Dear Madam Commissioner, Ms Johansson,
We watched your press conference this afternoon (29 March 2021) with interest and – we have to say – no little disappointment.
It was heartening to hear both you and Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis promise that the ‘closed camps’ on the Aegean islands Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos will not be closed.
You can be assured that we will be keeping a close eye on those camps, because they have been repeatedly described by the Greek government as ‘closed’ since the idea was first suggested in September 2019.
We will be sure to keep you updated, as we know very well that you do not want the EU funding closed camps, as you said so publicly in September 2020, in the immediate aftermath of the Moria fire.
We would be very interested to understand why the Greek government has decided everyone who lives in these ‘non-closed’ camps will be subject to a curfew of 8pm every evening, however. Would you perhaps be able to explain that to us?
Anyway, we are sorry to say that – for us – this was the end of the ‘encouraging updates’.
Perhaps most disappointing – and as you heard it yourself, we are sure you, too, were dismayed – was to hear Notis Mitarachis describe the 370 documented pushbacks, in which 10,989 men, women and children were forcibly removed from Greece (many of them beaten) and set adrift in engineless life-rafts (some of them killed in the journey) as ‘fake news’, and repeated his evidence-free implication that those documented cases had somehow been ‘faked’ by ‘smugglers’.
We can only imagine the personal embarrassment you felt when you heard Mr Mitarachis as then forced to admit that in fact not all the cases were ‘fake news’: that those raised by UNHCR (and only those) may have had some truth to them and were in fact treated seriously.
He did not explain – and never has explained – exactly how he and his government have discovered that every single case not raised by UNHCR is unworthy of further investigation, but every single one highlighted by them needs to be taken seriously. Perhaps you have asked him how this decision was taken?
In any case, we are very sorry that you were forced into the embarrassing position of having to appear to take seriously a claim that every single documented pushback from Greece in the last 12 months was a lie, except the ones which happen to have been raised by UNHCR. We were equally distressed that you then had to appear to accept that of the cases UNHCR wished to be investigated, every single one hadbeen judged to have been wrong by the Greek courts.
It was almost impossible not to cringe in sympathy with you as Mr Mitarachis appeared to claim that every humanitarian organisation with any knowledge of the Greek coastguard’s activities in the Aegean and the United Nations was for some reason targeting Greece with unjust attacks.
We can assure you that many more cases are to be heard, and not only in Greek courts.
Once again, we feel we must offer our deepest sympathy to you for this experience.
But, Madam Commissioner, Ms Johansson, we do want to offer you something else. Information you may not have received from Mr Mitarachis and his Ministry.
From Saturday night to the end of Sunday, Madam Commissioner, a period which roughly matches the first third of your visit, the Greek coastguard carried out NINE (9) pushbacks, of 291 men, women and children.
We know this because we receive their desperate messages, calling for someone, anyone, to help them.
In the videos we include for your information, there is a group of 19 people. They arrived on Lesvos early on Sunday morning. You can see them on the island in the videos.
The Greek coastguard found them, forced them onto a coastguard vessel, and – as you can also see clearly in this footage – left them adrift near Dikili, Western Turkey in an engineless inflatable tent.
Madam Commissioner, Ms Johansson, we know that you believe in international law. We know that it can be difficult to find the ‘right path’ when the people on whose information you are supposed to rely fail to provide you with the ‘whole story’. And we know that you cannot possibly want this to be happening ‘on your watch’. But it is. It has happened to more than 11,000 people in the last year alone.
We are here to help, Ms Johansson.
We are here to help the men, women and children desperately seeking somewhere safe and decent to live – including, we are sad to have to say, helping them not to die. We are here to help the Greek government ensure those people enter the legal process, and respond to this challenging situation with decency and decorum.
And we are here to help you, by helping you to ensure that the EU is the best it can possibly be. That it does embody the principles and letter of international law, rather than just hoping people will think it does.
We want the same thing, Ms Johansson: an EU of which we can all be proud. Please help us, too, to realise this fine ambition.