Diverging snapshots from the migrant front

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Five snapshots from the – increasingly horrifying – front of migrants /refugees crossing the Aegean or the land border at Evros river and adding to Greek-Turkish tensions:

  1. The latest snapshot: 92 stark-naked asylum-seekers were landed at the Greek bank of the Evros river, evidently pushed forward by Turkish forces on rubber boats. The very pictures of human beings huddling together in utter dejection and shame were more than an affront to human dignity. In full sight of international public opinion, this was a depiction of the unthinkable in the third decade of the 21st century.
  2. Some days earlier, footage was released from the efforts of local communities at the Greek island of Kythera – off the southernmost tip of the Peloponnesus, hundreds of miles away from the Turkish coast – striving to rescue dozens of migrants whose boat had capsized in the rough waters. The sight of clusters of people clinging at the Kythera cliffs, all the while beaten by surging waves, with Greek authorities aided by local residents trying to haul them up to safety – a crane operator worked miracles with his own equipment he brought along – should be treasured as a model of civic assistance. The kind of assistance we had not seen since the days islanders were rushing to help refugees washed in their thousands on their beaches, back in 2015-16.
  3. The same could not be said for an earlier snapshot, of a group of asylum seekers abandoned on a disputed islet in the middle of the Evros river. Back then, the Greek authorities refused to heed the refugees’ calls relayed by NGOs and dallied coming to their aid. The argument was used that the islet did not fall under Greek but under Turkish authority, so the duty to come to rescue fell to the Turkish and not to Greek side. This incident caught the attention of international media; in Greece it caused unpleasant friction between Government officialdom and Opposition members (along with NGO personnel). Maps were mustered to prove the opposing views; when finally, the issue was settled that the island was bi-sected by the Greek-Turkish border line, the incident was long forgotten – along with the human pain it pertained to.
  4. The fourth snapshot comes from an official document: the Report by OLAF (the EU watchdog for “corruption and serious misconduct within European institutions”) over the behavior of Frontex (the service for “EU border management in line with EU fundamental rights”).

Quote: “During the night between 18 and 19 April 2020, the FSA (FRONTEX Surveillance Aircraft) METIS detected (and video-recorded) the activities of some Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) assets while dealing with a rubber boat of migrants intercepted within the Greek Territorial Waters (GTW). In particular, the migrants were taken on board of one of the HCG vessels only to be subsequently transferred back to the rubber boat. The boat was then towed by an HCG asset to the Turkish Territorial Waters (TTW) where it was left adrift with no engine at around 6:20 local time (Annex 6).” Unquote.

In such dry, administrative language one has the unforgiving depiction of pushbacks on the Greek side, aided and abetted by FRONTEX (which had lost, meanwhile, its own executive director Fabrice Leggeri, eased out due to such practices some months ago). Such pushbacks are routinely denied by Greek officialdom.

  1. The fifth snapshot comes from the rarefied atmosphere of the UN General Assembly. There in mid-September, Turkish President Erdogan used the speaker’s podium in front of international public opinion to lash against Greece, purportedly “turning the Aegean into a cemetery for migrants […] with its illegal push-backs [it] increases the violence against migrants”.

When Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis duly responded in stern language to such “unfounded and unacceptable accusations” and denounced weaponisation of the migrant issue on the Turkish side, one could not but wonder – in earnest – how much his case would be supported by above-mentioned snapshots 1 and 2 rather than the following ones 3 and 4…