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Pushbacks is no longer even the “new normal”: it is just “normal”

Fifty-one people on a boat north east of Korakas, Lesvos north were stopped by the Greek coastguard and towed from Greek waters on 14 April. Some of the people aboard called Aegean Boat Report at 7.30am. They were screaming on the phone, begging for help.

Pushback Lesvos 14.04.2021

The videos and pictures they sent us clearly showed that the boat towing them was a Lambro-57 coastal patrol boat, identification number LS-609. It belongs to the Greek coast guard, and is stationed on Lesvos.

Aegean Boat Report received several locations over Whatsapp, both regular and live location, from three different phones. At this point, the boat was 1.6km from land on Lesvos. From the pictures the people sent us, we could clearly see Korakas in the background. The boat was definitely deep inside Greek territory waters, but still it was pushed back, even though this is absolutely illegal.

In direct breach of international law, these people were forcibly deported by the Greek coast guard.

The direct voice contact was lost for several hours, but Aegean Boat Report could still follow the boat’s live location, as it was towed slowly north, away from Lesvos towards Behram, Turkey.

The Turkish coast guard was informed of their location and the people were eventually found and picked up.

Two days later, 16 April, Aegean Boat Report received another emergency call from a boat carrying 48 people in the same area.

A small RIB, carrying three men wearing balaclavas, had stopped them at sea and destroyed their engine.

While Aegean Boat Report spoke on the phone with the people whose boat had been attacked and vandalised, they were being towed back towards Turkish waters. They sent us several videos in which we can clearly see a RIB carrying three men in balaclavas towing the rubber boat. The boat used in this incident is smaller than previously used boats we have seen, and so far we have not been able to identify it, or the men onboard.

Pushback Lesvos 16.04.2021

The people who were attacked explained that after the men cut the rope, and left them drifting, the small boat carrying the three disguised men headed back in the direction of Lesvos at high speed.

In recent weeks, the Greek Minister of Migration & Asylum, Notis Mitarachi, has boasted in several interviews about the Greek government’s ‘border management policy’.

He said: “In 2021, flows have decreased by 89% on our island compared to 2020”.

Though this boast was carried by a number of media outlets, no-one appears to have asked, and Mr Mitarachis has not said anything about, how this was ‘achieved’.

Whenever confronted with questions about its border management issues, the Greek government proclaims that it has a “fair but strict border management policy”, and that they follow international regulations, laws, and human rights.

I guess if you go on record on international TV saying “we are doing nothing wrong” you have to stick to that line, but at some point it’s just futile to continue denying it.

It’s proven without any doubt that the Greek government is systematically deporting people who want to apply for asylum in Greece.

Since March last year, more than 12.000 men, woman and children, have been pushed back in the Aegean Sea, their right to apply for asylum denied by the Greek government.

A year ago, pushbacks in the Aegean Sea became headlines in the international press. The pushbacks then were usually performed under cover of darkness, so that nobody could see what was going on.

The Greek government of course denied any involvement, and most people found it difficult to believe that Greece could perform such outrages.

Today, we are long past the question “who is behind these pushbacks?”.

We have seen too many videos of Greek coast guard vessels towing rubber dinghies and inflatable life rafts, testimonies from victims and investigations to be fooled by the continuous denials by the Greek government. Even so, they still deny it.

But, perhaps because even the most blatant of crimes is no longer news if it is committed often enough, pushbacks no longer seem to make headlines in international media. It has become the new ‘normal’, performed in broad daylight, and even if we can see it happening, every single day, for some strange reason we can still hear Greek officials continue to deny being involved.

Just a few days ago, we spoke to a reporter for a story about this illegal practice. She asked us “did anybody die?” This is not a criticism of ‘the media’ alone. It reflects people’s interests and priorities at least as much as it shapes them. But we have to ask, is this where we are now? In a situation in which the consistent mass breaking of international law, stripping men, women and children – and in fact every single person on the planet – of their fundamental human rights, is only news if someone dies in the process? And of course people have died as a result of pushbacks.

On 19 March 2021, less than five weeks ago, four men drowned when the Greek coastguard handcuffed them and set them adrift on the Aegean Sea, according to a report from Turkish coast guard.

Video published by TCG

In 2020, the current Greek government’s first full year in charge of Greece’s ‘border policy’, one in every 93 people who tried to reach Greece by sea, died. The worst death-rate in the recorded history of people movement on the Aegean Sea.

Statistics from UNHCR data portal

We ask again, is this now where we are? Where the law is broken with impunity, in broad daylight, where people drowned, in handcuffs, five weeks ago, where the Greek government has ‘achieved’ the highest ever death-rate on its coast, and we still ask “yes, but has anyone died recently?”?

We have published hundreds of pushback reports over the last year. Since March 2020, we have documented 410 pushback cases involving 12.266 people. In the same period, 130 life rafts have been found drifting in the Aegean Sea, carrying over 3,700 people.

This is no longer even the “new normal”: it is just “normal”. There can be few more damning indictments of Europe and its people than that this is how we behave: risking and causing people to die, by attacking them, and denying them their fundamental human rights.

It is an attack on us all: when a government strips a Somali teen, a Syrian child, an Iraqi man, an Afghan woman of their human rights, you have to know that they are reserving the right to do the same to you, to your son, daughter, brother, sister, parents, grandfather and grandmother.

Those rights belong to us all: once they are taken from one of us, they can be taken from us all. It must stop. We cannot simply turn a blind eye to this – the disgrace of Europe. Instead, we must stand, together, and demand better: from our governments, from the EU, from the international community.

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