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‘It is absolutely necessary for a civil eye to be present in Aegean Sea’

The Mare Liberum’s Marie and Abby tell The Civil Fleet how European governments have tried to stop the ship and her crew from carrying out their human rights monitoring missions, and why they must return to the sea today despite many threats to the mission

IT’S BEEN close to two years since the activist crew of the Mare Liberum has been able to get back out into the Aegean Sea to monitor the human rights situation there.

And the situation for refugees attempting to reach the safety of Europe across the highly-militarised sea that separates Greece from Turkey has only got worse.

According to the Mare Liberum’s research — compiled by witness testimonies and reports from other NGOs working in the area and the Turkish coastguard — close to 20,000 people have been violently returned to Turkey by the Greek authorities.

“There have been really, really high numbers of pushbacks in the last couple of months,” Mare Liberum activist Marie tells me from the island of Lesbos on the eve of their return to sea.

“Pushbacks have become a daily occurence in the Aegean Sea. The numbers have been consistently high, but especially in the last two months we have seen more pushbacks than ever.”

Forcibly returning people across borders where they might face persecution is a direct violation of human rights laws, in particular the principle of non-refoulement.

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) states that the principle of non-refoulement “guarantees that no-one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.”

Crucially, non-refoulement, or push back as the practice is more colloquially called, “applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status.”

Mare Liberum’s research shows that in the last three months close to 5,000 people were illegally pushed back to Turkey from Greece – rising from 1,031 people in July to 1,477 in August, and 2,289 in September.

“It is absolutely necessary for a civil eye to be present in this area,” Marie says.

“So lately, there’s been, again and again, an escalation of violence. For example, there have been multiple cases where the Hellenic coastguard has thrown people into the sea.

“And multiple people have died in incidents like this.

“So, it’s no longer possible for us to consider our own safety and value higher than the safety of the people who’re trying to cross the Aegean Sea.”

The Mare Liberum’s missions in the Aegean have faced many setbacks recently. In March 2020, a group of fascists tried to light the ship on fire while it was in port and the crew was asleep in her. The fascists then blocked their attempts to dock for eight days.

Then, later that spring, the German ministry of transport changed the wording of a law relating to what pleasure crafts — such as the Mare Liberum — were allowed to do and what safety regulations they have to fulfil.

The change meant that the Mare Liberum would not be able to obtain the safety certificate needed to carry out their work. Leaked internal documents later revealed that the transport ministry had deliberately changed the law to target them.

Here’s an interview with Marie from April 2021

The organisation took the ministry to court over the decision and won in October 2020.

“And after that,” Marie says, “we still couldn’t go out due to coronavirus regulations which prohibited all pleasure crafts from going out to sea.

“Then in September 2020, the boat was raided by the Greek police and coastguards. And then we found out that there is a criminal case against some of us. Due to security reasons for the crew, we decided not to go out back then.

“So this is the first mission in nearly two years.”

Greece’s conservative government, led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, is determined to stop refugee rescue and support NGOs from operating in the country.

Marie and her crewmate Abby tell me about a new law the government introduced earlier this year, requiring NGOs working with refugees in its many detention camps, or involved in search-and-rescue operations at sea, to be registered with the government.

“Well, it will make it pretty much impossible for pretty much any NGO to operate on the water,” Marie says.

“We know that, first of all, it is extremely difficult to get registered. For NGOs that are critical of the government, the process has often dragged along to a point where papers already expire and need to be handed in again. And it kind of becomes an endless process.”

“And actually,” Abby adds, “even NGOs that support the government have not been registered yet.”

Marie explains how the laws don’t yet affect the Marie Liberum yet because “we, as a monitoring group, are not in contact with migrants.”

But there is a new law that has yet to be enacted that will, as Marie says, probably close the loophole.

Marie continues: “It will force us to be registered in Greece and then to work under the command of the Hellenic Coastguard. That would mean we can only sail if and when they ask us to do so.

“For example, there is one NGO search-and-rescue ship called The Nomad, and it’s been ready to go out for over a year now. And not for a single time have they been called by the Hellenic Coastguard to go out to sea.

“When The Nomad has gone out to sea for training exercises, the coastguards have harassed them and checked over their paper over and over again.

“On July 30, there was a shipwreck on the north of Lesbos. The captain of The Nomad was asked to participate in the search-and-rescue of two missing women and a missing child.

“But when he came equipped for search-and-rescue with a trained crew, the Hellenic coastguard sent them back, saying it was a mistake, that they didn’t want him to participate with an NGO boat, but rather with his private fishing vessel — which is not fit for rescue at all.

“So this incident really showed that the priority is to keep NGOs out of the sea by all means possible.

“The two women and the child are still missing to this day, and are presumably dead.

“So as you can see, this is the kind of situation we will be looking at once this law comes into power.”

So this new law is also part of the reason why the Mare Liberum is returning to the Aegean Sea today.

With all of this going on, I ask what they expect to happen when they’re out at sea.

“I would say that we have no expectations,” Abby responds. “We have prepared for all different types of scenarios. But we have no idea what to expect out there.

“We could be stopped before we leave the bay, or we could encounter whatever situation you can imagine.”

“We do expect repression from the authorities in some way,” Marie adds. “They clearly know who we are, and they are probably aware of what we’re doing.

“The thing is, they’ve never been a fan of our work and have tried to prevent us in the past.

“I mean, the ship was raided. We were under investigation, we have a criminal case against multiple members of our crew. So I can safely assume they’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about us.”

“I would also venture as far to say that in their eyes,” Abby says, “our work, which is trying to stop pushbacks, is essentially the same thing as search-and-rescue in that both would allow more people to arrive safely to Greek shores.”

Part of the function of any border is to keep things invisible to the rest of society. States and their border agencies are not keen on civil society poking around in there and exposing what is actually happening to the people they have decided are not welcome.

With the Mare Liberum back patrolling the seas around Lesbos, the Hellenic coastguard is unlikely to take the monitoring of its treatment of refugees kindly.

I ask the activists how they’re feeling about all of this.

“I think there’s a whole range of emotions aboard,” comes Abby response. “Mostly excited. Also, slightly anxious for a variety of reasons. But mostly excited to get back out there and do something.”

Marie says: “There’s so many emotions, and it’s probably different for every member of the crew. But I think what unites us all is the feeling that it is absolutely necessary for us to get back out there.

“And that we’re willing to take the risks that this mission might come with it.”

Top image shows the Mare Liberum heading out to sea from Lesbos [Pic: Mare Liberum]

Check out episode 4 (with Marie on the Mare Liberum) and episode 3 (with Rosa from Alarm Phone) of The Civil Fleet Podcast for more on the refugee situation in Greece


Published by The Civil Fleet

A news blog and podcast focused on the activist-led refugee rescue and support missions across Fortress Europe

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