“The plastic boat washed up on Karfas beach had a small child’s blanket right next to it. I dread to think what happened to the child and the people. I am ashamed that I live in a world where human beings are treated this way.”
In July 2020, we were asked by locals and tourists if we could help them remove a boat that had been found washed up on Karfas beach, Chios. The boat was extremely heavy, and the goal was to put the remains into recycling.
As far as we were aware and from reports, there had been no boat landings on the Greek Island of Chios at the time, since the beginning of March.
If this boat had landed prior to the Coronavirus lockdown, then as it was in a tourist area not too far from the centre, it is likely to have been removed by the NGO who was helping with boat landings at the time.
Examining the boat remains with others suggested this was not an old boat which may have washed up and other than a missing engine, which deep sea divers had said they had seen at the nearby underwater caves, most of the other parts were still intact.
In August, further intact boat parts and life jackets were found near Chios Port by an asylum seeker from Palestine, and when questioned the authorities denied the arrival of any boats or people.
We were left with the question, that if a boat had arrived then where were the people?
Could they have been subject to the illegal and criminal pushback regime being utilised by the Greek Coast Guards?
Since March 2020, the Greek government has been further violating the human rights of those crossing the Aegean Sea, from Turkey, in the hope of refuge.
The Greek authorities have been intercepting boats of asylum seekers and placing them in vessels to be pushed back across the water towards Turkey (Memo 2020). Not only are boats being intercepted once they are in Greek waters but also once boats and people have arrived and landed on the Greek Islands.
The vessels used to push people back, are disused orange, triangle shaped life rafts, providing no safety or protection as people are crammed on board, adding further danger to their lives.
Image Credit : Aegean Boat Report
It has been documented that after being pushed back by the Greek authorities, people will often spend hours floating until they return to Turkish soil or are picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard who will then place them in detention (France 24 2020).
Reports account that pregnant women and babies are among those who have been subject to these perilous and inhumane pushbacks.
According to Aegean Boat Report, 2020, in the month of October at least 564 people were pushed by Greek Coast Guards.
Following the 1990 Dublin Convention that states asylum seekers must process their asylum application in the first EU country they enter, the population of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece has grown (Just Security 2020). In June 2015, the European Union announced that access to mainland Greece would be prohibited for asylum seekers, forcing many to remain on the Aegean Islands, aggravating the poor conditions and terrible mistreatment of new arrivals (Just Security 2020). In 2016 a deal was struck between the EU and Turkey that resulted in Turkey receiving a payment of 6 billion euros if in return the country’s officials prevented anyone from crossing the sea unauthorised. However, when this deal was broken, the Greek Government announced in an emergency decree that any unauthorised asylum seekers and refugees on Greek soil would be forced back without registration to either their country of origin or transit (Metro 2020).
Majority of the illegal pushbacks have been reported from March of this year (France 24 2020) and ties in closely to the uprising of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is evident that the Greek government are using a fear of infection as a disguise to cover their systemic violence on new arrivals, preventing them from reaching safety (France 24 2020).
In late March, a boat of asylum seekers landed on Symi where they were informed by the coast guard that they were being taken for a corona virus test after which they would be moved to Athens. They were instead deceived and placed on a life raft to be pushed back to sea without any of the belongings they arrived with. It is reported they floated for three hours before being picked up by the Turkish coast guard (Just Security 2020).
While not all reports mention Covid-19 as a method of deception, they all involve mistreatment and forms of violence. On the island of Farmakonisi, the people from a boat arrival, including a pregnant woman, were treated with violence and abuse by the Greek military who placed them on a disused life raft to be pushed back across the sea to Turkey. Their belongings and documents were seized and thrown into the sea in front of them.
Once arriving back on Turkish soil, they were detained for fifteen days and when they were finally released it was without any rights of a refugee (Just Security 2020).
These actions are a blatant violation of both international law and the European convention on Human Rights in particular article 2, ‘Right to life. Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.’ and article 3, ‘Prohibition of torture. No one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ (ECHR 2010).
Furthermore, the actions clearly breach the principle of non-refoulement (Just Security 2020) under international law that guarantees ‘that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm. This principle applies to all displaced people at all time, irrespective of migration status’ (OHCHR 1951).
However, the Greek government are denying their actions nor that they have committed any illegal act, while simultaneously failing to report or document the arrival of refugees onto Greek territory (France 24 2020). All incidents have instead been reported by locals, Turkish coast guard or by people travelling on the boats themselves who alerted boat monitoring organisations.
More recently, on the 3rd of November, a boat of 30 people was picked up by the Turkish coastguard nearly 15 hours after their first distress signal asking for emergency help due to engine failure. After they were placed on Turkish soil, they reported that the Greek coast guard had in fact arrived to them first. However, it was not to give help. The Greek coast guard removed the engine of the boat and took nine phones from the people on board, simultaneously placing them in further danger and inhibiting their capacity to call for help (Aegean Boat Report 2020). These actions bring about a reflection of the 2011 ‘left-to-die boat’ where 72 refugees were abandoned on a small rubber dingy for 14 days in the middle of sea despite having contacted NATO vessels, military aircraft and coast guards, resulting in the death of 63 on board (Forensic Architecture 2012).
This is a reminder that these actions are not isolated but are a part of a long and violent list of tactics that display the continuous and relentless length’s European Governments will go to prevent a refugee population on their soil.
Najma Al-Khatib who attempted to reach Greece this year but faced pushbacks from Greek authorities on multiple occasions stated to the Middle East Monitor, ‘It was very inhumane. I left Syria for fear of bombing but when this happened, I wished I’d died under a bomb’ (MEMO 2020).
This endless negligence for the safety of refugees as they make the voyage to asylum is not only a violation of both international law and human rights but is an abhorrent display of systemic violence against the refugee community.
Ruhi Loren Akhtar of Refugee Biriyani & Bananas says:
“The plastic boat we found washed up on Karfas beach had a small child’s blanket right next to it. I dread to think what happened to the child and the people, who have only been let down repeatedly. How many more people will suffer at our hands as a world entity. I am ashamed that I live in a world where human beings are treated this way.”