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“Our Fundamental European Values”

At 6.30am on Saturday 18 September, Aegean Boat Report was contacted by a group of nine people who had just arrived on Korakas, east of Skala Sikamineas, north Lesvos.

The group included three minors, a small child and a pregnant woman.

They hid in the hills on Korakas, afraid that if police found them, they would be sent back to Turkey.

They pleaded to be helped to a camp, but unfortunately nobody could come to their rescue. On Lesvos, or any other island for that matter, there is nobody – no organisation, no NGOs, no volunteers, journalists or lawyers – who would go to a location to help people who have just arrived, or even to document their presence.

If anyone did, and police found them, they would be arrested, charged with facilitating illegal entry to Greece, obstruction of police investigations and whatever other charges they might choose, just because they were trying to help vulnerable people seeking safety in Europe.

The new arrivals provided pictures, videos and location data, which prove they had arrived on Lesvos.

From their videos, any local would recognize the area as Korakas, and we can clearly see the village of Sikaminea in the background of one video.

Aegean Boat Report had contact with the group for just one hour: at 7.44am, all contact was lost, and the number hasn’t been online since.

We might think they just ran out of power on their device, but if so, it’s strange that they wouldn’t turn it on again after 12 days. If it had not run out of power, perhaps they lost the phone, or more likely, it was taken from them.

For a week, we searched for any signs of their presence, but no arrivals were registered on Lesvos on this or the following days to show they had been found and taken to a camp.

We heard rumours that they had been returned to Turkey, but we could not confirm them.

The most likely explanation was that they had been found by police. Perhaps a local had seen them in the area and notified them, or the group had walked towards the nearby village of Skala Sikamineas, and someone called the police from there. It’s difficult to say, because nobody talks about new arrivals anymore: it only gets them in trouble with the authorities.

Our fears were confirmed when the Turkish coast guard (TCG) published pictures and videos of ten people who had been found drifting in a life raft north west of Ayvalik, Turkey.

At 1.20am on 19 September, 18 hours after we lost contact with them in Lesvos, they were found drifting in a life raft 12 nautical miles from where they had arrived the previous day.

There is no doubt that the people photographed and videoed by TCG as they were picked up from the life raft outside Ayvalik are the same people who contacted Aegean Boat Report and desperately asked for help, from the hillside of Korakas, north Lesvos, the previous day.

No help arrived, because there is no help for these people. The only thing Aegean Boat Report can do in cases like this is to document, and later publish our findings.

Perhaps at some point in the future, these documented cases of pushbacks can lead to changes for the better. For the people in this pushback, and all the pushbacks in the coming weeks and months, there is no comfort in that, but we have to believe that things will change at some point in the future.

I have been telling myself this for weeks, months and years, and I’m losing hope that this will ever become reality. Since 1 March 2020, 19,127 people have been pushed back by agents of the Greek government in the Aegean Sea.

Is it plausible that the group itself managed to do this, by themselves, without any assistance?

First, they would have to find a life raft, in an area where there is basically nothing but small fishing boats, then inflate it and paddle – because these life rafts have no engine – back to the place they were fleeing in the first place. In the dark.

We must suppose then, that they were paddling with their shoes, because when they were found they had no shoes. Even the small child must have dropped his shoes in his efforts to help paddle them back to Turkey. Also a bit strange, they left all their belongings behind, bags, phones, money, basically everything.

No, it’s not very plausible, but this is what the Greek government wants you to believe: that these people wanted and somehow managed to go back to Turkey, a place so horrifying for them that they took their children in a dangerous boat, to cross one of Europe’s deadliest stretches of water, in the dark, and for this ‘privilege’ they paid a smuggler thousands of Euros.

Nobody could possibly believe they did this by themselves. I mean literally nobody. But nevertheless, this is the Greek government’s explanation for this “phenomena”.

And we must believe the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis when he told CNN back in August 2020 that the Greek government was not responsible for these pushbacks, and said: “If there’s any incident that needs to be explored, if there’s any exaggeration at any given point, I’m going to be the first to look into it.” But it seems he has forgotten his promise, and instead of 1000 pushback victims that was refered to in The New York Times article, the number is today over 19,000.

August 31, 2020

Greece’s minister of migration and asylum Notis Mitarachi, has also been eager to proclaim the Greek government’s innocence in these pushbacks, that the international press is paid and been manipulated by the Turkish government – and the ‘criminal’ NGOs – to publish unfounded accusations to smear the good name of Greece.

He always, when asked about these pushbacks, says: “Greece has a tough but fair border management policy, to protect the border of Europe.”

But in the last 18 months, 361 life rafts, carrying more than 6,300 people, have been found drifting in the Aegean Sea.

Never before, anywhere, have so many life rafts been found at sea during peace-time, but European politicians seem to be unwilling to even address the issue.

The politicians we have elected to protect, as the Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson put it, “our fundamental European values”, seem to be sleeping at a time when Europe is at a crossroads.

We need to decide if Europe will be a place where people seeking safety are protected, where international laws and human rights are upheld, or if we will continue to build a wall around Europe, into which only fortunate will be allowed to enter.