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The Refugee Lottery

On Monday Aegean Boat Report published an urgent appeal to prevent a pushback on Lesvos. This appeal was only partially successful, 14 people, amongst them 8 children, was prevented from being pushed back, 17 people from the same group was found drifting in a life raft hours later, amongst them 8 children and a pregnant woman.

At a time when European countries opens their doors to millions of refugees fleeing war and terror in Ukraine, the Greek government is systematically breaking international laws and human rights, beating, robbing, and risking the lives of men, women and children from other parts of the world, who are searching for safety.

Before first light a boat carrying at least 31 people landed on the north shores of Lesvos, west of the village of Skala Sikamineas. The place become famous under the refugee crisis in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees was welcomed with open arms, the village was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in saving people crossing the waters from Turkey to Greece.

Things have changed drastically since then, now it’s actually considered a crime to assist any new arrivals on these beaches. If you assist without approval from the authorities, you most likely will be arrested and face charges, a result of the Greek government’s hostility against refugees coming from non-European countries, unlike refugees from Ukraine, “the real refugees” as they Greek government have chosen to call them.

Today anyone arriving on these shores must run for their lives and hid in the woods, if found by Greek police they face immediate deportation, usually left drifting at sea in a life raft by the Greek Coast Guard. The 31 afghans from the landing on Monday did just that, scattered around in the surrounding areas, groups of men women and children was hiding from the Greek police, amongst them 16 children.

Signs of people arriving could be found on the beach close to To Kyma, west of Skala Sikamineas the following day. Many things was left behind on the beach, maybe because they were in a hurry to leave the area before anyone found them.

Several groups contacted the Aegean Boat Report for assistance, and we tried our best, under the circumstances, to find someone who was willing and able to assist, these days this is often very difficult. Most organizations do not dare to assist, in fear of consequences from the Greek authorities.

At 09.18 Greek time, head of operation for UNHCR on Lesvos, Reyhaneh Shakibaie, was informed. She received detailed information on several of the groups hiding in the woods in Lesvos north, locations, number of people, number of children, nationalities and contact numbers. We had hoped that UNHCR would act swiftly, especially considering the number of children in imminent danger of being put in an life treating situation, if deported in life rafts, this did unfortunately not happen.

Instead UNHCR waited for consent from the people who was hiding in the woods, so that UNHCR could give their location to the authorities. Most of the groups didn’t want the police to have their location, so they refused.

Not a very strange decision, especially when everyone knows what happens when police get a location on new arrivals. They are arrested, many times beaten, stripped of their clothes, humiliated and threatened at gunpoint, their belongings stolen, especially money and phones, before removed from the island and forced into life rafts in the Aegean Sea.

The UNHCR is very aware of this, but nevertheless they continues to provide the Greek authorities with locations of new arrivals, putting vulnerable people in harms way, a practice that is very difficult to understand, and perhaps even more difficult to justify.

The practice of the Greek UNHCR is a direct contradiction to the mandate given to UNHCR based on the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. “UNHCR’s core mandate is to ensure the international protection of uprooted people worldwide”. The organization claims to promotes the basic human rights of refugees and ensures they will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they face persecution, in Greece we unfortunately see the opposite.

Anyone contacting and trusting UNHCR in Greece when they arrive, puts themselves in a very dangerous situation, since they are all about “playing ball” with the fascistic Greek government, and seems to have a lost sight of their real purpose, their core mandate, protecting vulnerable people.

Aegean Boat Report maintained contact with several of the groups, they sent pictures, videos and locations to document their whereabouts.

One group of five people, two women and three men, had made it up to the small village of Sikaminea, where they took some pictures outside the local school. After they sent pictures and their location, we lost contact with the group, what happened to them we didn’t know at the time.

To prove that they actually had been at the local school in Sikaminea, we used google street view, witch prove this without any doubt.

Locals living in the area observed several cars, driving around in the area, both in the village of Sikaminea, Lepetimnos, Eftalu and skala Sikamineas. It was civilian cars, one dark green van, and two black Fiat Panda. Non of the cars had license plates and inside locals could observe men wearing black balaclavas, not the typical headgear in the middle of the day.

Contact with several groups was eventually lost, and we feared that local police had found them. Aegean Boat Report tried several times to get updates from UNHCR on what, if any, they had done in this case. Head of operation for UNHCR ignored this request, and refused to give any information, even do we had provided them with all necessary information from the beginning, to handle the case.

At 15.30 the three cars without license plates was observed traveling south in high speed, a local asset filmed two of them outside Pedi and then again in Paralia, the third car had gone ahead and was nowhere to be seen. These cars was the same cars seen in the villages in the north a few hours earlier.

UNHCR representatives was observed hanging around in Skaka Sikamineas around 16.00, when they got there and what they had done is not clear. What on the other hand is clear, is that the mysterious black cars arrived hours before the UNHCR, and they seemed to know exactly what areas to search, where they had gotten these locations from is unknown, but perhaps UNHCR can answer to that.

Most likely UNHCR provided locations to the authorities, and the authorities stalled UNHCR just long enough so that they could remove any new arrivals they could find, before UNHCR was given permission to go to the area. This is of course only speculations, but the masked men disappeared from the area and later UNHCR was observed in the same area, so we can only speculate what deal they had with the authorities.

In the afternoon 11 people was persuaded to come out of hiding in the woods, and down to Skala Sikamineas, later 3 more arrived. 8 children and 6 adults was taken to the Megala Therma quarantine camp east of Eftalu, Lesvos north.

Skala Sikamineas

At 23.30 on Monday March 7, 17 People was found and rescued from a life raft drifting outside Çeşme Turkey. Amongst the 17 there were 8 children and a pregnant woman.

From a video provided by the Turkish coast guard, we can clearly see people who we previously had seen in pictures from Lesvos north, there is absolutely no doubt, it’s the same group.

17 people rescued outside Cesme, Turkey

Pictures of the people being picked up by the Turkish coast guard was shown to the lucky ones that managed to remain on Lesvos, they confirmed their identity. They were shocked and devastated when they learned of their friends faith.

What had happened to this group was quite obvious: they had been found by police on Lesvos and removed from the island, pushed back as so many before them.

While the eyes and sympathy of the world is fixed on the situation in Ukraine, understandably of course, but nevertheless, people coming from other countries outside Europe, continues to suffer by the hands of cruelty, performed by the Greek authorities.

It is good to be reminded that the EU is capable of doing its duty by recognising and acting on those people’s rights as human beings. But even as it happens, EU states are still breaking the law, and acting against all human decency and civilisation, by pushing back other people – people who are just as likely to be refugees, including some like this Afghan families who certainly are – from their borders: not only denying them asylum, but their right even to apply for asylum.

Artwork by Yorgos Konstantinou

The law is not a lottery: one does not have human rights only if one is born in a particular part of the world.

To call refugees from Ukraine “the real refugees”, and people from other “unwanted” parts of the world “illegal immigrant’s”, just based of the color on their skin and their religion, comes from the same dangerous ideology that was used by Nazi Germany under Hitler. We seem to have forgotten our recent dark history, both in Greece and in Europe.