Since the beginning of March, at least four children and one adult have died in Lesvos or trying to reach the island. The youngest was just fifteen days’ old.
They are the latest victims of Greek and European policies that show no regard for human life. Numerous migrant deaths – the majority of which are foreseeable and preventable – occur each year in Greece, and yet the political decisions that force people on life-threatening journeys across borders or contain thousands of individuals in inhumane and desperately insecure conditions remain unchanged. The vast majority of their deaths go uninvestigated or unrecognized by authorities, shielding the State from accountability and denying migrants dignity in death as so many are denied it in life.
Two of the children – a young boy from Syria, and a baby from Iraq – died at sea on 2 March 2020. Migrants reported that the Greek Coast Guard menaced their dinghy, causing the passengers to fall overboard and subsequently refusing to provide them with timely assistance. Ultimately two children who had been on the dinghy drowned. The little boy’s body was transferred to Mytiline and his death was soon reported, which prompted an audacious allegation from the Hellenic Coast Guard that his family and the migrants with them had capsized their own boat. However, it was not until an investigation by Mohamed Errammach and Olivia Dehez for قناة الجزيرة مباشر – Aljazeera Mubasher Channel (here with English subtitles) that the baby’s death was discovered, and confirmed by several people who had made the crossing from Turkey together with the infant. According to the other passengers, his body was lost at sea. To date, Greek authorities still have not publicly recognized his death.
Two other children, both from Afghanistan, died in Moria refugee camp. A little girl died in a fire on 16 March 2020, the second fire of the past six months’ to claim the lives of people residing in the camp. A teenage boy was stabbed to death yesterday, 8 April 2020; at least two other children were hospitalised. He is the third person from Moria refugee camp to die of stab wounds this year. Neither of them were the first child to die in such circumstances, nor will they be the last.
The mental health crisis among the migrant community in Lesvos has long been reported. Three years’ ago, Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) wrote that it ‘the conditions they face in Greece, including the continued violence and the lack of appropriate services…are pushing them into hopelessness and are greatly compounding their mental health suffering.’ It described their continued containment as ‘untenable, inhumane and dangerous.’ Despite these warnings, the EU-Turkey Deal’s confinement of migrants continues – and in the past six weeks alone, one man has committed suicide, and at least one other has attempted to do so. In Moria’s Pre-Removal Detention Centre, (PROKEKA), where one man was found hanged in January of this year, reports of attempted suicide are common. Detainees who feel they have been abandoned in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, started a hunger strike several days ago demanding their freedom, but were forced to stop due to violence and threats from the police.
This week, there have been well-documented reports of egregious illegal pushbacks in the Aegean, again demonstrating the State’s flagrant disregard for migrants’ lives. The Greek Coast Guard has returned them to international waters after apprehending them either in Greek waters or after they arrived to Greek land, forced them into motorless life-rafts, and left them adrift at sea. The movement restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have made monitoring human rights violations, whether on land or at sea, increasingly difficult – and it seems that the Greek state, like many others, is using the cover that it provides to pursue pre-existing policy objectives, with little attention paid to their human cost. The lack of State transparency around the causes and circumstances of each death is grave and disturbing, but far more so is the widespread tolerance – if not instrumentalisation – of these fatalities as part of the European Union’s border regime. This is not ‘migration management’: this is state-sanctioned murder.