Interview: Deadly migrant practices in Greece

Interview: Deadly migrant practices in Greece
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Migration exposes individuals to a plethora of rights violations as they navigate systems that criminalize their movement, often through a racial lens. Legal Centre Lesvos seeks to combat this issue and to foster international solidarity.

AKIN OLGUN- Though migration issues and the precarity of life for immigrants are always an important agenda item, the humanitarian and legal dimensions of the issue are at times overshadowed by states’ security interests and other priorities. This state of "invisibility" not only suppresses the issues of human rights and freedoms that concern migration, but also paves the way for neutralizing the work and the voice of human rights organizations in this field.

We are confronted with the fact that the migration issue is also shaped by human trafficking and the immense profit it generates, as well as "supra-interests" between states. Secondly, now and again, certain political conflicts emerge between Turkey and Greece over migrants as both are countries often on migrants' route to Europe.

It was quite striking for me to learn that there are thousands of prisoners from Turkey in Greek prisons. I am sure it will be striking for those of you who will learn this dimension of the problem for the first time. This article will also elucidate how the people termed “captains” who are the victims of human smuggling and the profit it generates constitute another pillar of the problem.

Human rights organizations and volunteers in Greece are doing their best to support such “captains,” to ensure that they have legal representation in the trials they face on the basis of rights and freedoms.

We talked to the Legal Centre Lesvos about migrants, the thousands of "captains" in Greek prisons who are one end of the smuggling network, the migrant leg of the tension between Greece and Turkey, the work of human rights organizations, and the political, legal, and humanitarian dimensions of the problem.

First of all, can you briefly tell us about the mission of the Legal Centre Lesvos, who plays a role in the organization, and the purpose of its work?

First and foremost, we send our deepest sympathies to people who have been affected by the earthquake and wish everyone a swift recovery and patience for those who have lost their loved ones. Know that our hearts and our solidarity is with you; disasters know no borders, and as such, half of our heart is beating in the earthquake zone.

Legal Centre Lesvos is a non-profit civil society organization, based in the island of Lesvos. Our work can be roughly generalized in four clusters. Firstly, we provide free legal aid at all stages of the asylum procedure for people who arrive to the island from Turkey, and have applied for international protection, informing them of their rights and referring them to services that they could benefit from. Secondly, we undertake representation in criminal court of migrants who have been criminalized due to their status as migrants. Among these cases are the infamous so-called “boat-drivers” or “captains,” where the authorities accuse certain people on the boats that arrive to the island of being smugglers. The charge carries prison sentences of over one hundred years, even though these individuals are migrants themselves. Thirdly, we litigate strategic cases in order to advocate against systemic violation of migrant rights. In the past few years, these cases have denounced Greece’s widespread practice of push backs and the systemic denial of urgently needed medical care to migrants who are not considered refugees. The LCL has presented several of these cases before the European Court of Human Rights. And fourthly, we do advocacy through our findings and reports, through cooperating with other organizations, reaching out to journalists, activists, and academics to pressure authorities, and above all, to bring visibility to the demands of people on the move as political subjects.

In our mandate, we vouch for “defending and advancing the rights of migrants.” We believe in horizontality and make all of our decisions through consensus, as long as they do not contradict our fundamental principles. We also value our independence; thus, we do not take any funding from states or the EU, in order to keep a critical voice alive rather than being taken hostage due to financial survival. Our funders are hundreds of people who support us with their private donations, as well as grassroots political organizations that share our political perspective and do not approach the work we conduct as merely a “financial project.”

How does the approach of the Greek and Turkish governments towards migrants and the so-called "captains" who transport them to the Greek islands affect your work and what kind of consequences does it have, especially for the so-called "captains"?

Here, it could be helpful first to clarify what we mean or understand from the word “captain”: the UN anti-smuggling laws[1] state that smuggling has to include a financial or material benefit. However, the EU has taken out this crucial “benefit” part, resulting in practice that every arriving boat carries a “smuggler,” who happens to be the “captain of the boat.” It would be fair to assume that smuggling networks are aware of this fact, thus, they themselves do not get on the boat and so avoid these criminal charges. In rare cases, networks do pay someone else as a “middleman” to steer the boat. In either case, the law enforcement or coast guard authorities who find the arriving boats immediately begin searching for the captain, and regularly interrogate the new arrivals to find out who was steering the boat. Those charged as “captains” are normally arrested immediately upon arrival from Turkey — meaning that they often have no contact with organizations or lawyers that could support them. If they have no support, they are normally transferred directly to pretrial detention, and when brought to trial, have superficial trials wrought with procedural violations, where they are normally given a lengthy prison sentence, which is at times over 100 years, based on how many people were on the boat, and whether there was a shipwreck which caused the drowning of any passengers.

We are an organization that undertakes the cases of captains as well, believing that the charges brought upon them on smuggling or human trafficking are utilized to criminalize migrants simply for the act of crossing borders. These cases often include many rights violations such as fast court procedures, long pretrial detention, and lack of translation services, to name a few. As LCL, we try to intervene within the framework of human rights and the rule of law and represent these people in their defense, as well as advocating against the seemingly flawed but essentially structural shortcomings of the systems and institutions which punish these people with a racist rhetoric.

It is very difficult to point out every single matter regarding the position of both the Turkish and Greek governments on captains. But by and large, their position is not much different to their approach towards people on the move in general. Greece's prisons are filled with thousands of migrants accused of boat-driving, and the camps operate like open-air prisons. In Turkey, racially motivated violence towards migrants is on the rise, even more so after the earthquake, and even the seemingly progressive voices, political parties, and civil society organizations have a hostile approach towards people on the move.

In one of our conversations, you mentioned that you have received news that Greece has established a "paramilitary" style structure consisting of migrants and that they are used in the "pushbacks" policy of migrants. Could you explain this to us a little bit?

For the last three years, we have been an organization that has been documenting and advocating against the push backs that are taking place in Greece and have carried five cases to the European Court of Human Rights, two of which have passed the first procedural step and are being examined by the Court. Until very recently, the evidence that we and other civil society and human rights organizations collected was dismissed by the Greek authorities as “false documentation” or “Turkish propaganda,” or those that are documenting this practice are directly or indirectly accused of being part of or working with smuggling networks. We are used to seeing the Hellenic Coast Guard engaging in this act itself, as well as masked men with no uniforms, who we describe as “commandos.” It is impossible to identify who these commandos work for, however, given the consistent modus operandi with which they have been documented carrying out pushbacks, in a highly organized and coordinated way with identified Greek authorities — all evidence indicates that they are agents of the Greek state, likely from the police or coast guard themselves.

In addition to the use of these commandos, investigations carried out by journalists have pointed out through testimonies that there are migrants who are also supporting the Greek authorities in carrying out pushbacks, as a so-called “shadow army.” These migrants are stating that they have been forced to engage in pushback operations due to threats from authorities, where they have been promised either an ease on their asylum seeking procedure or to be deported. We have also collected testimonies from survivors of pushbacks who also described that there were migrants assisting the Greek police with translation during the pushback operations. Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarakis has denied these allegations with the same reasoning above.

The use of unidentified commandos and forced use of migrants in carrying out pushbacks demonstrates to what extent the state is willing to go to continue its policy of pushbacks, and also demonstrates an attempt of the state to remove itself from responsibility, even though it is quite clear from all testimony that these commandos and migrants working with them are very much a part of the state apparatus. In the three years since we started documenting the increase of this practice in the Aegean, it continues with complete impunity. We have documented in the last months in Lesvos an increase in use of violence, and complete disregard for even a pretense of respect for the rule of law, let alone the well-being of people who are subject to this violent and unlawful practice. Families are being separated, people are being tortured and pushed back even if they have serious medical conditions, and people are dying and drowning at sea. It is extremely worrisome, especially when you consider that through this, the illegal pushback operations are not only continuing, but rather becoming more widespread. On one hand, this could mean that any asylum seeker can be treated as a potential agent by the state apparatus. On the other hand, it potentially removes responsibility from the state institutions, further intensifying the vulnerable status of migrants susceptible to exploitation in light of their already precarious living conditions. Not one investigation has been carried out on this matter on a state or EU level so far. Greece has denied the allegations entirely, as it does with the practice of pushbacks generally.

If we talk about the cases you have been involved in, what would you like to say about the problems you have encountered and their legal and humanitarian consequences?

The asylum cases that we are involved in often relate to problems experienced due to the living conditions on the island, conditions that are essentially no different than prison. Access to fundamental services such as healthcare, education, basic income support, access to the labor market, and housing is extremely difficult, have certain limitations, or are constantly shrinking due to state policies. Due to the EU-Turkey deal, people who arrive on the islands are not allowed to leave the until their asylum procedure is concluded. The precarious living conditions in the camps also add to the problems, since entry and exit hours to the camps are arbitrarily changed, violating the freedom of movement of the camp residents on a constant basis.

In criminally charged cases, we often witness and report procedural errors. Testimonies brought against migrants are often given by authorities such as the coast guard officers or police who often do not even attend the hearings or testify with lack of evidence against their testimonies. Court hearings are often done very fast, or postponed which increases the pretrial detention time of the accused, or prolonged until an appeal is heard for years. Lack of interpretation, or interpretation done by unprofessional staff during detention and during the court is a practice utilized regularly, which prevents migrants from understanding almost anything. If we get into the prison conditions, the situation unfortunately gets more dire — and in a way more familiar. Inhumane living conditions and treatment that cannot be considered suitable for human dignity, has been reported to us commonly.

This whole picture tells us that there is much to be done, much to struggle against from different fronts of the political sphere; political parties, non-governmental organizations, unions, and all parts of civil society should engage with these fundamental rights violations. Even beyond that, organizations and civil society in Greece and Turkey should cooperate more effectively, and embrace the matter as their own, rather than pointing fingers at each other as perpetrators. As Legal Centre Lesvos, we are not only trying to advocate against these violations and systemic injustice, but also trying to find and initiate dialogue between the rights defenders of both countries.

Do you think there is a parallel between the Greek public's perception of migrants and the Turkish public's perception of migrants?

Aziz Nesin has a saying that is often accurate; people in Turkey and in Greece are much alike - both in their good and in their bad. You can draw similarities between the behavior of the two states and their institutions as well — especially in their “bad.” Rights violations that have been reported in Turkey also apply to Greece, with differences in intensity and frequency. However, one of the groups that experience the brutal and punishing face of the establishment in Greece (and a lack of support through solidarity) are the migrants.

The xenophobia, which operates through a racist discourse in Greece, has deepened over the last couple of years. The Greek establishment’s narrative often underlines that all its “operations” are being conducted for “the protection of its borders for national sovereignty,” especially when its border management or treatment towards migrants comes into question. The mass media, which follows the narrative of the government quite well, portrays migrants as “an invasive force sent from Turkey,” linking the arrival of migrants with the declining relationships between Turkey and Greece, strengthening the fear of the people in Greece towards a “hostile Turkey that might come in one night.” At the same time, the Greek government is doing its best not only to push migrants to the periphery of society, but also to politically criminalize solidarity and civil society organizations which engage with migrants, declaring them to be “enemies of the state” or “conducting espionage on behalf of Turkey.”

We assume that for the readers from Turkey, these are very familiar acts when explaining the current discourse of fear in Turkey, almost “as if they have watched this movie before.” Especially in these days of the terrible earthquake that hit Turkey; on the one hand, migrants especially of Syrian origin are being lynched on live TV, on the other, aid campaigns are being criminalized especially if they do not reproduce sectarian violence.

Our attempt is to carry out a struggle together as civil society, not only in Greece but also together with people in Turkey, to avoid the repetition or continuation of acts in violation of human rights and solidarity among people. To reiterate; defending the rights of migrants is defending our own rights. To not fight racism with racism, but to fight it with solidarity.

The "captains" I spoke to told me that they were tortured, that they were forced to sign papers they did not know the content of, that they were not subjected to health checks, that the interpreters translated the way the police wanted, that there were no lawyers present during their interrogations, etc. They stated that they faced unlawful and inhumane treatment, especially at the hands of coast guard personnel and their police stations. What does your legal center's data say about this situation?

In short, it validates it. Unfortunately. Every item that you have listed above as a right violation has been exercised on a regular basis by authorities in Greece, which we reflect upon in our[5] reports. Also, testimonies suggest that these inhumane practices are being exercised upon people who hold Turkish citizenship more intensely, as they are being labeled as smugglers simply based on their nationality. The case of Baris Buyuksu is one of the most violent cases on this matter.[6]

In your previous writings Akin, you have described captains as “an object of hate.” With this description, it would be good to draw attention to the attitude or the perception of the broader society towards migrants as well. Migrants are being portrayed as the personification of society’s fears. Rights violations towards migrants are being practiced in Greece and have been widely accepted either through open support or through silence by the broader society. The same support and silence also manifests in different events as “objects of hate,” such as the murder of a 16-year-old Roma minor Kostas Fragoulis in December 2023; he was shot by police and fell into a coma which ended with his death in Thessaloniki, right around the anniversary date of the murder of Alexis Grigoropoulos again by the police on December 6, 2008. It is unfortunate to state that the public outrage on Alexis’ murder did not repeat itself in Greece when Kostas was murdered. On the contrary, a proposal on providing a bonus to the police force after the events was brought to the attention of the parliament through right-wing conservative New Democracy Party right after Fragoulis’ murder and was accepted with a large margin, including the support of left opposition Syriza and the Communist Party of Greece by voting in favor of this proposal. These shameful events have also repeated themselves in similar fashion due to the Tempi Train Disaster which happened very recently and in which 53 people lost their lives. A significant number of the passengers were university students of Greek origin. During the general strikes and nation-wide mobilizations and while the masses were mourning and demanding justice for the lost Greek students, little to none repeated the same demands on behalf of the migrants who also lost their lives or were injured in the same disaster.

These might seem like stand-alone and unconnected incidents. But how we see it is that the silence or approval of the policies that states follow on migrants, will repeat itself as the state violence towards their citizens, such as in the case of Kostas Fragoulis or in the case of Tempi Disaster. We try to challenge the status quo by linking the political relationship between these issues, rather than seeing them as compartmentalized subjects. The structural racism in the system eventually leaves no one unaffected by its punishment.

People on the move have historically been stamped as the “main cause of everything wrong” to hide the root-cause of socio-economic and political crises. What we declare is that the same institutions that are displacing people or forcing them to migrate in the first place, are benefiting and profiting from pushing them back on the borders as well. As much as they benefit from murdering minors in the street because they are Romas. As much as they benefit from legitimizing the exploitation of the working class, by pointing out the migrants as a threat to their existence. We need to focus on the root cause of migration, which is a structural matter and an outcome of policies that do not target the prosperity of people, but their cruel exploitation of them for profit. Wars, climate crisis and absolute neoliberal assault on exploitation of commons are some of those root causes today.

The case of Sara Mardini, widely known to the public as the story of two Syrian sisters who were swimmers through the movie "Swimmers,” has been legally concluded and you were one of the interveners/observers in this case where the Greek state was demanding around 20 years of prison for some of the defendants. Could you please tell us a bit about this case, also with regard to those who are in similar situations or are currently on trial?

Sara Mardini and 23 other defendants, some of whom were working or volunteering with the Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI) have been charged since 2018 with misdemeanor and felony charges related to their search-and-rescue efforts at sea for helping asylum seekers. Among the charges, espionage and forgery are also included. A European Parliament report considered this case as “the largest case of criminalization of solidarity in Europe.” The movie depicts the events quite well for those who are interested.

Charges brought against Sara Mardini and 23 other defendants paved the way for the halting of all civil search-and-rescue efforts in sea in Greece, since the fear of criminalization prevailed among people who wished to partake in the effort to stand in solidarity with migrants. One reason that push backs are happening on such a massive scale in Greece could also be due to civil search-and-rescue being stopped, along with any intervention on landings being potentially considered human smuggling or espionage. Bear in mind that there are 171 individuals criminalized in a similar fashion in 13 different EU countries.

Unfortunately, the case has not been concluded in the last hearing which was on January, 9. In the case of Sara Mardini and the 23 other defendants, regarding the misdemeanor charges, the judges accepted the recommendations of the prosecutor for all charges against non-Greek defendants to be annulled, as well as charges of espionage. This recommendation also came due to the lack of translation of the indictments and the vagueness of the charges. Charges for forgery against one defendant and support for criminal organization against another remain and will be remanded to the competent court. Unfortunately, this decision has since been appealed by the prosecutor to the Supreme Court, so we still do not know if these charges will be brought to trial.

Even if the charges do not go forward, from our perspective, this is an inadequate decision, and not to be celebrated given that felony charges are still pending against all defendants.

It is important to repeat here that standing in solidarity with migrants, and helping those in need, in sea or land, facing severe irreparable consequences or death cannot be considered a crime. The struggle against silencing solidarity continues, and our hope and strength lie in the international support to a matter which we believe concerns the world. For these reasons, we also try to cooperate better with human rights defenders in Turkey as well, knowing that their experience is inseparable from our efforts. In these dire days, only together can we pave the way for a better, more humane future. And as long as we all exist, our trust and belief in this future is infinite.