Survivors claim they were beaten back into the sea and threatened at gunpoint as they tried to save their loved ones from drowning off Farmakonisi.
By Tamara van der Putten and Jerome Roos
Safi Ehsanullah, a 38-year-old Afghan refugee, was among 28 people who embarked on a crammed fishing boat in Turkey last week. Together with his wife and four young children, he had fled his war-torn country in search of a better future in Europe. But when Safi disembarked from a coastguard vessel at the port of Piraeus last Thursday, he was alone — the lifeless bodies of his family still floating around somewhere in the Aegean Sea.
Safi’s wife and children were among the twelve victims of a tragic incident off the coast of Farmakonisi on Monday, January 20. After intercepting their boat at sea, the Greek coastguard tried to tow the refugees back to Turkey. But weather conditions were adverse, and, according to the survivors, the coastguard vessel was traveling at high speed. As the fishing boat filled up with water, it capsized, throwing some of its passengers overboard and trapping others inside the hull.
What happened next has not been officially confirmed, and the Greek government vehemently denies the following account. But speaking to UNHCR officials at Piraeus, Safi and other survivors depicted in vivid detail how the coastguard did nothing to save them. Ignoring their pleas for help, the officers even beat the drowning refugees back into the sea as they clamped on to their vessel for dear life. One survivor, who tried to save his wife and child from drowning, claims that guards pulled their guns and fired into the air to prevent him from dragging them on board.
“[We] were trying to climb the coastguard vessel and they were hitting [us] back into the water,” relayed an interpreter for Safi, whose face was still contorted in a mix of shock, grief and anger. “[A] one-year-old child was crying ‘mummy, daddy’, but they didn’t turn around.” Another severely distressed survivor, Fada Mohammad Ahmadi, broke down in tears in front of the cameras. “I lost my wife, my daughter and my two sons. They were intentionally throwing them back into the water. They were swearing at them.”
In an apparent attempt to cover up the events, Greek authorities subsequently detained the survivors for 30 hours, without access to legal or psychological support, and released five testimonies in which some of them supposedly praised the efforts of their “rescuers”. The testimonies read as if they were deliberately concocted to exonerate the authorities, and were immediately contradicted by the survivors themselves and by various local media reports. As one survivor put it, “now they say that we thanked them, those who killed our children and women, for saving us. We did not thank them, we were crying and asking for their bodies.”
Nine children and three women lost their lives in this tragedy, which has all the hallmarks of a botched illegal push-back attempt by the Greek coastguard. The survivors, nearly all men, claim that they were only saved because the Greek officers saw a Turkish coastguard vessel approach and panicked. “If they had more time they would have killed us all,” declared one of the men during a solidarity demonstration in front of Parliament on Saturday.
Sadly, this loss of life and the alleged state brutality are not an isolated incident. Since a metal fence was erected between the Turkish and Greek land border last year, more than 150 refugees have drowned in illegal push-back attempts by the Greek coastguard. Those who do make it across are subsequently subjected to dehumanizing treatment at the hands of immigration officers, chased down the streets by police, locked away under abominable conditions in detention camps, and — despite the recent crackdown on Golden Dawn — still regularly assaulted by neo-Nazi thugs. Just last month, Greece’s head of police was caught stating that undocumented migrants must be detained for as long as possible “to make their lives unbearable.”
It is crucial to bear in mind that this state-sanctioned aggression is by no means limited to Greece. Europe’s long-standing war on migration and the ongoing militarization of Frontex, the EU’s border police, clearly indicate that the systematic mistreatment of migrants and refugees constitutes the very essence of Fortress Europe. In this respect, the Greek government — which currently serves as President of the Council of the European Union — is merely acting as the enforcer of an inhumane migration policy whose basic coordinates have been formulated at the European level, and whose implementation is actively sponsored by European leaders.
As long as this situation persists, Europe will therefore be fully complicit in the deaths and suffering of those who still believe in the European Dream — people like Safi and his family, who, day after day, continue to risk their lives for an ideal that most European leaders appear to have already given up on.
Tamara van der Putten is a medical anthropologist working at the Greek Council for Refugees in Athens (opinions expressed herein are her own).
Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher on the Greek debt crisis at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.