The German NGO Mare Liberum has been forced to leave the Aegean Sea. This leaves the strait, well documented to be the scene of violent pushbacks, without civilian monitoring. Violent pushbacks from Greece continue, alongside reports of collective deportations from Turkey to Syria. The new EU-funded camp on Lesvos will be located in a protected, wildfire-prone area. 

Greek authorities have long imposed severe restrictions and intimidation measures on NGOs supporting migrants and refugees. After facing two years of “obstacles and hurdles” the NGO Mare Liberum announced on 10 February that is unable to continue its monitoring of the Aegean Sea, leaving the strait without civilian monitoring. Like other civilian solidarity organisations, Mare Liberum faced new rules for registration of NGOs that ECRE has declared incompatible with international and EU law. The controversial NGO registry imposed severe restrictions and conditions on organisations active in the competence areas of the Hellenic coast guard. “We are devastated to leave the sea strait between Turkey and Greece again to the ruthless actions of the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex who are perpetrating human rights violations and border crimes on a daily basis,” the organisation stated. Further, two Greek Helsinki Monitor staff have been sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, suspended for three years, by an Athens court. The two men, who were leaders of the NGO, were charged with “falsely accusing” an Orthodox bishop of racist hate speech. The charges has been met with concern including from Human Rights Watch, the European Implementation Network (EIN) and Amnesty International.  The latter stated: “The ruling poses a direct threat to the right to freedom of expression and has a chilling effect on human rights defenders advocating against racism and hate speech”.

In addition to NGOs, people on the move are increasingly targeted and criminalised in Greece. On Samos two of the 11 people charged with steering boats carrying refugees have been acquitted. One of the two acquitted men, who were both of Syrian descent, was facing a prison sentences of up to ten years for the “facilitation of unauthorised entry” for having turned on his GPS while lost at sea. According to Border-line Europe, this marks “a first in the criminalisation of boat drivers”. Dimistris Choulis, the lawyer representing the two men, stated: “We are happy to announce that there is hope”.

Following the recent deadly stand-off between Turkey and Greece over people on the move in the Evros region, the Turkish government has released footage of alleged pushback operations by Greek authorities and urged action from the EU. Media and NGOs also continue to report pushbacks. On 5 February, 20 people contacted the Aegean Boat Report after landing on Samos. “They didn’t get any medical assistance, instead they were arrested by police, blindfolded, transported to the port, robbed of all their belongings and beaten, before taken out to sea. They claim that the Greek coast guard threw them directly into the sea, no boat, no life jackets, if true, this is nothing but attempted murder,” stated the organisation. On 11 February, the Hellenic coast guard reportedly intercepted a boat off Samos carrying 180 people who were later towed back to Turkey. Media outlets have also described the suffering of three Yemenis thrown into the sea during a pushback by Greek authorities off Chios. Reportedly, they were robbed of their phones and money and placed on a boat: “After 20 minutes of sailing, they removed our handcuffs. We had child-sized life jackets on us that we could not fit in. They threw us into the water. We had told the Greek soldiers we could not swim. They threw us into the sea and left,” stated a member of the family. Turkish coast guard units have launched a search operation for one family member still missing. A report from an investigative European media consortium released on 17 February reveals that two people, whose bodies washed up on the Turkish Aegean coast in September 2021: “drowned after being thrown overboard by the Hellenic Coast Guard”. Lorraine Leete, from the Legal Centre Lesbos, stated: “Pushbacks constitute atrocities against the humankind for which Greece and the EU will have to respond sooner or later, given the hard and accumulated evidence of crimes committed at their borders”.

Turkish authorities claim that hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned voluntarily to Syria from Turkey, a country that hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. However, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have repeatedly reported collective deportations in recent years. According to Are You Syrious, in one incident in late January 2022 somewhere between 150 and 270 Syrian refugees were apprehended by Turkish security forces and deported to the Idlib area in Northern Syria.    

The establishment of five EU funded closed controlled “prison” facilities in the Aegean hotspots of Leros, Kos, Chios, Samos and Lesvos continues to spark resistance. A new facility on Lesvos, expected to open in September, will be located in a “high-risk zone” for wildfires. The new centre will have a capacity of 5,000 people, and is to be located in a remote area called Vastria, situated close to the island’s largest landfill and inside a protected forest. “The majority of fatalities happen in areas where you have a lot of people trying to get away from a place, [making] it difficult to evacuate,” said natural hazards expert Michalis Diakakis, further noting: “Because of the heavy smoke and toxic gases, people tend to inhale huge amounts and then collapse, and then the fire catches them. Most deaths […] like that are in small areas with a few houses, or in small towns near forests”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.