New evidence that the Greek coastguard was responsible for the recent sinking of a fishing trawler which left 500 people missing is shocking, but not surprising. Governments have the capacity to cope with small boats, but saving lives at sea is still not a priority for Europe. Frankly, what is surprising is that any attempt to save the passengers was made at all at a time when, as my research has documented time and time again, the EU’s deterrence policy has become one of willingly dissuading search and rescue at sea.
The ‘pass the hot potato’ politics of death in the Mediterranean and the Aegean means that there is scant incentive to save lives for any individual Member State. No-one wants to be responsible for reception and potential liability if – as in this case – such grossly under-resourced missions inevitably fail. We saw this in 2014 when an attempt to tow a refugee boat off the coast of Farmakonisi failed. In this similar gross human rights violation, the Greek government got off scot-free while the EU and the UN used then, as it does now, hollow words and not deeds to prevent future atrocities.
Multiple survivors said that attempts by the Greek coastguard to tow the vessel had ultimately caused the sinking. The real miracle is that an attempt was made at all.
Meanwhile, once again, despite the billions of Euros thrown at it by Member States, Frontex has shown itself to be grossly impotent as a European border protection force in managing its money. Where is the cash going? Newly acquired thermal cameras were not even installed on the search and rescue vessel, 920, which was 90% financed by the EU to bolster the capabilities of Frontex in Greece and is part of the EU border agency’s joint operations in the country. Meanwhile, the initial distress call was fielded by Alarmphone, one the few NGO’s that has survived attempts to criminalise their very existence at Europe’s oceanic borders.
What does safeguarding look like in rescue missions for small boats? The persecuted NGO Alarmphone, which is fighting daily to even maintain a presence in the region, did its job whilst our governments failed. Gross impotence leaves agencies including the Greek coastguard and Frontex taking photographs from the sky while children drown.
The European Union is at war with migrants, not smugglers. The lack of action from the coastguard and the lack of scrutiny says a lot about attitudes towards refugees and migrants on small boats; our response has not been to save lives, but to become war photographers.Dr Jennifer Allsopp - University of Birmingham
The European Union is at war with migrants, not smugglers. The lack of action from the coastguard and the lack of scrutiny says a lot about attitudes towards refugees and migrants on small boats; our response has not been to save lives, but to become war photographers.
The independent researchers at Forensis who are using state-of-the-art technology represent the best of Europe, as they seek to uphold accountability in what has become a new ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of human rights and migration governance. We must fight for the little space that remains for NGO’s and independent researchers in this space.
The fact that survivors’ testimonies have been discredited, and perhaps even tampered with, and their phones, which contain crucial video records, confiscated, is also not surprising. This is in keeping with the culture of disbelief and denial which has long plagued the European asylum system. An analogy can be drawn with the survivors of The Titanic who testified that the boat split in two before it sank. They were initially gaslit on the basis that, as traumatised women and children, their testimonies were incredible. Let us listen to the survivors. The account of the survivor who is reported by the Guardian to have said, ‘I feel that they have tried to push us out of Greek water so that their responsibility ends,’ makes most sense to me as a researcher who has worked on this topic for over a decade. Meanwhile, the credibility of official accounts is rightly being thrown into doubt.
Despite the UN and EU recognizing that often individuals being smuggled or trafficked are coerced into pilot roles, nine individuals are being scapegoated as smugglers while European leaders get off scot-free. Meanwhile, the credibility of official accounts is sinking by the minute. Let this be a turning point. Please.