The beginning of 2023 saw a continuation of persistent border violence which confirms that the European Union and its Member States are committed to a security-focused, repressive response to migrants and those who show them solidarity. This violence is not limited to Lesvos, but is part of broader European border policies.
The European Union’s renewal of Operation Irini in the Mediterranean Sea until 2025, to prevent crossings to Europe through financial and material support to the Libyan authorities to the tune of 16 million euros appears particularly sordid. Indeed, this extension follows the publication of a UN fact-finding mission on the human rights situation in the country confirming that crimes against humanity have been perpetrated against migrants in Libyan detention centres by state security forces and armed militia groups. The report mentions torture, sexual slavery and other crimes. “We are not saying that the EU and its Member States committed these crimes. The point is that the support provided aided and abetted the commission of the crimes,” said Chaloka Beyani, a member of the UN mission.
The European Commission has defended itself against these accusations, claiming that its support to the Libyan authorities is aimed at helping to improve the situation of people stranded in Libya. This is an ambiguous position, as it is difficult to believe that the European Union is not aware of the use of its funds. What has been happening in international waters in the central Mediterranean since the beginning of 2023 is perhaps one of the most blatant illustrations of the deadly nature of the externalisation and militarisation of borders: on 25 March, shots were fired by the Libyan coastguard at the NGO SOS Méditerranée’s ship Ocean Viking in the middle of an intervention with people whose boat was in distress. During the same period, no less than 448 people were forcibly returned to Libya, while the search-and-rescue ships Geo Barents and Louise Michel were detained in Italian ports. These forced detentions follow a first Italian decree in December 2022 requiring search and rescue vessels to reach to the ports that they are assigned at after rescue missions, often far from the place of operations at sea. This is an obstruction to NGOs providing assistance to boats in distress, in defiance of maritime law, for which the Italian government is absolving itself of any responsibility.
This is the same government that pointed the finger of responsibility at Greece after a shipwreck that claimed at least 94 victims in Crotone, Italy, on 26 February 2023. When asked why the boat reached Italy from a port near Izmir on the Turkish coast, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi stressed that “Greece is implementing policies of strong containment of arrivals on that route, even with pushbacks that are under scrutiny from the European Union.” For his part, the Greek Minister of Asylum and Migration laconically stated that “Human lives continue to be lost in the Mediterranean, as human smugglers continue to profit by putting people in unseaworthy vessels”.
However, human smugglers are not the only ones profiting from the EU’s exclusionary migration policies. An investigation by Solomon, in collaboration with the Spanish daily El País, has revealed that Greek security forces have, over the last six years, stolen more than 2 million euros worth of cash, mobile phones and valuables from migrants during pushback operations. The El Pais article highlights the fact that the confiscation of migrants’ personal belongings when intercepted by local authorities is a “systematic practice” before they are illegally returned to Turkey. The article also highlights the increased presence of Fontex in the region and its support for refoulement operations. One of the testimonies underlines that there is a “great escalation in the use of violence and humiliating practices. It’s the lowest level of respect for human life”.
While these illegal practices on the part of the Greek authorities are normalising and even intensifying, they continue to be denied by the authorities, despite the extensive evidence documenting these abuses by UN bodies, NGOs, and investigative journalists, which continue to be denounced through widely mobilised protests. Another way to deter people on the move from arriving safely to the EU – specifically to Greece, has been through criminalisation, which is also being used against the activists and volunteers who are in solidarity with them. In this context, as detailed below, the Legal Centre Lesvos continued its crucial work challenging and fighting these violent border policies, in particular by building alliances across borders, through a trip to visit and connect with rights defenders and organisations in Turkey, as well as by collaborating with other actors in support of the defence of migrants criminalised in Greek courts such as the Moria 6 trial.
Further information on updates from Lesvos and our work can be found in our latest Newsletter, available for download here, and below.Jan-March