Lesvos. Greece. March 5, 2020. Statement by Legal Centre Lesvos.
Originally publishd by Legal Centre Lesvos Facebook page.
ILLEGAL AND IMMORAL: EUROPEAN BORDER PRIORITIES BECOME POLICY
On Sunday, the Greek government announced the suspension of new asylum applications for one month, and that those who attempt to enter irregularly will be pushed back – in direct contravention of its legal obligations towards asylum seekers, particularly the internationally-enshrined principle of non-refoulement.
Since then, its land and sea borders have been violently fortified: the use of live ammunition has been permitted at border zones, and military units deployed; illegal pushbacks have been documented off the islands of Lesvos and Samos; new arrivals have been detained at landing sites, including beaches and ports; and at least three people, including a four-year-old Syrian boy, have lost their lives.
The European Commission, rather than sanctioning the Greek government for its multiple violations of regional and international law, has asserted that ‘our top priority at this stage is to ensure that Greece…[has] our full support’ and thanked the country for acting as the ‘shield’ of Europe.
MOUNTING PRESSURE IN LESVOS
Over the past few months, tensions on the island of Lesvos have been growing. More than 20, 000 people are currently trapped on the island, in and around a camp designed for 3, 100. The introduction of a new law, visibly oriented towards deterrence and deportation, has stripped back the already-minimal guarantees of migrants and led to multiple rights violations. Migrant protests in late January, at which many children were present, were blocked by police and pushed back from the city under heavy volleys of tear gas.
Last week, the announcement of government plans to construct new migrant detention centres – and the deployment of riot police to ensure that construction could begin – sparked demonstrations across the political spectrum. Migrants, however, were noticeably absent, following the suspension of public transport due to general strikes. The use of water cannons, tear gas and ground units to disperse protestors further inflamed the situation. The subsequent withdrawal of the riot squads, and the ensuing pause in the government’s plans, was a qualified victory – however, it did little to assuage tensions among communities here, which have only grown since.
PRESENT SITUATION FOR NEW ARRIVALS
Since Turkey’s announcement on Friday, thousands of people have been trying to cross Greek land and maritime borders. The Greek government has suspended the right to seek asylum, in violation of Article 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. It has also criminalised those who do reach Greek territory, in direct contravention of Article 31 of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. European asylum procedures, moreover, require the individual to be present in the territory before lodging their application – and therefore force people to take such illicit routes. At least forty five individuals have been convicted of illegal entry, and rapidly sentenced to jail terms of three to three-and-a-half years, including seven people in Lesvos.
Off the Aegean islands, there have been reports that the Hellenic Coast Guard has pushed boats back to Turkish waters, in breach of international law, and videos have emerged of them menacing a migrant boat. The army began military activities along the northern coast of Lesvos, with permission to use live ammunition in the very area where most boats arrive from Turkey. Furthermore, the Coast Guard has failed to respond to distress calls, leaving boats adrift for several hours. On Monday, following the tragic drowning of a four-year-old Syrian boy off the coast of Lesvos, Greek authorities had the audacity to claim that those on board had deliberately capsized the boat in order to be rescued.
Over 560 migrants who have reached Lesvos since 1 March, including many children, pregnant women, and people in need of urgent medical assistance, have been imprisoned at their arrival sites or in the Mytiline port. They have been left to sleep outside, on beaches, on concrete or on public buses; food and water provisions are inadequate; and they have had limited contact with human rights and humanitarian actors. Lawyers, members of European Parliament, and family members have been denied access to visit the people detained there. The regional governor of Lesvos has vowed that they will not be taken to Moria Refugee Camp, but where they will be taken instead is yet to be announced.
RULE OF LAW – OR LACK THEREOF
At the local level, anti-migrant agitation is becoming increasingly violent. Migrant boats have been attacked by masked vigilantes, and on Saturday, a boat – carrying men, women and many children – was prevented from landing by a hostile crowd. The boat was eventually transported to an alternate location by the HCG, having been stranded in the port for several hours. Journalists and migrants were attacked at the scene, and have been across the island.
Two days ago, a mob attacked monitoring boat Mare Liberum in Skala Loutron, and poured gasoline over its stern deck. The crew, which was onboard at the time, were forced to spend the night at sea for their safety. Today, when the boat sought to dock in Mytilene, port authorities said that they could not guarantee its safety – and shortly after its arrival, a crowd of 30-40 hostile men amassed to threaten the crew and those who gathered alongside them.
Groups of local men have set up roadblocks that target migrants and those working in solidarity with them, and have attacked cars with bats and rocks. Among those present at the roadblocks are individuals implicated in the fascist attack on peaceful migrant protestors in Sappho Square two years ago – and for which no arrests have been made to date.
Fittingly, recent attacks have seen limited intervention by local law enforcement, who have no problem breaking up protests of thousands of migrants, but have been unable or unwilling to intervene in acts of violence by far-right groups. In fact, police officers have been present and either inactive, or violent themselves, at many of these incidents.
Several NGOs have suspended their operations in fear of their staff and volunteers’ safety, and other countries (including the US, Canada and Ireland) have issued warnings for those planning to visit the islands.
The volatility of the present situation stems from years of policies that prioritise the security of European frontiers over the lives of migrants. The externalisation of border controls to Turkey, the inhumane conditions in which migrants are forced to stay on the islands, a total lack of responsibility-sharing between European member states, and the weaponization of the migrant community in both Turkey and Greece has created a situation long ready to implode.
It is hard to predict what will happen next for the migrants currently detained in Mytiline’s port, just as it has been for those trapped on the Aegean islands for the past four years. However, it is clear that the intention of the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement – to prevent access to (asylum procedures in) Europe – will now be openly implemented by Member States, with little regard for the legality or morality of such measures.
Legal Centre Lesvos, March 5, 2020.
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