Thursday, December 2

Greece accused of attempting “the largest hot return in years”

Greece’s attempt to rescue hundreds of refugees from a distressed vessel in the Aegean in recent days has been hailed as the largest search and rescue operation in the eastern Mediterranean in a decade. But it has ended up sparking accusations that the operation had all the hallmarks of an illegal return before the Greek coastguard was forced to change tactics.

Lesbos, one year after the Moira fire: tents and unsanitary conditions

Know more

A few days after the 382 asylum seekers will disembark on the Greek island of Kos, criticism increases for his ordeal at sea “unnecessarily long”.

“They were men, women and children seeking protection and who should have been taken to a safe harbor after the ship sent the distress signal,” says Dr. Apostolos Veizis, director of the humanitarian aid organization Intersos Hellas. “The nearest port was a few kilometers away, but they were left on the ship for four days, an unnecessarily long period without access to basic services.”

Under the Turkish flag, the Murat 729 was heading to Italy when it had an engine problem off Crete and issued the distress signal on October 28.

On board were Pakistanis, Afghans, Bangladeshis, Syrians, Iranians and Lebanese – the highest number of asylum seekers in years – following an increasingly common route for refugees heading to Europe. More than 100 vessels are estimated to have crossed the sea south of Crete this year, from yachts to scrapped freighters like the Murat 729.

Tommy Olsen received the first videos and photos of the occupants calling for help at 8:30 a.m. that day. “You could see the boat drifting off the island and a Greek coast guard patrol next to it,” says Olsen, director of the Norwegian NGO Aegean Boat Report, which specializes in monitoring movements of people in the area. “It was crowded with people and the shores of Crete were clearly visible,” he says from his home in Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle.

Towed by the Greek Coast Guard

Olsen says he receives up to 10 calls a week from people in distress in the area, “victims of hotbacks,” he says. What puzzled him this time was the refusal of the local authorities to accept that they had located the ship.

“I found it very strange that the Greek authorities insisted that they had not found the boat and then started towing it away from Crete,” says Olsen, a veteran of solidarity work on the front line with migrants in the Aegean islands. “It immediately made me think that what we were seeing was not just one more hot return, but the biggest hot return in years.”

Headed for Turkey, the distressed ship spent the next three days on the high seas, towed by the Greek coastguard. “Every hour I got the geolocation of the ship and you could see how it was going from one place to another,” says Olsen. “Between 2:00 p.m. on Thursday and early Sunday morning, when the occupants were allowed to disembark, he traveled 500 kilometers. During all that time, people sent messages saying that they were not even giving them water and that some were very sick.”

Tension with Ankara

The first official recognition of the Murat 729 by the Greek authorities came on Friday, October 29. They said he was in international waters off Crete and that Athens had asked Turkey to accept his return.

The appearance of the freighter has come at a time of growing tension between the two countries due to migratory movements. Ankara pledged to curb irregular flows under an agreement signed in 2016 with the European Union (EU), but the boats with migrants and refugees appear to have left the Turkish coast unimpeded.

The Aegean appears to have become a scene of hot returns since March 2020, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan encouraged thousands of migrants to enter Greece, sparking a crisis in which the EU rushed to reinforce its land borders. and maritime. Human rights organizations report that thousands of people have been forcibly transferred to Turkish waters before they can apply for asylum.

“What is particularly worrying about this case is that the government was trying to return people who wanted to seek refuge in Greece before the asylum procedure had taken place,” says Minos Mouzourakis of the NGO Refugee Support Aegean, which specializes in offer legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers. “That is a violation of EU law and fundamental rights.”

Returns have been one of the most important items on the agenda of Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi in talks in Ankara this week.

The center-right government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis has strongly rejected the claims of hot returns and attributed them, in large part, to Turkish propaganda. Despite this, Mitsotakis admits that his Executive applies “tough but fair” border management policies with the aim of securing the EU’s external border.

In explaining the time elapsed before bringing the freighter to “safe anchorage”, the Greek Migration Ministry authorities have held Ankara directly responsible for its refusal to respond to repeated requests to return the ship.

But critical voices maintain that the ordeal to which the refugees were subjected during that disagreement also does not coincide with the version of events that the Greek Government is giving. Shortly after the asylum seekers were brought ashore, Minister Mitarachi praised the Greek coastguard. “Greece intervened, providing immediate humanitarian aid to people in need, as we always do,” he said.

More than 100 minors

According to the reconstruction of the events carried out by the humanitarian organizations, it was logistically impossible to return the ship because of its large size and because it would also have required the Greek coastguard to enter Turkish waters. Athens went to Turkey, according to Olsen, when it became clear that it was not possible to return it. His organization, Aegean Boat Report, is among the NGOs the Greek government accuses of aiding and inciting traffickers, accusations Olsen flatly rejects.

“We now know that there were 136 children among the occupants, as well as people with special needs,” says Veizis. “Rather than have them brought to safety by the coast guards, who are a rescue service, the Greek government chose to leave them on the ship and move them while trying to strike a deal with Turkey; the deals are for business, not for human beings seeking international protection “.

Veizis insists that the lack of legal and safe routes to Europe is what forces so many people to turn to such dangerous routes.

Surrounded by barbed wire in its center of Kos, the occupants of Murat 729 will have the right to apply for asylum. It is not expected to be an easy process. Although so far none have tested positive for COVID-19, they must be quarantined for 14 days. The Greek coast guard began on Wednesday to collect the data.

Mitarachi has already made his intentions clear. During the announcement of a meeting with the Pakistani and Bangladeshi ambassadors next week, the Migration Minister said that he would call for the return to their countries of origin of all people who do not obtain asylum. There were 252 Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals on the ship.

Translation by Francisco de Zárate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *