Why We Must Care About Deaths in European Waters

Have you ever visited Farmakonisi? It is in Europe! Specifically, it is a Greek island but not as famous as Rhodes or Corfu, not as beautiful as Santorini, nor as posh as Mykonos. Farmakonisi is small and very close to Turkey, it serves as a base for a small Greek military monitoring unit. According to Plutarch, a young Julius Caesar was there for almost a year held hostage by pirates until his family paid for his release. When Caesar grew up and became a general, he crucified the entire population of the island for revenge.

The island still remains uninhabited but not because of Caesar. Apart from the military unit there is no other population. In a way, “crucifixions” still go on with the victims being desperate migrants and refugees. With the island being so close to Turkish shores it is an attractive destination for the fleeing migrants, particularly, after the construction of a fence on the Greek-Turkish border in the Evros area. Smugglers usually prefer sailing towards Farmakonisi in order to bring their “clients” more swiftly to European soil. But “swiftly” does not mean safe. On a daily basis many migrants and refugees who attempt to reach Europe through Farmakonisi lose their lives in the Aegean sea. Those who manage to survive cannot be considered “lucky” since in many cases they will receive “special treatment” from the Greek authorities (which for many NGOs could amount to torture) before being pushed-back to Turkey.

Although Greeks brag of their hospitality, you will hardly find a migrant or a refugee to confirm it of late. Even “Xenios Zeus” (the name of the ancient Greek god of hospitality) has been used for the past 2 years by the Greek authorities (in a bad case of an ironic humour?) to christen an epic-scale sweeping operation to crack down on irregular immigration based on discriminatory grounds. In addition, there are many reports and convictions against Greece for systematic inhumane treatment of those entering irregularly on to Greek soil. Therefore, in 2011, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) took the exceptional measure of issuing a public statement against Greece. The statement followed the Greek authorities’ persistent lack of action to improve the situation with regards to the detention of irregular migrants and the state of the prison system. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights, in its 2013 annual report ranked Greece seventh among the States with the highest number of judgments finding at least one violation of the European Convention of Human Rights (32 judgments against Greece).

In a recent incident, which took place on the 20th of January 2014, which highlights the above situation, twelve people died close to the shores of Farmakonisi under unspecified conditions. The victims were from Syria and Afghanistan (3 women and 9 children) and their boat capsized while being towed by a Greek coastguard vessel. The survivors allege that the Coast Guard boat was towing their vessel at high speed and heading towards the Turkish coast. According to the same allegations, when the migrants’ vessel sank, the coastguard refused to help them and stamped on the hands of those clinging to Greek boat.

Although the Greek authorities immediately denied the above accusations and insisted that they tried to rescue and not push-back the vessel to Turkish territorial waters, there is a strong probability that the above allegations for cruelty are truthful. Taking into consideration the aforementioned systematic inhumane behaviour that the Greek authorities show against migrants, and the unacceptable comments made a few months ago by the Greek Chief of Police (he was asking Police to “make undocumented immigrants’ lives unbearable”) and, most of all, the racist ideas that have infiltrated into a significant part of servants of the Greek security forces, it would not be a surprise if it was proven that the Greek cost-guard played a fatal role in the death of the12 people.

The aforementioned incident received two completely different reactions in Europe; indifference or shock. “Who cares what is going on in Greece? We have our own problems here…” many Europeans argue uninterested. Well, actually, we should care because Greeks belong to EU states. So, what is happening in Greece is within our European borders, it is taking place into our home. Moreover, many of migrants and refugees who pass through Greece will end up to other EU countries (such as UK). These people, already traumatised in their country of origin, by having received in addition such a “Greek special treatment”, are much more vulnerable and in need of more help. Therefore we should care!

On the other hand, there are other Europeans who seem to be shocked by Greece’s treatment of migrants and refugees. This shock has prompted the European Union Home Affairs Commissioner, among others, to urge Greek authorities to conduct an independent inquiry about the events at Farmakonisi. But, should the European Union be shocked? Isn’t the way Greece treats migrants and refugees well known through the publication of many reports? But, most importantly, is this “Greek treatment” different from that of other EU member states?

In general, the EU governments have made it harder to seek refuge or a better future in Europe and systematically remind migrants and refugees that they are not welcome. This can be easily proved by the denial of EU states to open their doors to Syrian refugees (only 13 EU member states agreed to take in just 0.5 per cent of the 2.4 million people who have fled the country). Moreover, taking a random tour of different media and human rights’ websites you will find numerous articles showing that EU countries, for example UK, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Malta, Bulgaria, Belgium to name but a few, are a hostile environment for third nationals.

It is a fact that while large swathes of Europe are affected by an economic and political crisis, the protection of human rights of marginalized or unpopular groups, such as migrants and refugees, is rarely a priority. EU countries, stressed by the increased power of far-right parties and groups, concentrate on policies of surveillance, deterrence, prevention and banning migration. Europe has become a fortress where entrance is denied even to those whose lives and freedom are at risk. In fact, such policies lead to the loss of lives as happened in the already almost forgotten Farmakonisi incident.

Of course, the Farmakonisi case is just a little drop in an ocean of lost lives. The Aegean and the Mediterranean Sea have taken numerous bodies of desperate people who tried to reach refuge or a better future in Europe. Although these tragedies take place almost every day, we hardly hear about them, due to the lack of news coverage. The Farmakonisi case was an exception like the incident, which took place a few months ago, close to the Italian island of Lampedusa. There, in the most horrible “European” tragedy, a boat carrying migrants sank just off the coast, and more than 360 people drowned. After the Lampedusa tragedy the public were again shocked, many politicians expressed their sorrow and the Pope visited the island to offer his condolence to the survivors and pray for the victims. The shock and sadness lasted for a couple of weeks and then the politicians stopped their mourning, the Pope left, the media lost interest and the subject has been completely forgotten.

But, forgotten or not, many dead bodies will continue arriving outside our door as long as we insist on emphasising increased border controls and security measures to deter refugees and migrants from reaching the EU. Such measures have not worked until now and they are more likely to result in even more human suffering and loss of life than tackling migration. We need to realise that the migration flows will not stop as long as poverty and turmoil are taking place in vast parts of our planet. No matter what extreme measures we take to tackle migration, people will not stop attempting to escape desperate conflicts, brutal regimes and extreme misery, which dominate their countries of origin. They will continue being exploited by despicable smugglers and risk their lives on dangerous routes to Europe, where they search for the slightest hope of survival.

Therefore, it is more realistic but also humane for the EU and its Member States to reshape their asylum and migration policies and base them on true European values, such as solidarity and sharing responsibility. Moreover, the EU should focus on the saving of lives, on the access to protection, on more substantial legal migration opportunities than those currently offered and, most importantly, on the respect of the fundamental rights of migrants and refugees.

The respect for human rights was one of the core values of the European Union and, sadly, it seems to be forgotten as easily as we forgot Lampedusa and Farmakonisi. The elections for EU parliament that approaches, should be a reminder for all the above. The election day, on 22nd of May 2014, is a chance for us, the EU citizens, to decide what kind of Europe we are dreaming of; a hostile continent for anyone who is not us, or a land where humans respect and protect other humans in need, no matter what?

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