Pushing Back. The Greek War on Migration.

 

We're entering an era of mass migration. There are several triggers - conflicts, climate change, food insecurity, alone or in combination.  These migrations sometimes pit desperate people, struggling to survive, against governments and societies determined to preserve what they have. Humanitarianism, it seems, only goes so far. Our liberal conscience has its limits.

This dynamic is now playing out in Greece where the country is repelling refugees while they're still at sea.  The policy is called "pushback" and it has landed Greece in the European Court of Human Rights over an incident last October said to be one of many.

The suit, filed by the NGO Legal Centre Lesvos, centres on an incident in October last year in which a fishing boat set off from Marmaris in Turkey for Italy carrying about 200 people, including 40 children and a pregnant woman. The boat ran into difficulty in a storm off the south coast of Crete, leading the captain to radio for assistance.

The legal case claims that in an operation of unprecedented size and sophistication, instead of helping the stranded people onboard, a Greek search and rescue vessel and two small patrol boats stalled the smuggler’s boat for five hours until speedboats carrying masked commandos arrived. Several passengers claim they were beaten in the ensuing incident.

Those onboard were separated into two groups and taken to two large coastguard boats, where armed crews of between 10 and 15 men, most wearing balaclavas, searched them and confiscated belongings including phones, passports and money.

The passengers were then reportedly forced on to several small life rafts, towed back to Turkish waters and abandoned at sea without food, water, life jackets or any means to call for help. By the time they were picked up by the Turkish coastguard, their ordeal had lasted more than 24 hours.

“It was like watching a movie. The men from the speedboats jumped onboard screaming and shouting, they all had guns and knives and were wearing black and masks,” said Mahmoud, a witness from Syria whose name has been changed.

“They began beating people with batons, looking for the captain. They punched me in the face and broke my glasses … I understand they don’t want us, but you could send us back to Turkey without the need for violence. When they cut us loose on the rafts we all thought we were going to die,” he said.

Pushback is prohibited by international law but is perfectly fine under Greek law. It is also part of the endless, low-grade conflict between Greece and Turkey and the diplomatic standoff between Turkey and the EU. Ankara has told its 4 million registered refugees that it won't interfere with attempts to reach Europe.

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