Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki
We Must All End The Greek Government’s Abuse of Human Rights
(The following piece was written by Koraki in collaboration with our friends and colleagues Aegean Boat Report, which was in close contact with the men, women and children throughout most of the harrowing situation forced upon them by the Greek government, and worked with both the BBC and New York Times on the reports linked below)
(image courtesy of Aegean Boat Report and the Turkish coastguard)
The Greek government’s astonishing and unacceptable violation of human rights continues unabated, as the treatment of two more groups of vulnerable people seeking safety in the EU shows.
In the early hours of 2 July, two boats arrived on the Greek Aegean island of Lesvos, one in the north close to Chapel carrying 10 people, and one east of Tsilia in the south, carrying 20 people.
Both groups fled to the woods in the surrounding areas, hiding from the police, fearing that they, like so many before them, would be sent back to Turkey if found.
At first light, both groups contacted Aegean Boat Report (ABR) for assistance. The organisation received locations, pictures and videos on Whatsapp, which showed the new arrivals were in fact on Lesvos.
The group of 10 people, in the north, walked towards the village of Lepetimnos, then east towards Sikaminea. During the day, ABR lost contact with the group several times, due to bad cellphone coverage in the area. Its last contact with the group was at 9pm, when all phones went offline. They have not been online since.
UNHCR on Lesvos was informed on the arrivals and their whereabouts, what steps were taken, if any, to ensure the safety of these people is unknown.
At 12.40am on 3 July, the Turkish coast guard (TCG) found and picked up a child, alone in a small rubber boat without an engine, drifting outside Dikili, Turkey.
At 4.30am, the same TCG boat found and picked up nine people drifting in a similar rubber boat, also without an engine, in the same area.
In both cases they said they had been on land on Lesvos, arrested by police and forced back to sea by the Hellenic coast guard. The boy who was found alone, was a part of the group of 10 that arrived at Chapel, north Lesvos.
Comparing pictures taken by the group in the woods on Lesvos with the pictures taken by TCG when they were picked up at sea, there is no doubt it’s the same people. This means that 10 people, including several children, were removed from Lesvos itself and set adrift in small rubber boats by the Hellenic coast guard. They weren’t even given life vests. If this overcrowded small rubber boat had capsized, people would have drowned before anyone could reach them.
The 20 people who landed at Tsilia, in southern Lesvos, also hid in woods nearby.
After first light they divided into two groups. Twelve people from two families stayed in the area hiding, in part because some elderly people among them had difficulties walking.
The other eight people, from two families, started walking towards Tsilia, to make their presence known to the local residents. At around 8.30am, the group arrived in Tsilia, where members of the community gave them food and something to drink.
ABR advised them to go to the Church of Saint Nikolas, a well-known landmark in the area, to take pictures and videos to document their presence on Lesvos.
Since early morning, ABR had tried to find someone willing to go to Tsilia and meet them, but no organisation was willing to help: everyone was afraid to get involved, because of how the police might react. There is no doubt that it’s dangerous to get involved, to be in the same area as new arrivals, to try to help. You could face serious charges and end up in jail, just because you were there trying to make sure people are OK.
A journalist on Lesvos at the time agreed to go to Tsilia to document the new arrivals. They arrived in Tsilia at around 3.30pm, interviewed the people, took some pictures as documentation and left approximately one hour later.
Local residents had already told the police about the new arrivals in Tsilia, and as the journalist left, several police cars drove towards the village. UNHCR was also informed on the arrivals in Tsilia, but what steps, if any, were taken to protect these vulnerable people, is unknown.
After this, ABR lost all contact with the group in Tsilia, and hours later with the group in the woods east of Tsilia.
From pictures and videos, taken by the journalist but also by the refugees themselves, there is absolutely no doubt that were on Lesvos.
Their interactions with the local community were also videoed, but we, ABR and Koraki, fear the police have told those locals to keep quiet about what they did and saw
At 10pm, the Turkish coast guard found and rescued 20 people from two life rafts drifting outside Dikili, Turkey.
From the extensive footage received from this group while on Lesvos, there is absolutely no doubt that it’s the same people found drifting in the life rafts by the Turkish coast guard.
No arrivals were officially registered by the Greek government as having arrived on Lesvos this day, nor any of the following days.
Normally the case would have ended here. It’s one of a huge number of well-documented pushback cases, violations of international laws and human rights performed by the Greek authorities. There is no doubt what took place here, and who’s responsible.
But this case doesn’t end here.
On this particular day, as a sheer stroke of luck, the Turkish coast guard had allowed members of the international press onboard: one crew from a Japanese news outlet, an independent photojournalist, and a crew from The New York Times.
This TCG vessel was the same one which found and rescued the group of 20 people who had landed east of Tsilia, drifting outside Dikili in two life rafts, and later picked up the group of 10 people that had arrived at Chapel.
ABR shared pictures and videos of the groups from Lesvos with The New York Times. From the footage they confirmed these were the same people they had interviewed on the TCG vessel, after they had been rescued from the life rafts.
We have waited a few days to share this with you, as The New York Times wanted some time to prepare its report, which you can read here.
And these cases also came at an interesting time, as earlier this week (13 July 2021), the BBC broadcast a news report ABR helped them with, in which the Greek government’s policy and practice of illegally removing men women and children from Greece to deny them their fundamental human right to apply for asylum was displayed and discussed.
The report includes a video of a pushback by the Greek Coastguard, which took place from the island of Kos in March 2020, at the beginning of the government’s increase of this illegal, dangerous and shameful practice.
Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis responded to this accurate and stark presentation of his Ministry’s – and his government’s – deliberate and consistent breaking of international law with a statement in which he said:
‘Allegations affecting Greece are clearly unfounded, rely on footage or testimonials provided for from the country of departure. Numerous cases have been investigated, including by the European Union, and reports have found no evidence of any breach of EU fundamental rights.’
This statement, as yet seemingly unchallenged by international media, argues both that the allegations of pushbacks are ‘unfounded’ and that footage of them happening actually exists. Which is a surprising foundation for an argument.
He adds that the footage which does exist – of pushbacks he claims did not happen – ‘came from the country of departure’. Not only is this irrelevant, it is also absolutely untrue: we and many other monitoring organisations have photos and video footage shot by the men, women and children being illegally forced out of Greece – in many cases while they are still in Greece.
And while on the subject of false claims, we must state that although Mitarachis says ‘numerous cases have been investigated’ the Greek government has, to date, refused to investigate a single case which has taken place in the Aegean Sea, despite the repeated demands from the Greek Ombudsman that it must do so (because this is not an issue of ‘outsiders attacking Greece’ it is an issue of people who believe in the law attempting to encourage the Greek government to abide by it and investigate situations in which it appears to have been broken).
Nor indeed, despite Mitarachis’ statement, has the ‘European Union’ investigated ‘numerous cases’ let alone any in Greece. Indeed, in May this year, the European Commission responded to an open letter from Koraki and other organisations and stated that it had not and (incorrectly) could not investigate incidents involving the Greek government and its employees.
Indeed, in response to the BBC report, Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, whose department is supposed to have responsibility for refugees, people seeking asylum, their rights and safety in the EU, described the Greek government’s activities as: ‘violations of our fundamental European values’.
We welcome Ms Johansson’s comments, especially since in the past she has seemed to seek to defend the Greek government’s activities. We hope this is an indication that the Commissioner is become tired of the government’s repeated lies and refusal to even investigate the hundreds of incidents in which thousands of people have been illegally forced out of Greece and denied the right to apply for asylum.
And we would add that in fact, these pushbacks are more than ‘violations of fundamental European values’. They are violations of international law; violations of people’s fundamental human rights. Violations of morality, common decency, basic safety standards and of the welfare not just of these men, women and children but of us all.
And they are being carried out as standard practice by the Greek government and its uniformed officers.
From 1 January – 30 June this year, the Greek government registered 1,211 men, women and children as arrivals in Greece via the Aegean Sea. In the same period, it carried out 174 pushbacks, in which 4,960 people were illegally forced out of Greece.
That means the Greek government has, this year, stripped the rights (and often also the possessions) of 89.5 per cent of people who have attempted to enter the EU via the Aegean Sea.
From 1 March 2020 to 30 June 2021, it has pushed back 14,431 people and only allowed 5,184 to register: breaking the law to prevent 74.6 per cent of all new arrivals from being allowed to exercise their legal rights and apply for asylum.
And the Greek government is actually increasing the pace at which it carries out these entirely illegal, immoral and shameful acts. In June 2021 alone, it registered just 97 men, women and children as new arrivals on the Aegean islands. It pushed back 1,089. That’s a pushback rate of 91.8 per cent. The cases of 2-3 July just prove it continues even now.
This is not acceptable. We say so, but we are not alone.
The European Commission says so. The Council of Europe says so. The Greek Ombudsman says so. Hundreds of Greek and international organisations say so, and every code of moral behaviour, as well as European and international law, say so.
It cannot continue. This is not about ‘Greece’ or Greek people. It is about the Greek government, which is breaking the law, behaving in a shocking and unacceptable fashion towards vulnerable men, women and children, lying to Greek people about its ‘right’ to do so, and lying to the world about whether it is doing so at all.
The Greek government is breaking the law, and in the process endangering human lives, and stripping us all of our most fundamental human rights. It cannot be allowed to continue to do so. We call on all organisations, all political agencies, and most importantly perhaps you and all other people, in Greece and beyond, to come together, step up and stop this horrific abuse of the law and human rights.
It may seem like there is little you can do to help. But one thing you can do is to engage your MEP on the issue of pushbacks, and make sure they know you care and will not vote for them unless they oppose and bring the practice to an end. To do this, visit www.koraki.org/end-pushbacks and follow the campaign's simple steps.