The Aegean Sea this year has become once again the most frequent escape route chosen by people on their way to Europe. As a consequence, the numbers of refugees trapped in Greece steadily increased for a third year in a row. While the Turkish Coast Guard seems to have detected and arrested more or less the same number of refugees attempting to cross the border in the Aegean Sea irregularly in the first five months of 2019, thus, continuing with the practice of “pull-backs”. This phenomenon has also been observed by the Alarm Phone. Through the emergency calls it receives, the Alarm Phone has noticed an increase in accounts of attacks by “masked men” in the Greek territorial waters. Attacks which were followed by pull-backs by the Turkish authorities.
The ‘return’ of this life-threatening practice of pushbacks, alleged to be by the Greek Coast Guard, puts the lives of people escaping war and conflict into danger once more. Illegal returns of refugees under the eyes of Frontex and the NATO are more likely to happen in the absence of civil rescue boats who can document human rights violations on the sea. Border deaths could be prevented too by the return of these vessels. The blockage of Mare Liberum has to be seen as part of the wider attempt to hinder civil society from witnessing the illegal practices carried out against refugees at the sea borders.
The Aegean Sea will always be the watery grave for dozens of refugees in times when refugee policies at the external borders of the EU are based on management and control, instead of saving lives and access to protection. Meanwhile, through its follow-ups, the attention of the Alarm Phone has also been drawn to the terrible living conditions of refugees on the island of Samos, both inside and outside of the hotspot. This is another brutal part of the European policy of deterrence.
On June 16, the UNHCR counted 16,387 arrivals in Greece alone (11,318 from the Aegean Sea and 5,069 from the land border in Evros). Meanwhile, about 16,400 refugees are currently trapped in the Aegean Islands – most of which have to endure the inhuman and overcrowded ‘hotspots’. One third of the arrivals are children. From January to May 2019, 61 people have been returned under the EU-Turkey ‘Deal’ to Turkey, the majority of which had received a negative decision in their asylum applications (1st or 2nd instance) or withdrew their claims while being trapped on the Aegean islands. In the first five months of 2019, 53 people died during the attempt to cross the Eastern Mediterranean borders. Most of the shipwrecks occurred in May and June in the Aegean Sea.
During the period covered in this report (18.3.19 to 18.6.19), the Alarm Phone has worked on 58 emergency calls from the Aegean region. Of these, 43 cases were boats in distress – 24 of them reached Greece, while 18 were returned to Turkey and one was a boat from Lebanon which was finally rescued to Cyprus. 15 cases concerned groups of people who were stranded on different islands, 13 after having made the sea crossing to Greece, 2 groups who had become stranded after a distress situation on an island belonging to Turkey and had to be rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard from there. In the three months of the period covered by this report we were not alerted to any distress situation that involved a group along the Turkish-Greek land border. In 4 cases the travellers reported being pushed and pulled back. In three of these cases they stated that they had been attacked by masked men in Greek territorial waters.
Pushbacks; Attacks by Masked Men; Pull-backs
Pushbacks and attacks on refugee boats by Greek Coast Guards and/or masked men had decreased after the change of government in Greece in late 2015. It had, until the implementation of the EU-Turkey ‘Deal’ in March 2016, to a large extent, been gradually replaced by systematic pull-backs by the Turkish Coast Guard . Frontex continues its presence in the Aegean Sea until today, but a number of NATO-boats were also deployed to control the sea border back in 2016. At the same time, an increased number of civil rescue teams patrolled the same region with their boats, but along with other rescuers in the Mediterranean they are increasingly exposed to the broader European trend of criminalisation of solidarity. The sea border is now turning — or has already turned back — into a black hole of human rights violations.
In spring 2019, the Alarm Phone, for the first time since March 2016, observed what seems to be an increase in attacks on refugee boats in Greek territorial waters and of pushbacks. Although nothing like the levels of violence seen in 2013-2015 has been reported during these illegal returns for the Greek side, it is worrying to hear again accounts of masked perpetrators attacking people at sea. According to the witnesses/victims of the pushbacks, the perpetrators on the Greek side – Greek Coast Guard and/or ‘masked men’ – either tricked them back, ordered them to return, or demobilised them near the border, and left them adrift in danger of distress at sea. Soon after, the Turkish coast guard appeared to arrest them, presumably in co-operation with their Greek counterparts. The boats attacked remain dinghies filled with babies, kids and many women, many of whom are pregnant.
On April 11, the Alarm Phone was contacted by a boat coming from Turkey and moving toward Agathonisi Island with 35 people on board who had escaped from Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Somalia. The group included ten children, among which were also infants, and five women. There were individuals with severe war injuries on board. The boat was in serious distress and clearly located in Greek waters. Our shift team swiftly alerted the Greek coastguards to the situation. We remained in contact with the boat and received several more GPS locations from the travellers. Although we forwarded all the positions to the Greek authorities, they informed us that the boat had been ‘found’ in Turkish waters and returned to Turkey. The testimonies of the survivors and the GPS positions forwarded to us refute this account. Instead they highlight how the Greek coastguards tricked the people to follow them back into Turkish waters by conning them that they were being directed to safety in Greece. When the travellers realised what was going on, they sought to turn around and move again toward Greece. At that point they had reached Turkish waters and the Greek coastguards prevented them from escaping whilst leaving it to the approaching Turkish coastguards to carry out a ‘rescue’ operation. In their testimony the people on board reported how they were refouled:
“We started around 3:30 am CEST from the Turkish coast. After three hours of driving, first towards Nera / Agathonisi and later slightly towards Farmakonisi, we were stopped at 5:50 CEST by the Greek Coastguard. It was very cold and our kids were screaming from fear. Water was entering the dinghy from the waves. It was a grey and white coast guard boat. There were four officers dressed in blue uniforms. They were making circles around us. They shouted: ‘We will save you. Follow us.’ They pointed us to go in another direction. We get confused and followed them a little bit. Then we stopped. We understood we were driving back. They ordered us to turn off our motor. We were asking for help. We showed them our kids in the air and begged them to let us stay in Greece. But they said, we were doing something illegal. We had entered the Greek waters. After 30 minutes a Turkish Coastguard boat arrived and the Greeks left. We were brought to a Turkish police station. It was a one and a half hours drive back. They said if we’d ever try again to cross illegally to Greece, they’d deport us back to our countries.”
On April 29, we documented another pushback operation in the Aegean Sea, near Samos island. In the early hours of the day, the Alarm Phone had received an emergency call about a boat in distress in the territorial waters of Greece. The boat carried 51 passengers, including approximately 16 children and 5 pregnant women. They sent us their GPS position showing them in Greek waters and they told us that their boat had been ‘sabotaged’ by unidentified perpetrators and left adrift. We then lost touch and were able to re-establish contact only after they had been returned and imprisoned in Turkey. In their testimony, they told us that they had been stopped in Greek waters by masked individuals on a speed boat:
“The boat that was getting closer to us, looked like a black dinghy. I didn’t see any flag. It was dark and we were scared. The speed boat first had its flood lights on but getting closer they turned it off. There were two masked persons on board. I think they were wearing black clothes. They shouted to us stop. My wife is eight months pregnant. She was crying. There was another woman 9 months pregnant. The masked persons had a long stick with a knife on top. With that they destroyed our petrol bin and the engine. Our boat couldn’t move anymore. The waves were carrying us back to Turkey. After maybe 30 minutes the Turkish Coastguard arrived and arrested us. I think the two masked persons had called them. We were transferred to a police station and held for two days.”
On May 17, at 4.25 am, the Alarm Phone was informed about a boat carrying 62 people (among them 15 women, 12 children and infants, one pregnant woman and a family with four kids with special needs). According to the migrant travellers, they were detected and attacked by three masked men who spoke Greek and English. These men wore black military clothes and arrived on a black high-speed dinghy, coming from the Greek coast. They hunted them down, stole their fuel with a long metal stick, turned off their engine and then left them adrift in Turkish waters between Kusadasi and Samos Island in Greece. At 4:39 the people told the Alarm Phone that they could still see the boat with the masked men. At 4:54 the Alarm Phone lost contact to the boat. Later, the people informed us that the Turkish coastguard arrived after sunrise, shortly after the masked men had left, with a larger boat, intercepted them and pulled them back to Turkey. “I tried four times to reach Greece. I have faced death several times. It is very difficult for me as I have a baby. I cannot risk our lives. We were so afraid. The kids were screaming when they saw the masked men.” The survivors were brought to Aydin, Turkey, for detention. Reportedly the pregnant lady miscarried after the terrifying attack at sea.
“I tried four times to reach Greece. I have faced death several times. It is very difficult for me as I have a baby. I cannot risk our lives. We were so afraid. The kids were screaming when they saw the masked men.” The refugees were brought to Aydin (Turkey) for detention. Reportedly the pregnant lady miscarried after the terrifying attack on sea.
On May 20, around 7:00 am, a boat carrying about 23 people (among them 2 children and 10 women) was in distress near Samos and the people were reportedly pushed back to Turkey. At 7:40 am, a position about 3 km in the North East of Samos was sent to the Alarm Phone via a third person. People on the boat stated: “There were masked men, then a big ship came that took us to Turkish waters. It was a military ship with four different flags”. The people referred to the NATO in a related social media post, and described the flags of the boat as Greek, American and possibly Turkish, though we cannot confirm this information. After half an hour of waiting at the place they were left by this boat, the group was brought back to Turkey by the Turkish coastguard. According to testimonies of the passengers, the large boat had remained nearby and was waiting at a distance and watching them being pulled back.
Meanwhile, pushbacks on the land border in Evros continue to thrive. The Alarm Phone has not been alerted by travellers along the Turkish-Greek land border during the report-period, but other networks and organisations have issued denouncements of people being beaten by masked men and forcibly pushed back into Turkey. As in previous years, this is a systematic practice. A new mapping project seeks to document push backs in a wider geographical area, focusing in particular on cases along the whole Balkan route.
Shipwrecks and more Dead
36 refugees were found dead, or reported dead / missing during four shipwrecks along the Greek-Turkish sea border during the last three months. Out of these, 15 corpses were counted on the Turkish side.
26.03.19: Four found dead – including one baby, when a dinghy carrying refugees sank off Turkey’s Aegean coast. The boat carrying Iranians and Afghans, sank off the Ayvacık district of northwestern Çanakkale province. The Turkish coast guard recovered the bodies of three women and one baby while rescuing 11 others.
07.04.19: The Alarm Phone received several worried calls by people because 3 male dead bodies had been found on the beaches of Rhodes in the last 24 hours. The first corpse was found between Afandou and Kolymbia, another one was found in the Glystra Afandou area, and the last one at Faliraki, near the Pegasus Hotel.
01.05.19: The Alarm Phone was alerted by a contact person to 11 travellers in urgent distress near the Turkish coast. We established contact and shortly after alerted the Turkish coastguards, who had already been informed about this distress situation. Our contact to the boat broke down and so we learned only the next morning that the group had been found. However, one man was reported missing. The body of a 37 years-old Syrian man, believed to be the missing person, was later found on Bodrum beach.
03.05.19: Nine refugees drowned near Ayvalik, Turkey, including four women and five children, when a boat carrying migrants sank off Turkey’s northwestern coast.
The Demirören News Agency (DHA) reported that those aboard were members of three Afghan families, though this was not confirmed by authorities. Five refugees were rescued by the Coast Guard whilst the search was underway for three missing migrants. Unconfirmed reports say there were 17 people aboard the small boat.
11.06.19: Seven refugees drown near Lesvos from a boat holding 64 passengers. 2 kids, 4 women and one man lost their lives.
17.06.19: Twelve refugees drown near Bodrum / Kos, when a boat carrying at least 43 people capsized. 31 people were rescued, 12 people found dead, unknown numbers missing. The boat was heading towards the Greek island of Kos, when the boat sank. Most of the passengers did not use life jackets, nationalities, gender and age of the dead and missing is still unknown. Eight bodies were found inside the wreck of the boat, at a depth of 32 meters (105 feet).
The Blockade of Mare Liberum
The boat and crew of ‘Mare Liberum’, an organisation interlinked with the Alarm Phone, have monitored the human rights situation in the Aegean Sea since 2018. They observe and document as an independent witness incidents on this escape route between Turkey and Greece.
On 25 April 2019, after a long winter break, the ship Mare Liberum was ready again to leave the port at Skala Loutron on Lesvos to continue with its activities at the sea border. However, the German Federal Ministry of Transport (Deutsches Verkehrsministerium) prevented the ship from sailing. The reasoning given was that the Mare Liberum would be a ‘rescue ship’ and therefore had to be classified as a ‘cargo ship’. But the Mare Liberum does not act as a rescue ship, but instead carries out monitoring missions at sea between Greece and Turkey. It is a former shrimp fishing boat – built in 1917 – which was converted into a sport boat in 1964 and classified accordingly. On that score Mare Liberum is, legally speaking, undeniably a ‘leisure time boat’.
There was clearly no administrative reason to classify the Mare Liberum as a cargo ship. Behind this stands the political decision to prevent civilian involvement and the presence of independent observers at Europe’s external borders. An order from the Federal Ministry of Transport clearly demands that civilian rescue ships on the Mediterranean Sea are to be treated in a special way.
This is an extension of the EU’s policy in the Central Mediterranean Sea. In this border zone the Alarm Phone has documented similar bureaucratic impediments applied to all civil rescue boats. We have also witnessed an even more direct criminalisation which has led to the seizure of ships and charges against the crews.
The association Mare Liberum applied for interim measures to the Administrative Court of Hamburg. The possibility of applying for a new flag was examined at the same time. The focus was on Greece and Switzerland. Fortunately, the acquisition of a new flag was not necessary. It would have been an extremely long and expensive procedure. On 13 May, the Hamburg Administrative Court issued a positive decision for Mare Liberum. It justified its decision: “The order of the German Federal Ministry of Transport should be classified as unlawful after examining the current state of affairs and the legal situation.” The crew from Mare Liberum twittered on 27 April: “Ship back in the water, where it belongs to! All systems are well so far, swimming season opened officially, and we are very happy!”
The project, by making visible human rights violations such as illegal push backs or deaths at sea, helps to prevent the creation of an isolated and totally militarised zone between the European and Asian continent.
Since 6 June 2019 Mare Liberum is heading towards further hotspots in the Aegean Sea. The voluntary crew will draw public attention to the Island of Chios in the coming weeks – both the situation at sea and on land as well.
The Situation on Samos – Inside and Outside of Vathy ‘Hotspot’
Our Alarm Phone shift teams have been alerted to an increasing number of boats crossing the mere 1.6-kilometer-wide water stripe between Turkey and Samos, Greece.
On 29 April, we received an emergency call from a boat with 40 people on their way to Samos. On 3 May, 45 people, including 17 children, landed on a beach on the island. Finally they were found by the coast guard and brought to the main town. On 12 May, we were in contact with 54 people in distress at sea again near Samos. The coast guard rescued the people and brought them to the Island and to the ‘hotspot’ in Vathy.
It is always a moment of great relief when migrants have managed to cross the sea without being illegally pushed or pulled back to Turkey or even drowned. But it is also unbearable to know where people will be brought by the authorities after their landing on the European coast and under which horrible conditions they’ll have to spend the next months or even years in the hotspot of the island.
Mountains of vaste, makeshift constructed homes made of canvas, the floors of the toilets flooded with sewage waters, the broken wash basins filled with dirty toilet paper, the trails of stomped earth which turn into swamp on rainy days and throughout the winter. Children play in the dust, men sit around on plastic chairs, laundry hangs up everywhere, shreds of music. Rats and snakes. A terrible smell over everything.
The hotspot ‘Vathy’ is located on a hill five minutes walk from the city. It has an official capacity for 648 people, but currently up to 3,617 people live officially there. According to the Aegean Boat Report, arrivals on Samos exceed transfers to the mainland. So in May 824 persons arrived on Samos, whereas only 406 were transferred away. Decongestion remains a major obstacle for the authorities, while almost one third of the refugees suffer from the precarious living conditions in provisory tents inside and outside the camp.
In total, about 2,139 people arrived in the first six months of 2019 on Samos. Most of them crossing the sea in precarious boats, but there are also a few men who swam the whole distance. Most refugees have to stay in the Vathy hotspot, a few are distributed to other Greek Islands. All have to wait for the decision as to whether they will be allowed to apply for asylum in Greece or if they will be deported to Turkey or to their countries of origin. Only people deemed vulnerable are excluded from this rule.
Inhabitants from the hotspot report that their interviews have been scheduled for 2020, 2021, 2022, or even 2023. If the long wait of uncertainty will end with a negative decision, they will be returned to Turkey or deported to their home countries. The island has turned to a big open air prison without any release date for the inhabitants.
The situation is especially precarious for women and children. Many women were and become victims of (sexual) violence and/or trafficking – some of them are left pregnant. Unaccompanied minors have to survive among adults.
The medical and psychological aid inside the hotspot provided for by the states’ Hellenic Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO) is absolutely inadequate to deal with the problems faced by the inhabitants and it is insufficient to meet the demand. In an attempt to cover the basic health needs, the local hospital is trying to fill the gap while lacking sufficient (specialised) staff and medicines. An additional lack of translators creates further obstacles.
Two volunteer organisations (Samos Volunteers and Refugee4Refugees) try to help to improve conditions for refugee residents. Most importantly they have created spaces for people to learn new things and to take a break from the horror of the camp. Bogdan, one of the co-founder of the Alpha Cultural Center, says that people’s mental health worsens rapidly after a few months residency on Samos: “Not knowing what’s going to happen to them is the hardest,” and he adds that for the thousands of traumatised people inside and outside the camp there is only one psychologist available.
There is an official camp inside and outside an informal camp. Protests have occurred since the first day of the hotspot. The Alarm Phone reported how people marched to the port, expressing their rage about the inhumane situation and very clearly demanding dignified conditions. But the protests were suppressed by the local police who used tear gas to put it down. Some refugees got beaten and all suspected protestors, including journalists and volunteers, were interrogated.
A refugee resident stated: “We are living together with rats and snakes. After killing all these animals, we brought their bodies to the Mudira’s office (Mudira: Camp director). So she could see the conditions in which we are forced to live. You can’t live here!”
Travelling Children and Families in the Aegean Sea
In the Aegean Sea compared to all other parts of the Mediterranean there are still many children and families among the travellers. In 2018, 45% of the arriving persons in Greece were children of which 14% are unaccompanied minors. 596 unaccompanied minors remained by the end of May in the five Reception and Identification Centres (RICs) / hotspots. Out of 3,835 UAMs in total, 1,897 have no place in a long term or temporary shelter. It is not needed to point out that, especially for children and unaccompanied minors, the situation in the hotspots is unacceptable and highly problematic.
We want to share this photo with you, a photo a stranded group sent to us. These families arrived. But they will carry with them what they see along their journey, the discrimination and the racism. None of the adults will forget that they had been forced to take their children on these dangerous trips.
We have talked during emergency calls to the Alarm Phone with kids and teenagers, sometimes not older than 12, because it is often them alone who speak enough English. We have talked with pregnant women. We talked with worried parents who begged us to save their children from. We have talked with a lot of strong women and men. We try to be on their side.
These children will – in the best case – sit in schools in Europe one day. They will be safe and will have left behind the war. But they will carry the burden of all the traumatising experiences the European ‘border and hotspot’-system of deterrence has forced them to go through. They will never forget the experience of a pushback when masked men seemed to try to sink their boat and everyone on the boat feared to die. They will not forget spending months in a tent exposed to heat and cold, fights among desperate and tired humans, fires and protests, rats and sewage water.
It seems crazy that we have to say it again and again, because it is so obvious: the Aegean Sea is not necessarily a graveyard and we are not forced to imprison humans for escaping war. It is a political decision to let people drown here, where the distance is so short and so easy to travel in the big ferry boats, as long as you were born with the right passport. And it is a political decision to put a child behind the barbed wire. The Aegean islands are not necessarily big open air prisons. They can be ports of entry and of protection – in another time and in another Europe, that will say a simple ‘welcome’.
 Numbers of arrests in the Aegean Sea for irregular border crossing from January to May 2019 were 9,641 (compared to 9,756 in 2018), according to the Turkish Coast Guard. Source: https://www.sg.gov.tr/baskanliklar/harekat/faaliyet_istatistikleri/duzensiz_goc_istatistikleri_ege.html (last visited 23 June 2019)
 The International Organization of Migration (IOM), reports 52 deaths in the Eastern Mediterranean Route on 23 June 2019. https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean?migrant_route%5B%5D=1377