"No one can stop the rain", but Europe tries hard

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This article originally appeared in “From the Sea to the City – 5 Years Alarm Phone

Identity card of an Afghan young woman found on a beach in Lesvos. Photo: Marily Stroux

Until today, the Aegean ‘south-eastern’ migratory path to Europe, through the Turkish-Greek border, is a highly frequented escape route for migrants to the EU. Most of them cross the sea with boats towards the Greek islands, often merely a short distance from the Turkish coast. Others cross the land border, marked by the long river Evros/Maritsa. The Alarm Phone was created in 2014 due to the immanent need for civil political action to stop the dying at sea, but also to monitor and document human rights violations along the borders. Refugees in Turkey and Greece had repeatedly expressed the need for an emergency number that could be reached at any time. In the Aegean region, the Alarm Phone received the most distress calls in comparison to the two other main routes, in particular during the years 2014–2016. After a decline in distress calls, more reached us again in 2019.

When we launched our project in October 2014, it was unclear how we would be able to intervene in order to prevent cases of pushbacks, but we knew we had to try to find a way. The period before 2015 was characterised by massive, systematic, and violent push-backs in the Aegean Sea, carried out by perpetrators described as ‘masked men’ and/or the Greek coastguard.

When the new Syriza government took office in Greece in 2015, it did not completely end the era of push-backs in the Aegean, but at least led to a marked decrease in such cases. This decrease has to be viewed also in light of the ‘long summer of migration’, when thousands crossed the Aegean daily and when hundreds of cases reached the Alarm Phone, peaking at the end of October 2015 when 99 boats in distress in the Aegean Sea called the Alarm Phone for help within just one week.

This period witnessed also a change in the way refugees used communication resources. With their smartphones, they started to document the trajectories of their journeys and, where possible, human rights violations. As mobile phone coverage is given in this region, they could also use WhatsApp during their journeys. The importance of this shift – a combination of a form of self-defence and a growing public interest in human rights violations at sea that did not exist before the Lampedusa tragedy in October 2013 – should not be underestimated.

Nevertheless, also over the following years, push-backs and attacks on refugee boats never stopped entirely, as we documented repeatedly. As a survivor of a push-back operation near Chios told us on 11 June 2016:

“We were refugees from Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and a few people from other countries in our boat. The Turkish coastguards detected and followed us until the Greek waters. Then they stopped. We drove for another ten minutes until a Greek boat stopped us. There were five officers on this Greek boat and there were two more boats: one from Portugal and a big boat, which we didn’t know from where it was. The Greek boat took us on board. They said: “You are safe now. You arrived in Europe. We tried asking for protection in Greece. We said we want asylum. They didn’t allow us to speak. We couldn’t tell them our problems or that we are in danger also in Turkey. Then we waited there. The other boats were standing and watching from distance. After 25 minutes a Turkish coastguard boat came. The Greeks held guns on our heads and threatened to shoot if we don’t move to the Turkish boat. The ‘boss’ of the Greek coastguards said in English and it should be translated for all people: ‘Tell them I will kill you if you come here again.’ The Turkish coastguards took us and brought us back to Turkey.”

In early 2016, one illegal state practice was replaced by another one, which was the result of the newly enforced co-operation between Turkey and the EU/Greece, the so-called EU-Turkey ‘Deal’. We witnessed now fewer push-backs but an increase in pull-backs by the Turkish coastguard, which were, according to the people on the move, at times as violent as the push-backs carried out by their Greek counterparts. In the following three years, push-back alerts became rare but didn’t disappear from the scene, as we documented, for example, on 21 July 2017, concerning a group of 26 people:

“They reported that the coastguards had been very offensive by creating big waves that caused their boat to rock left and right. On the coastguard vessel, men were wearing black and carrying weapons. Water started coming into the boat and the passengers started panicking. Although they pleaded with the Greek coastguards, declaring that they had a sick child with a chronic condition with them who needed medical treatment, the Greek coastguards refused and insisted on sending them back to Turkey. Fearing for their lives and those of the children they had on board, including a paralyzed child and an eight-months-old baby, they went back to the Turkish coast where the Turkish police showed up to pick them up. Apart from the boat of the Greek coastguards, the travellers informed us that another boat with a Greek, French, Croatian and German flag painted on it was present during the pushback without intervening. After the travellers had been pushed back, they were arrested by the Turkish police.”

Since early 2019, attacks on refugee boats and push-backs from Greek territorial waters have reportedly increased again.[1] As a survivor of a push-back on 29 April 2019 near Samos told us:

We were stopped around 3 am by a small speed-boat which had been heading from Greece towards us. Samos was just 15 minutes away from our position. 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 floodlights 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, nine-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.”

This increase in push-backs needs to be viewed in light of the newly elected right-wing Nea Dimokratia government in Greece, whose Alternate Minister for Migration Policy Giorgos Koumoutsakos announced “a ruthless and determined refoulement program”. Crackdowns on undocumented migrants have been already implemented in repeated raids in Athens and Thessaloniki while the main political agenda when it comes to refugees is framed in terms of ‘security’ instead of ‘protection’ and ‘deportations’ instead of ‘asylum’.[2]

The photo was taken on board of the Greek coastguard vessel. In the background you can see the Romanian coastguard vessels that was part of the Frontex mission. The refugees reported another Portuguese vessel which is not visible in the picture. Photo: Anonymous

In early August, Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis visited the land border in the Evros prefecture to further enhance the securitisation approach to migration policies, emphasising that the country’s security is “non-negotiable”.

Meanwhile, push-backs at the land border between Turkey and Greece never stopped. Despite an increased documentation of human rights violations, only very few allegations are investigated by the Greek authorities and none of them have led to the conviction of a law-enforcement officer. To the contrary, human rights activists such as lawyers active in the area have been investigated for their assumed involvement with smuggling networks – also without any results. The Alarm Phone was alerted to most push-back cases at the land border in 2018, a year, where crossings through that route had suddenly peaked (2018: 18,014; 2017: 6,592; 2016: 3,784).[3]

As a survivor of three push-backs at the land border of Evros (30 July 2017, March 2018, 8 April 2018) told us:

“I have subsidiary protection in Germany. In order to help my sick mother to escape Syria, I returned to Turkey through Greece in 2017. I could not help her sadly, but I could also not find a legal way back, as the procedure at the German embassy was full of obstacles. Desperate, I decided to enter Greece clandestinely and then return back home from there. I found a smuggler and paid him to assist me to enter Greece. When I entered Greek territory, the Greek army stopped me for a control. They asked who I was and where I was from. They took my passport and my mobile phone. I was brought to a car. I had to wait until the next morning. In the early hours, they brought me to the river and put me in a dinghy. I was returned back to Turkey. I asked for my papers. They kicked me and I fell and hurt my legs and my back. I found myself back to Turkey without any documents. […] I tried again another four times until I succeeded, and I got returned by the Greek two more times.”

Or, as a father, whose family was pushed-back a second time from Evros (22 May 2018), told us:

“When we reached Greece through the land border, we were with my sister’s family together. At some point our group got separated and we were lost. My daughter was with my sister’s’ family. My wife was pregnant and she had to take a rest, while the others had continued. When we reached Athens for many days we didn’t know if they are alive or not. Finally, we were informed they had been arrested and pushed-back by Greek police. They called us from Istanbul. This was the second time they pushed them back. We suffer from feeling paralysed, unable to help! They had walked far away from the border into Greece and still police returned them.”

For a long time, the militarised border zone between Turkey and Greece has been a disputed area. Specifically at sea, and until today, different borderlines co-exist and make an exact determination of territorial ‘belonging’ difficult. In the recent past, illegal border crossings by law enforcement officers/soldiers, by army vessels or planes have repeatedly provoked diplomatic conflicts and further raised the question about the exact location of the borderline. A conflict that erupted in March 2018 between the two countries over the unofficial crossing of two Greek soldiers onto the Turkish side was followed by a sudden increase in arrivals from Turkey. A simple coincidence?

Political battles around the border have often played out when it comes to national but also European migration policies.[4] In light of broader transnational political interests but also dependencies, ‘border management’ has become a significant aspect in both countries’ political negotiations with the EU, connected for example to the ‘debt crisis’ in Greece or the visa policy for Turkish citizens. Fulfilling or rejecting Europe’s demands to control its south-eastern borders, ‘managing’ migration via hotspots or increased readmissions, or unlawfully stopping refugees from reaching EU territory through push- and pull-backs are all aspects of the ‘power games’ played out in the region – often without clear outcomes. Less than a decade ago, European and supranational actors entered the region also physically. In 2010, the EU border agency Frontex [5], considering the Greece-Turkey border the ‘center of gravity’ of its operations, opened their first regional office in Piraeus. Since 2 November of the same year, the agency coordinated a total of 175 guest officers, deployed from 24 member states and Schengen-associated countries, under the auspices of the first so called Rapid Border Intervention Team of Frontex (RABIT).[6] In 2011, Frontex launched the sea and land operations “Poseidon”.

Later, in February 2016, NATO war ships entered the area for further support. Both Frontex and NATO play a major role in the (early) detection of attempted border crossings by refugees. When detected, and in close co-operation with the coastguards of both sides of the border, national authorities are called to physically hinder boats from reaching Greek territory or to pull them back to Turkey. Furthermore, the EU has invested a huge amount of money into the technical assistance of Greek and Turkish coastguards, has shared and offered means and know-how for border patrols, and has also become part in the identification/registration of people on the move and their readmissions /deportations.

At first sight, Frontex and NATO attempts to keep their hands ‘clean’ when it comes to human rights violations seem to be working. Indeed, they claim to focus more on ‘collecting critical information’ and ‘surveillance to help encounter human trafficking’ both during sea patrols and in emergencies/rescue. It is however undeniable that they share responsibility for the human rights violations carried out against refugees. In August 2019 the journalistic research center CORRECTIV published a report about human rights violations that raised further awareness about this concerning issue.[7]

The land border has always been a grey-zone in terms of human rights violations, with massive illegal returns carried out throughout these past years.[8] The prevention of border crossings at sea have been, for some time, more in Greek hands and then for another time period more in Turkish hands. For refugees, the result is the same regardless of whether they were pushed-back from Greek waters, pulled-back by Turkish coastguards (from Greek waters), or arrested even before trying to cross: they are denied their right of access to protection and they are exposed to further life-threatening situations. From the point of view of the coastguards on either side and other border patrolling agencies of the EU or NATO, all these activities have the same aim: stopping what they consider ‘illegal’ migration. It is clear that what comes into effect here in the Aegean is a border regime based upon the violation of the rights of protection seekers, often exposing them to further life-threatening situations and, in the worst case, death.[9]

The case near Farmakonisi, where 11 people died on 20 January 2014 due to an attempted push-back operation by the Greek coastguard, may be one of the most known tragedies in the Aegean Sea. Despite great efforts to reach at least legal justice for the survivors and the relatives of the dead, and an extensive documentation of the case by the representing lawyers, Greek and international courts have rejected the case.[10] Also on 19 March 2016, two people passed away – reportedly due to a denied rescue operation.[11] Another big tragedy occurred on 16 March 2018 near Agathonisi, where 16 people died and at least three were missing. According to the survivors and their relatives, the people on board had called SOS but were only rescued one day later –too late for most of them.[12]

While deaths of refugees at the border could not be prevented through increased border controls – as cynically and ridiculously proclaimed by Frontex – what we see in the Aegean is a systematic deterrence of those seeking protection in Europe. We insist that civil society has to take action as long as this ‘war against refugees’ is going on: in sea rescue, in emergency phone networks and in the monitoring, documentation and denunciation of human rights violations at the borders.

Migration will always be:
No one can stop the rain.
For a world without borders and without passports!
For the freedom of movement and the freedom to stay!
No one is illegal! Stop deaths at borders!



[1] https://alarmphone.org/en/2019/06/28/alarm-phone-aegean-report/

[2] See for more information on recent changes in Greek Migration Policies:

[3] https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean/location/5179

[4] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/02/greek-turkish-turbulent-ties worsen-190206060438274.html

[5] See statements of the Alarm Phone concerning the involvements and responsibilities of Frontex:   https://alarmphone.org/en/2015/02/15/push-back-frontex/

[6] RABITs: The Rapid Border Intervention Team of Frontex was established in 2007 but its deployment in Greece is also the first time it comes into action. http://www.frontex.europa.eu/rabit_2010/background_information

[7] https://correctiv.org/top-stories/2019/08/04/frontex-transparenz/

[8] See Alarm Phone statement about four documented push-backs at the landborder in 2018:
https://alarmphone.org/en/2018/07/06/four-push-back-operations-at-the-greek-turkish-land border-witnessed-by-the-alarm-phone

[9] On death during Alarm Phone work, see also: https://alarmphone.org/de/2016/01/31/weekly-reports-january-2016-one-of-the-deadliest-months-ever-in-the-aegean-sea-5

[10] https://rsaegean.org/en/syrian-acquitted-for-deaths-of-refugees-in-farmakonisi-case/

[11] https://alarmphone.org/en/2016/06/20/support-for-a-co-ordinated-humanitarian-search-and-rescue-operation-is-denied-does-the-turkish-coast-guard-hold-responsibility-for-the-deaths-of-two-persons-at-sea

[12] https://rsaegean.org/en/agathonisipressrelease/