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Change at last in Greek border activity. But will it last?

Since 1 March 2020, the Greek government’s main response to refugees arriving on Greek islands has been to send masked men to hunt them down, arrest, rob, and in some cases rape or otherwise sexually abuse them, before forcing them back to the sea, leaving them to drift helplessly in life rafts.

The systematic violation of international law and human rights in the name of ‘border protection’ in the Aegean Sea has been a trademark for Greece’s Right wing Nea Dimokratia government for more than three years, forcing more than 20.000 men, women and children, into more than 1.200 life rafts, leaving them helplessly drifting at sea.

It’s not as if this illegal practice by the Greek authorities has been a secret: hundreds of articles have been published by investigative journalists over the years, international organisations, and UN and EU bodies, have documented and criticised these violations, without being able, or in some cases willing, to put an end to them.

Many of us trying to assist people on the move have asked ourselves what it would take to end this madness, or at least force some positive change.

In 2022, the OLAF report on Frontex was made public: the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency was shown to have carried out cover ups of human rights violations in EU member states by the agency and its staff, and to have helped cover up illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers from Greece.

Lea Rossa / DER SPIEGEL; Fotos: Emrah Gurel / AP; European Anti-Fraud Office

Surely this would force change? some of us thought. And something did change: the situation got worse.

On 19 May this year, The New York Times published a shocking video showing men, women and children being pushed back from Lesvos, and left helplessly drifting in a life raft, by the Greek coast guard.

Picture from video Fayad Mulla/The New York Tomes

A video of this magnitude should be powerful enough to force the head of state to resign. But not in Greece. Absolutely nothing changed.

The European Parliament and EU Commission have been unable, and more likely unwilling, to act against the widespread human rights violations committed by a member state. As a result, thousands of people have drowned, and vulnerable people have had tremendous human suffering inflicted upon them by a developed state in the world’s richest ever political bloc, and by the bloc itself.

Thousands of people have drowned, when one person dying at sea because of deliberate policies imposed by a government or governments should have been enough to end those policies immediately.

Failing this, thousands of refugees drowning while trying to reach safety in Europe – which has in fact been allowed to happen – should have forced European authorities to act, but it did not, and they did not.

On 14 June 2023, a fishing boat carrying an estimated 750 people sank off the coast of Pylos, Greece.

Only 104 people were rescued, meaning more than 600 people, 100 of them children, drowned.

We now know this was the direct result of the Greek authorities pushback and no-rescue tactics: that – and there is no other way to put this, and no way to hide from the overwhelming evidence which proves this to be true – more than 600 people were killed by the Greek authorities.

The tragic sinking of the Adriana fishing boat made headlines all over the world, another testimony to the effort and dedication of investigative journalists to uncover the truth: without their tireless work we most likely would have been kept in the dark, whereas, instead, to try to cover this up now would be futile.

But what actions have the European Commission taken in response? Zero.

It’s a scandal, and a disgrace. The Commission has called for a Greek investigation – literally telling the criminals in this case to investigate themselves – only after which will action be taken, if any is at all.

It’s absolutely ridiculous to believe that a Greek secret investigation would find the Greek authorities guilty of any wrongdoing. Such a thing has absolutely never happened.

Frontex on the other hand, who was involved in this disaster, has launched an investigation into the sinking of the Adriana, the pushback published in The New York Times and a pushback at sea outside Lesvos, where there is indication that a Portuguese Frontex vessel was involved.

The clear implied outcome of any and all these investigations is that Frontex may invoke Article 46 of its charter, and suspend all operations in Greece because of the Greek government’s persistent violation of human rights and international law.

Whether Frontex will do this will ultimately depend on how the Greek government responds to its questions on the incidents.

The agency’s fundamental rights officer, Jonas Grimheden has, once again, recommended Frontex should suspend its operations in Greece, though so far, it has given no information about how it intends to react, if at all, to the thoroughly-documented, systematic, human rights abuses the Greek government has carried out.

Jonas Grimheden, Frontex Fundamental Rights Officer

But many different scenarios have been debated in the press, from suspending all operations, holding back funding and docking vessels funded by the agency.

And the pressure on the Greek government and its employees to change their ways, and start following international laws, is mounting. The government must, by now, be aware that its abuse of human rights will no longer be tolerated by the international community.

The Greek government knows that if Frontex pulled out all resources from the country, and ended all operational abilities for vessels funded by the agency, it would be in a very difficult situation, and it does appear that it has been forced to change, at least for now.

Are these changes the result of an ultimatum by Frontex? We cannot, of course, say so for sure. But we firmly believe so, because it is hard to imagine changes being made on this scale and with this speed without one.

Aegean Boat Report has been monitoring the situation in the Aegean Sea for six years, and we started noticing changes – small, but noticeable to the trained eye – the week after the Adriana sank.

The number of people found drifting in life rafts suddenly dropped: in the last two years an average of 10 life rafts have been found drifting in the Aegean Sea every week. So far this month, a period of nearly four weeks, only three life rafts have been found, carrying 51 people. Based on what has happened since 1 March 2020, that’s nothing short of a miracle.

By comparison, in July 2022, 65 life rafts were found drifting in the Aegean Sea, carrying almost 1200 people. In May 2023, the last full month before the Adriana sank, 26 rafts were found, carrying 467 people.

At the same time, the number of people officially registered as arrived on the Greek islands since the Adriana sank has skyrocketed. Last week was the first week for many years in which registered arrivals exceeded the number of people picked up by the Turkish coast guard.

In the last five weeks, registered arrivals on the islands have increased by 190 per cent, and in the same period, pushbacks from the islands have decreased 90 per cent. The pattern is unmistakable.

Prior to the sinking of the Adriana, the normal practice of the Greek Coast Guard was to push back boats, no matter how close they were to the Greek islands, or in what condition they were found.

In recent years, when refugees have arrived on the Aegean Islands they have run and hidden to avoid being found by Greek authorities and illegally deported to Turkey.

They have not done so ‘only’ because they have heard someone say they will be returned: they have experienced this first hand, many of them several times.

We will not claim the Greek Coastguard is not pushing back boats at sea – it consistently has done and we see no evidence it has ceased to do this – but those found close to the main Aegean Island hotspots, especially those in need of rescue, have for the last few weeks actually been rescued and taken to the closest port of safety.

This is precisely what Coastguards are supposed to do, but under orders from the Greek government, the Greek Coastguard has not done so for many years: that it is now doing so is momentous and astonishing, even as we must stress that what we are saying here is that it is momentous and astonishing that the Greek Coastguard is doing its actual job, providing the sole service for which it exists at all.

People arriving in Greece know that they will be hunted down by masked violent men, robbed and beaten, before being forced back to sea and left drifting in a life raft. But not anymore, at least for the time being.

We can, with a fair degree of certainty, say that those who actually manage to arrive on the Greek islands, are no longer hunted down by masked men and pushed back, they are being allowed to stay, and given the opportunity to apply for international protection.

It appears, at last, that the Greek authorities have been forced to change their ways.

It is an exceptionally positive development, though one – let us not forget – that should never have been necessary, and which came at the cost of the completely avoidable deaths, in fact the killing, of at least 600 men, women and children.

And even that would probably not have been enough, were it not for the work of dedicated organisations and individuals, including Aegean Boat Report, humanitarian actors, and news reporters dedicated to the truth, as well as to the brave testimonies of people made to suffer serious injury, loss of possessions, and sexual assault, ordered by the Greek government.

We cannot know yet whether this change is one which will last, or merely a ‘lull’ before the government re-starts its despicable, violent, illegal and barbaric behaviour at its sea borders, perhaps when the eyes of the world are diverted to some new horror elsewhere in the world.

But we can promise that we will keep watching, monitoring, talking to people about their experiences, and reporting what we know to you, and anyone else who cares to keep informed.

We wished to report a positive development in the Aegean Sea, but we – and our colleagues engaged in this situation – will not stop watching, and not stop exposing what we find.

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