pushbacks are illegal and have denied the fundamental rights of more than 15,402 men, women and children since 1 March 2020 – almost exactly three in every four people who have tried to reach Greece.

But this is an example of where the coastguard can be shown to have done its job, rescuing people in direct danger and distress at sea. And it should be congratulated for that.

Equally, there is a great deal of evidence that the Turkish coastguard has itself been involved and engaged in preventing people from leaving Turkey, in direct contravention of international law. Though we must also note that Notis Mitarachis’ main complaint against the Turkish coastguard is that it has not broken international law consistently enough.

The law and the EU Turkey Statement

In his letter, and a videoed statement, helpfully entitled Turkey caused sinking of dinghy and abandoned migrants, Mitarachis adds that: ‘The responsibility of Turkish authorities in relation to this incident fundamentally clashes with the duty to protect life at sea and to rescue persons in distress.

‘This incident underscores, once again, Turkey’s lack of commitment to the EU-Turkey Statement of 18.3.2016, under which Turkey undertook to prevent sea migration routes to the European Union.

Turkey continues to undermine the Statement by not accepting returns of finally rejected asylum applicants from the Aegean islands for more than a year now.

The continuous sea and land crossings from Turkey to Greece, prove the failure of Turkey to limit the operation of human smuggling networks in its territory.’

At this point we have to move to the second major issue. The law, Mitarachis’ continual misrepresentation of it, and the way in which the EU, including Greece, and Turkey, have conspired to twist and effectively disregard it.

Because even if we accept as true Mitarachis’ claim that the Turkish coastguard both sank the vessel carrying 13 people and then left those people adrift in Turkish waters – and as we have seen there is no reason why we should accept that claim - there is no reason whatsoever that we should pretend that the attempt by 13 men, women and children to enter Greek waters was ‘illegal’ as the Greek minister claims.

In fact, international law is extraordinarily clear: any person is entitled to travel from any place to any other, with or without paperwork, as long as they apply for asylum at the first possible opportunity on their arrival in what they consider to be their destination.

The law in this instance is, to be fair to those who have difficulty understanding it, in some ways counterintuitive. It effectively says that one cannot judge whether someone is acting illegally while they are undertaking the action itself, but can only do so when the action is completed.

Governments – and especially those like Nea Dimokratia which have expressly set out to win votes by promoting and encouraging the fear and hatred of foreigners in order to win power – dislike situations like this, and work hard to exploit people’s difficult in understanding it.

But perhaps the best way to explain it is that it is illegal to break the window of someone else’s house, or a school, but not if you are attempting to rescue someone, or save yourself, from a fire which has broken out within it.

The point of refugee law is that it has to work the way it does. ‘Normal’ rules do not apply because of the emergency. The simple fact is, people are allowed to travel, with or without paperwork, to wherever they like. This law is even as we write, being challenged by states who do not like it (Greece amongst them) and we must stand in its defence, because without it there simply is not a means by which any of us can flee chaos, terror, persecution, torture and death.

If a person arrives and refuses to make an asylum application, they may of course be removed under international law. But they must have the opportunity to make such an application.

We must also note that the law does not state that a country must give asylum to every person who reaches its borders. Simply that they must allow them to enter, and then give full and detailed consideration to their asylum application.

In any case, the simple fact is that despite what Mitarachis claimed in his letter, there is nothing illegal about these 13 people – or any other person or people – attempting to enter the EU or any other location.

But Mitarachis does not stop there. He also claims that in the EU Turkey Statement, Turkey ‘undertook to prevent sea migration routes to the European Union’.

Now, since before the EU Turkey Statement came into effect, and indeed before Koraki was founded, we have opposed the EU Turkey Statement and its contents. We also led opposition to the similar EU Libya Deal, on the grounds that in both cases the EU is seeking to take a coast guard (though in Libya’s case the term is rather inaccurate) whose sole responsibility is the safety of people at sea, and turn it into a militia force, ‘protecting’ the EU by breaking international law and preventing people from travelling.

Indeed, this enormous difference – between what the EU Turkey Statement demands, and international law on people’s right to travel and seek asylum – is at the heart of the vast majority of what is wrong with current EU policy on ‘migration’ and sets the bloc directly against international law, to the direct risk and detriment of the international legal system and the human rights inherent within it.

For example, the EU Turkey Statement directly contradicts international refugee law by stating that only Syrian men, women and children in Turkey will be allowed to enter the EU under the ‘exchange’ section laid out within it – despite the fact that one is not allowed to judge the right of any person’s asylum application solely on their nationality.

It also states that: ‘All new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands as of 20 March 2016 will be returned to Turkey’, which is the single clearest breach of international law on people’s right to travel to the destination of their choice it is possible to imagine.

But also, within the Statement, there is a significant contradiction.

Because the Statement demands that Turkey ‘accept the rapid return of all migrants not in need of international protection crossing from Turkey into Greece,’ despite already stating that ‘all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to Greece will be returned to Turkey’ meaning Turkey has agreed to accept all ‘irregular migrants’ and those ‘not in need of international protection’. Why would the EU have made such a demand?

But what the Statement does not do, is say – as Mitarachis claims – that Turkey will ‘prevent sea migration routes to the EU’. Instead, it states that Turkey will ‘Take any necessary measures’ (itself a wild and deeply concerning carte blanche) ‘to prevent new sea or land routes for irregular migration opening from Turkey to the EU’ which is not at all the same thing as ‘preventing {all} sea migration routes to the EU’.

But we might also make some extra observations about the EU Turkey Statement.

Because the Statement was made at a moment at which the EU - despite having no reason to – was panicking. Even though the EU was better-placed than any political entity in history to deal comfortably with people arriving and hoping to achieve safety, it instead fragmented and began to close its external and internal borders in terror.

The EU Turkey Statement breaks international law because the EU’s member states were, without reason, panicking about new arrivals, and the EU was panicking about its own fragmentation and genuine risk to its continuation. That the sole means it could come up with to ‘save itself’ was to directly and deliberately smash the international laws and fundamental human rights for which it had claimed to stand for the previous two generations was simultaneously bitterly ironic and a grim challenge to all of our rights and freedoms as human beings – a challenge we have still not come near to overcoming.

But the circumstances under which it was cobbled together – and the manifold ways in which it has failed even to deliver what it contains – are also vital to whether we can justifiably even regard the Statement as still existing.

First of all because in the 15 months to the EU Turkey Statement coming into effect (on 21 March 2016) around just over 1.008m people arrived in Greece via the Aegean Sea.

The total number of arrivals via the Aegean Sea from 1 January 2017 to 31 July 2021 has been 132,601 men, women and children. That is, seven and a half times fewer people have arrived in Europe via the Aegean Sea in the last 55 months than had done in the previous 15 months, which led to the EU ditching its commitments and responsibilities, and stripping people of their rights, to save itself.

One might argue that this is because the EU Turkey Statement’s absolute illegality and bare-faced cynicism has ‘worked’, though in fact, along with COVID and the Greek government’s horrifying pushbacks policy, the major factor has simply been a reduction in the number of people either forced – or able to get – out of countries where they fear they will be persecuted, maimed, tortured and/or murdered (this is likely to change significantly due to current events in Afghanistan).

But the point is, the situation under which the EU Turkey Statement was drafted has changed beyond all recognition. There is no sensible argument that it should still exist, even if one could convince oneself it ever should.

And to add to this is the uncomfortable fact that Turkey demanded – and was promised – a number of things in exchange for breaking international law and denying people their fundamental rights.

First, the EU promised – within the Statement – to remove the need for Turkish people to have a Visa to enter the EU.

Second, it promised to ‘upgrade the Customs Union’ between the EU and Turkey.

Thirdly, it promised to ‘re-energise the accession process’ for Turkey to become a full EU member state. This, in fact, was one of the first promises President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made to the Turkish people in his first presidential campaign, and is likely to have been his greatest wish when signing the Statement.

There are a number of good reasons why these promises were not fulfilled, but that does not alter the fact that the EU made these promises, and that they make up a third of the agreement itself. From a Turkish perspective, alongside the fact that the situation regarding people travelling into the EU from the East is completely unlike what it was when the Statement was signed, it would not be unreasonable to say the agreement was never enacted, as the EU has failed on the promises it made within it.

Equally, the EU made a very specific financial promise in the Statement, that it would provide Turkey with €3bn by the end of 2017, and with a further €3bn by the end of 2018, to provide services and assistance to its refugee population.

The money has still not been paid. In March 2021, more than two years after the EU promised to pay Turkey €6bn the German government reported that the EU had paid ‘more than €4bn’ to Turkey.

(Turkey has 3.6m Syrian people listed as under ‘international protection’ and another 1.3m Afghans and Iraqis who require assistance. Greece has around 150,000 men, women and children in or having recently completed the asylum application process. Turkey is roughly 7.5 times the size of Greece by population, but has 32.5 times as many refugees. Greece has, since 2015, received €3.2bn from the EU to assist 150,000 people. Turkey has still not received all of the €6bn it was promised to assist 32.5 times as many people)

In fact, the EU has failed to deliver a single one of the promises it made to Turkey in the EU Turkey Statement. Because the ninth of the Statement’s nine ‘primary points’ was that ‘The EU and Turkey will work to improve humanitarian conditions within Syria.

No-one on Earth could genuinely say they believe either has done so.

Turkey has at least been in Syria, but in many cases it has caused death, rather than improving conditions for ordinary people there. Meanwhile, the EU has done nothing at all.


The continuous sea and land crossings from Turkey to Greece, prove the failure of Turkey to limit the operation of human smuggling networks in its territory.’

This line from Mitarachis’ letter, however, is perhaps the most important of all.

First of all because it contains another, extremely sharp, example of his standard practice of making sweeping statements to undermine the reality of the situation he describes.

Because if one is to talk about the Turkish coastguard and Turkish government’s efforts to tackle ‘smuggling’, we should note that after 22 March 2016, when the EU Turkey Statement came into effect, 29,557 people arrived on the Aegean islands from Turkey. The Turkish coastguard stopped a total of 8,587 people, or roughly 23 per cent of the total number who tried to cross.

In 2017, 29,718 men, women and children arrived in Greece from Turkey via the Aegean Sea. The Turkish coastguard stopped another 21,937, about 43 per cent of those who tried to reach Greece.

In 2018, 32,494 people reached the Aegean Islands from Turkey. The Turkish coastguard stopped another 26,697, or 45 per cent.

In 2019, 59,726 men, women and children arrived on the islands. The Turkish coastguard stopped 60,366 people, meaning it prevented 50.3 per cent of people from reaching Greece.

In 2020, 9,105 people reached the islands. The Turkish coastguard stopped 19,511 men, women and children: 68 per cent of all those who tried to arrive were prevented from doing so.

And to 31 July this year, 1,321 men, women and children have arrived on the Aegean islands. The Turkish coastguard has stopped 8,548 people making it that far. This means that this year, the coast guard has prevented 86.6 per cent of those who wanted to reach Greece, from doing so.

Now, this is not something anyone should be celebrating. What we are describing here is the Turkish coastguard’s increasingly efficient denial of human rights, targeting innocent and vulnerable people and preventing them from finding secure, decent places to live, thrive, learn and contribute to their new communities.

It is in fact a litany of horror.

But it means that since 22 March 2016, 248,376 people have tried to reach the Aegean Islands. The Turkish coastguard has stopped 118,949 people, or 47.9 per cent of all those who have attempted the journey.

As noted, the Turkish coastguard has, for the last three years, stopped more than that percentage, indicating that it is becoming more efficient in the law-breaking it is employed to carry out by the EU.

What this means is that when Mitarachis says ‘The continuous sea and land crossings from Turkey to Greece, prove the failure of Turkey to limit the operation of human smuggling networks in its territory.’ What he is in fact demanding is that no-one at all must be allowed to travel to Greece, ever, in the hopes of applying for asylum.

In fact, however, the EU Turkey Statement did not require Turkey to entirely prevent smuggling – such a demand was considered by the EU, even in its desperate and aggressive state, to be impossible to deliver.

Instead, the statement says: ‘Turkey and the EU will continue stepping up measures against migrant smugglers and welcome the establishment of the NATO activity on the Aegean Sea.

So Notis Mitarachis is, here, criticising Turkey for failing to do something it has never been asked to do, and which even the EU at its absolute lowest (in moral terms, as well as in desperation) did not expect it to achieve.

But it does raise an important, and in fact the final, point.

The solution

Because although this piece was inspired by, and is a response to, the Greek Migration Minister’s insupportable statement on the death of three vulnerable people at sea (effectively: ‘it is Turkey’s fault, and not only because of the unsubstantiated claim I have made in public, but also because Turkey is failing to break the law as much as I want it to’) very similar comments are being made at all levels of the EU.

In Spain, Malta and Italy, where men, women and children are regularly arriving from Central and Western North Africa, government ministers also continually mislead the public by pretending that such crossings are ‘illegal’ and that ‘smugglers’ ‘must be stopped’.

At EU level, the comments are the same.

This is a serious moral and legal failing of the entire bloc, which is conspiring both against the people desperately seeking safety and the chance to live their lives, but also against the people of the EU itself, who they are deliberately misleading about both the nature of the people who are travelling, and the nature of the laws which mean they can.

And one of the most serious concerns is that all humanitarians, in common with the rhetoric of the EU and its individual member states’ governments, agree that smuggling should be stopped, with immediate effect.

Smugglers are taking huge sums of money – often equivalent to a year’s income, sometimes very much more – to cram people into overcrowded, unseaworthy boats, and setting them adrift to run the very real risk that they will die at sea.

And there is a very simple solution.

Because smugglers are able to take this money to provide this excuse for a ‘service’ because there is a demand. People do need to find decent places to live. They want their children to be safe, and to grow up in communities in which they will have opportunities and not live in fear of being tortured or killed in conflict.

But the only reason smugglers are meeting that demand is because they are the only people in ‘the game’. All the EU needs to do is not demand the Turkish coastguard acts as a sea-militia, or to blow up boats in Libya and Tunisia, but to provide safe passage for the men, women and children who want and need to make the journey.

It is unlikely that all of them would be granted asylum, but the cost of providing them with sea or air-crossings and decent, safe places to stay while they make and have their applications processed would be both less, and money better-spent, than what is currently paid for others to break the law on the EU’s behalf.

If the EU wishes to put smugglers out of business, it can do so at a stroke, by providing safe transportation to those who require it.

The three deaths on the Aegean on 30 July 2021, as well as the 1,132 others in the Mediterranean from 1 January-31 July this year, are in part the fault of the smugglers. But they are also the fault of the EU, and the governments of its member states.

It is hardly as if the EU did not know its ‘policy against people-smuggling’ was not working. It has seen it fail for five years straight, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

It is time to stop. If the EU – and for that matter Mitarachis and his equivalents in governments across Europe and the wider world – are serious about wanting to ‘stop smugglers’ they must provide safe transportation on recognised routes, so that people can travel and apply for asylum as is their right.

This would end the smugglers’ business, and uphold international law, and all of our fundamental rights, at a stroke.


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