Distress at sea and endangered lives due to coastguard actions?

In the past two weeks, the Alarm Phone was alerted by refugees to four different distress situations in the Aegean Sea. They had encountered masked special units of coastguards who attacked them in the middle of the sea, between Turkey and the Greek islands. Their boats had not been in distress before, they might have been able to reach a place of safety on their own! After the attacks, they were left alone on drifting and/or sinking boats for hours until the Turkish coastguard came to their rescue.

We were in direct contact with some just after they had been attacked and we witnessed how the travellers’ distress was deliberately produced by coastguards. On two of the four boats in distress there were children. Not all passengers had life vests. We witnessed in direct phone conversations how the affected boat-people started to panic as they feared to drown and lose their lives.

We are highly alarmed by these practices. After a phase of brutal push-backs, frequently practiced by special units of the Greek coastguards until January 2015, human rights violations in the Aegean Sea had markedly decreased under the new Greek government. Will we have to expect a return of violent border practices, mistreating and endangering the lives of travellers again?

Between the 26th of July and the 1st of August, the attacks took place in different locations: near the islands of Lesvos, Samos and Chios. Is this an indication of systematic deterrence measures carried out by units of the coastguard? We already brought these practices to the attention of the Greek government, which took these incidents seriously and we hope for an official investigation.

Currently, a mission of the European border agency Frontex is carried out in all the locations in which these distress cases occurred. What is the role of Frontex there and does their presence mean that they are merely watching and not intervening? There is a report by an activist network about one attack on a migrant boat close to Lesvos which seems to have occurred even with the presence of a Frontex-boat at the scene (see source 1).

A press release of the Greek coastguard came to our attention that spoke of the arrest of three young Greek men who are suspected to have carried out attacks on migrant boats near Samos Island, wearing coastguard uniforms. But this case does not explain the nearly simultaneous emergence of several testimonies of coastguard attacks in different regions (see source 2).

Every interception and blockage of boats in this borderzone that causes the distress of refugees will traumatise travellers and lead to more border deaths. It is clear that these practices will not lead to a decrease in attempted border crossings but will, rather, force people to attempt the crossing several times. We have met people in Europe who succeeded to cross the sea only after 8 attempts, in all of which they had to take their small children on these risky journeys. These people will not stop crossing, they need a safe place to arrive in.

We can only repeat: We need safe and legal ways for those travelling to Europe. We need to open ferry lines for all. Freedom of movement is the only way and this also requires the sharing of responsibility. It is a responsibility not only of the Greek society: Europe has to react and welcome its new members.

Watch the Med Alarm Phone

Contact: wtm-alarm-phone@antira.info

Four Alarm Phone cases:

26.7.2015, Chios, engine was taken away and boat was pushed back, see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/183

27.7.2015, Lesvos, two groups in distress in the Aegean Sea near Lesvos, rescued by Turkey, one boat punctured by Greek coastguard, see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/183

31.7.2015, Samos, distress after stabbing of the boat, see: http://watchthemed.net/index.php/reports/view/189

1.8.2015, Lesvos, distress after taking away the petrol, see: http://watchthemed.net/reports/view/192

Further sources:

(1) http://infomobile.w2eu.net/2015/07/27/minors-separated-from-their-family-in-moria-greek-coast-guard-punctures-refugee-boat-under-the-eyes-of-frontex/

(2) http://www.hcg.gr/node/10695