The Aegean Sea this year has become once again the most frequent escape route chosen by people on their way to Europe. As a consequence, the numbers of refugees trapped in Greece steadily increased for a third year in a row. While the Turkish Coast Guard seems to have detected and arrested more or less the same number of refugees attempting to cross the border in the Aegean Sea irregularly in the first five months of 2019, thus, continuing with the practice of “pull-backs”. This phenomenon has also been observed by the Alarm Phone. Through the emergency calls it receives, the Alarm Phone has noticed an increase in accounts of attacks by “masked men” in the Greek territorial waters. Attacks which were followed by pull-backs by the Turkish authorities.
The ‘return’ of this life-threatening practice of pushbacks, alleged to be by the Greek Coast Guard, puts the lives of people escaping war and conflict into danger once more. Illegal returns of refugees under the eyes of Frontex and the NATO are more likely to happen in the absence of civil rescue boats who can document human rights violations on the sea. Border deaths could be prevented too by the return of these vessels. The blockage of Mare Liberum has to be seen as part of the wider attempt to hinder civil society from witnessing the illegal practices carried out against refugees at the sea borders.
The Aegean Sea will always be the watery grave for dozens of refugees in times when refugee policies at the external borders of the EU are based on management and control, instead of saving lives and access to protection. Meanwhile, through its follow-ups, the attention of the Alarm Phone has also been drawn to the terrible living conditions of refugees on the island of Samos, both inside and outside of the hotspot. This is another brutal part of the European policy of deterrence.
On June 16, the UNHCR counted 16,387 arrivals in Greece alone (11,318 from the Aegean Sea and 5,069 from the land border in Evros). Meanwhile, about 16,400 refugees are currently trapped in the Aegean Islands – most of which have to endure the inhuman and overcrowded ‘hotspots’. One third of the arrivals are children. From January to May 2019, 61 people have been returned under the EU-Turkey ‘Deal’ to Turkey, the majority of which had received a negative decision in their asylum applications (1st or 2nd instance) or withdrew their claims while being trapped on the Aegean islands. In the first five months of 2019, 53 people died during the attempt to cross the Eastern Mediterranean borders. Most of the shipwrecks occurred in May and June in the Aegean Sea.
During the period covered in this report (18.3.19 to 18.6.19), the Alarm Phone has worked on 58 emergency calls from the Aegean region. Of these, 43 cases were boats in distress – 24 of them reached Greece, while 18 were returned to Turkey and one was a boat from Lebanon which was finally rescued to Cyprus. 15 cases concerned groups of people who were stranded on different islands, 13 after having made the sea crossing to Greece, 2 groups who had become stranded after a distress situation on an island belonging to Turkey and had to be rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard from there. In the three months of the period covered by this report we were not alerted to any distress situation that involved a group along the Turkish-Greek land border. In 4 cases the travellers reported being pushed and pulled back. In three of these cases they stated that they had been attacked by masked men in Greek territorial waters.