Before first light on 2 April, Aegean Boat Reported was contacted by several people claiming to be in the need of rescue in different locations in the sea area around Lesvos. Some had been pushed back, engines removed from their vessels, drifting. One was being towed towards Turkish waters, and others were forced back over the border by vessels from the Hellenic coast guard.
In the early hours of 2 April, we registered at least five cases of pushbacks performed by the Greek Coast Guard: more than 200 people were pushed back in these five incidents.
Later the same morning, the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, made a public statement, were he accused the Turkish coast guard and Turkish Navy of “accompanying flimsy migrant boats to the border of Europe in an effort to provoke an escalation with Greece”, an accusation made without what we can call substantial proof.
He based his accusations on two videos released together with a statement from the Hellenic coast guard. The only problem is that the videos do not in any way show or prove what the minister is claiming.
This is not the first time Mr. Mitarachi has thrown accusations around without being able to back them up with proof. In an international invite-only press conference in December 2020, he accused Aegean Boat Report of being a part of a smuggling network without a single shred of evidence. This was of course entirely untrue, and was done to try to take focus away from an investigation published in Der Spiegel the same day regarding a serious pushback incident on Lesvos.
The minister’s most recent statement, also in English, seems to be another poorly-planned and -executed attempt to move focus away from illegal pushbacks performed by the Greek government. In recent months, numerous investigations and reports on pushbacks have been published by the international press and organizations, resulting in questions being raised in the EU Parliament.
The Turkish coast guard published their own statement from these incidents outside Lesvos on April 2, they on the other hand blamed the Greek coast guard for illegal activities. Also the Turkish government by Deputy Interior Minister Mr. Catakli, categorically denies the allegations put forward by Mr. Mitarachi.
So, let’s take a closer look at this statement, to see exactly how much of what Mr. Mitarachi said on 2 April is shown by the evidence to be accurate.
He said: “This morning, the Hellenic Coastguard reported multiple incidents of the Turkish Coastguard and Navy accompanying flimsy migrant boats to the border of Europe”.
Yes, there were multiple boats trying to cross towards the Greek Aegean islands on that morning, but Mr Mitarachi has not shown that they were “accompanied” by the Turkish coast guard. This is interesting because if he had proof that this had happened, wouldn’t it then be strange not to use it, and what could possibly be the reason not to use it?
He also refers to “the border of Europe”, not the Greek border, as if this “provocation” as he calls it, was aimed at Europe, and not Greece. It seems he wants to portray Greece as the ‘shield’ of Europe, as Ursula von der Leyen described it in March last year, so it looks as if Greece is not ‘defending’ itself, but ‘defending’ everyone in Europe.
He went on: “It is beyond doubt that these migrants departed Turkish shores and given the fact they were supported by Turkey, were not at risk”
He is correct to say these people departed from Turkey, but when he adds that they were “supported by Turkey”, he offers no evidence to support this claim. And when he claims that they were ‘not at risk’, we in fact have video evidence that these people were in fact in grave danger, because of the illegal actions taken by the Greek Coast Guard.
He then said: “We call on Turkey to: 1) Stand down and stop this unwarranted provocation; 2) Return these migrants safely to Turkey; 3) Live up to the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement on migration.”
So, in response, we should note that: 1) this was not a “provocation”, unless Mr. Mitarachi is correct when he claims these boats were sent by The Turkish government, to “provoke” Greece. There has as yet been no evidence offered to substantiate this claim. 2) Why should Turkey return people who are entitled by international law to cross any border as long as they intend to apply for asylum in their final destination country? It’s also absolutely illegal under international law and it is a direct breach of ALL our human rights for countries to prevent people from traveling and entering, perhaps something to which Mr. Mitarachi should pay more attention.
Mr. Mitarachi tries to imply that people are safe in Turkey, if taken back by the Turkish coast guard. How can he possibly know this? He does not know who these people are, or why they are trying to reach Greece, because he refuses to allow them to apply for asylum, or consider their applications – as is their right under international law.
It is of course true that countries are entitled to ‘defend their borders’ – European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson talked about that in her press conference on Lesvos on Monday 30 March. But Ms Johansson and Mr. Mitarachis know that this does not apply to individuals trying to reach places of safety. A country absolutely has the right to defend its borders from an invading force, but it cannot pretend to be defending itself by breaking international law to prevent people seeking safety. The UN Declaration of Human Rights (article 14) 1948. UN Refugee Convention, 1951 and Protocol 1967 are clear that this is the right of every person on the planet.
3) This is in fact one of several reasons why the EU/Turkey Deal Mr. Mitarachi cites is a direct breach of international law. We might also note that to all intents and purposes, the EU-Turkey Deal is over. Although there is no official ‘end-date’ written into the Deal, the last EU money promised to Turkey under the Deal was in December 2020 (two years late, according to the Deal’s terms). At the time of writing, Ms Johansson herself is talking regularly and publicly about ‘renewing and renegotiating’ the Deal for this precise reason: it is effectively over.
It seems only fair to mention, too, that whatever else may be true about Turkey, and also its relationship with Greece, the Turkish coastguard has stopped well over half of all the people who have tried to make the crossing since the Deal came into effect in late March 2016. From a purely statistical viewpoint, more than twice as many people would have arrived in Greece from March 2016, had the TCG not become the sea militia the EU demanded it must be, under the terms of the Deal. For Mitarachi or anyone else to claim Turkey has not ‘adhered to’ the Deal is simply an attempt to mislead the public, as well as politicians looking on from elsewhere in Europe.
Mitarachi’s statement to camera on 2 April was almost entirely incorrect. We cannot know for certain why he chose to say what he said, when he did, but it is reasonable to consider that it was broadcast just as the issue of Greece’s lawbreaking on the Aegean was gaining widespread, and correctly negative, international coverage.
Perhaps when he practised it in front of his mirror, the statement sounded firm and convincing. But to anyone with even the slightest interest and knowledge, it sounded like the opposite: a person desperately trying to cover up their atrocious behaviour with the flimsiest of stories.
On 2 April, a genuinely dreadful moment in the modern history of Europe, more than 200 people were illegally pushed back by the Greek government outside Lesvos. This statement is a fact, and we have the proof to support it.
We doubt Mr. Mitarachi lost any sleep over it, but I can tell you I did.
From just after midnight on 2 April, Aegean Boat Report received more than 100 phone calls from people in distress, begging for help, fearing for their lives, and all we could do was to call the very coast guard which was the reason for their suffering.
More than 11,000 men, women and children entering the EU to seek safe places to rebuild their lives have been illegally forced out of Greece since 1 March 2020.
First-hand accounts from these innocent people tell of beatings at the hands of uniformed officers, and in every case, they have been forced into engineless vessels – almost always inflatable tents – and set adrift in the Eastern Aegean Sea.
This is illegal, immoral, and in the EU – a political bloc which presents itself as, and believes itself to be, a protector and promoter of international law and human rights – unacceptable.
It is time we as people, and the EU as a political body, moves to end these illegal acts. Mr Mitarachi and the Greek government can, of course, join us in this effort. We would welcome them. But with them or without them, this is a stain on all of our consciences, and all of our records, and it cannot continue.