In the dark zone of a sea at war, where military operations, often unannounced, take place, there was an illegal refoulement of migrants to Turkey, witnessed by seaborne rescuers with Watch The Med, a group that for more than two years has monitored the length and breadth of the Aegean Sea to provide relief to rafts in distress.
It happened June 11: A boat with 39 adults and 14 children, refugees from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq, was approached by the Greek coast guard near Chios. After the first rescue, the soldiers pointed their guns to the heads of migrants, who were then handed over to Turkish authorities who returned them to the port of Cesme, Turkey. The GPS data shows that the boat of refugees had reached Greek waters, thus confirming what the Watch The Med sailors witnessed.
Here are the facts as we know them. At 3:59 a.m. on June 11, the first SOS call was received on the Watch The Med hotline: “We are 53 refugees, including 14 young children and three elderly people, on a raft in distress.” At 4:05 a.m., the refugees called the so-called “Alarm Phone” and advised they were being followed by the Turkish coast guard. At 4:41 a.m., another call, the migrants informed they escaped the Turkish coast guard.
At 4:52, the refugees called the Alarm Phone again to announce they had reached Greek waters and were identified by the Greek coast guard. A few minutes later, they sent cell phone photos of themselves on the Greek ship: “The Greeks tell us that we are safe, we are in Europe and they will lead us safely to an island.” But that never happened.
As one of the men on the boat, who spoke later with Watch the Med, recalled, “We told them we wanted to seek asylum in Greece. They did not listen to us. We wanted to tell them that we were not safe in Turkey. There were five men on the Greek ship, and there were also two other ships, one of them Portuguese — I recognized the flag — and another large white ship. [From the photos, a Romanian Frontex ship can be identified.] At that moment, our position was 38.2602140, 26.1657840.”
At 5:22 a.m., the Alarm Phone received another message from the migrants’ boat: They were not taking the refugees to Greece, but rather turned them back into the hands of the Turkish Coast Guard. “They pointed their guns at us and threatened to shoot us if we did not transfer to the Turkish boat. The head of the Greek Coast Guard, in English, yelled this to make it clear to everyone: ‘Tell them I will kill you if you come here again.’”
At 5:23, they again called the Alarm Phone: “We received new coordinates showing the boat in Greek waters, about 500 meters from the Greek-Turkish sea border. At 5:36, the refugees confirmed they were rejected. At 7:09, we got an updated GPS position: at the port of Cesme, in Turkey.” Then, as it became known later, the refugees were transferred to a prison.
“These are the inhuman consequences of the agreement with Turkey: This was a brutal and illegal rejection by the Greek Coast Guard, under the watching eyes of Frontex,” said Hagen Kopp, Watch the Med coordinator. “The whole incident happened in the presence of two Frontex ships and this proves, once again, the direct involvement of the European agency for border control in this cruel practice.”
If more proof were needed, this reveals the real objectives and consequences of the agreements with authoritarian countries, such as Turkey, where Europe plays cynically with the lives of refugees in the Aegean Sea and elsewhere in the Mediterranean (and as it is preparing to do in Sub-Saharan Africa with the Migration Compact). Refugees who are entitled to seek asylum, forcefully returned to Turkey, where who knows what persecutions, detentions and deportations await them.
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