ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Voyage dans le laboratoire grec de l’Europe forteresse
by Émilien Urbach
Translated Wednesday 19 November 2014, by
From our special correspondent in Greece
Her name is Zarah.. In the village of Klio, a few kilometres away from the haven of Molivos, on the island of Lesbos, in Greece, a group of eight are walking up the main street. Among them a woman and a five-year-old girl. Zarah. Two men are walking behind them, carrying bundles of clothes that hang from heavy wood clubs. They are cold, they are wet still, having spent an hour and a half on a small boat that sits five.
They want the police to come and notify to them that they are under the obligation to leave the Greek territory. That would enable them to cross over to Athens on the ferry. They spend the night on the hill-top of the village, waiting around a fire that was lit by another Afghan family that arrived the day before. The next day they are walking still towards Moria, heading for Europe, along the road that leads to Mytillene.
This wandering child is the face of danger that the EU wants to shut out by sealing its borders. Since Italy stopped its rescue operations at sea –called “Mare Nostrum” – on November 1st, the Frontex agency is to launch a new operation called “Triton”. Precisely, for the last five years, Greece – as the EU fortress’s laboratory - has been providing a foretaste of the European policy against illegal immigrants such as Zarah and her family.
In the Psychico neighbourhood in Athens, the UNHCR office building is near the embassies that stand in rows parallel to the lines of orange-trees along the streets. Stella Nanou, in charge of the institution’s public relations, knows what she is talking about when she says that “Frontex has nothing to do with the reception of immigrants.” The Greek agency has been supervising the “Poseidon” operation since 2011. As with “Triton” in Italy, the aim is to support and coordinate the country’s management of its borders, the explicit objective being to “fight against and check migratory flows”. More repressive by far than the objective set for “Mare Nostrum”, a mixture of military and humanitarian dispositions, that sought to save lives right to Libya’s sea borders. Like “Triton”, “Poseidon” entails military and police operations.
In conformity with this repressive approach, a fence re-inforced with Eurosur high-tech devices, was set up along the land border with Turkey in August, 2012. The number of immigrants arriving by sea has sky-rocketed in the same proportions. On the island of Lesbos, about 15 kilometres away from the Turkish coast, Sotiris Petrakis rents out cars on the haven of Mytilene. “At night from Skala Skamnias (in the northern part of the island) it’s possible to see with the naked eye immigrants’ boats sailing out to sea””, he says. Sotiris knows these boats well. “I am also in charge of ship disinfection for the prefecture,” he slips in, pointing at the badge hanging from his coat-hanger. “I once found a corpse that had been devoured by fish in the hold of a boat. You couldn’t tell whether it was a woman’s or a man’s.
Nearly 65,000 foreigners held up between August and December 2012.
The Greek migration policy has nevertheless changed over the last years. It was reformed in 2011 to ensure greater respect for the people held for questioning and a better reception of asylum-seekers. But lacking sufficient means and a real political determination, it is not really implemented. In real fact, when a migrant is intercepted off the island, coastguards will straight away file a criminal case. The judge will then speed up procedures by turning it into an administrative case. The immigrant is then transferred to the police, placed in a detention centre for identification. If it comes out that the person is in real danger, a Syrian, or a child, or an old person, the expulsion procedure may be suspended for a period that may last from a few days to up to six months. The immigrant is also given notice of the obligation to leave the island, and so allowed to cross over to the mainland.
Immigrants who do not benefit from these procedures are transferred to one of the country’s eight detention centres for up to eighteen months until they are expelled. Should they succeed in filing an asylum request, they will remain in the detention centres as long as the case is being studied. “They are all illegal migrants,” Colonel Samaras Pangiotis bluntly declares. He is chief police officer on the island of Lesbos. “If you cross the border illegally, whether you are seeking asylum or not, you are an illegal immigrant." The local policy towards immigrants is still characterized by the same suspicious approach. Witness the “Xenios Zeus” operation implemented by the Greek Interior ministry, in order to raise the number of immigrants arrested. 65,000 foreigners were arrested between August and December 2012, among whom only 4,000 were in an irregular situation.
Frontex lends a momentous support to these policies. At Molivos, on the other side of the island, lieutenant René Aquilina commands a unit of eight soldiers that are members of the Maltese armed forces. They were sent here under the egis of Frontex as part of the “Poseidon operation”. “Our mission is to help coastguards protect their borders,” he claims. He is obviously proud of his quick-response vessel, its three 352 horse-power engines, and its night vision equipment. It’s his last day on this mission. His unit is to be replaced the next day by a Polish contingent. All armies obey the same law: silence. He says nothing about immigrants being potentially forced to return to Turkish territorial waters. In 2013, the EU’s agency for basic rights did voice their concern, as did the special UNO reporter on migrants’ rights, over the interceptions of migrants in the Aegean.
A few hours later, deep in the night, the Aegean got rough. On board his vessel, Captain Costtas Talanis, a coast-guard on an operation with three other Hellenic agents is sailing along the line between the Turkish and the Greek waters. “When we spot an immigrants boat in Turkey, we ask them to stop and we contact the authorities,” he explains. “If she is on the Greek side, more often than not, when they see us approaching, they will sink their boat and then we start a rescue operation.” But lawyer Marianna Tzeferakou see things differently; “They fire into the air, hold up the boats, and tow them into the Turkish territorial waters.” She even mentions cases where manoeuvres caused the deaths of immigrants.
Modes of detention open to criticism.
It’s impossible to tell if Frontex agents are involved in devious manoeuvres of this kind that offend article 3 of the Geneva convention. But the Frontex mandate was altered in 2011. One of its prerogatives now obliges the agency to stop or suspend any “conjoint operation” in case of a serious or persisting incident. The text even goes so far as to state that the agency “assumes full responsibility for all of the actions and decisions that were made in the execution of its mandate.” Although all migrant control operations are carried out within the Poseidon cadre, whether they involve Frontex members or Greek agents, the agency’s responsibility is most unlikely ever to be established. For article 8 in the regulations that define the modalities of its operations specifies that the European communities’ protocol of privileges and immunities applies to the agency. To put it bluntly, agents operating within the cadre of a Frontex operation enjoy legal immunity.
Modes of detention in Greece are open to criticism. In the UNHCR offices Ariann Vassilacli draws a plan of the new detention camp in Moria. Under the new law on immigration the centre is to become a first reception centre. The Lesbos centre remains a place for administrative detention and identification. Arianna evokes the possibility that over a thousand migrants might be concentrated in that long row of white huts divided by corridors of barbed wire and wire fences. “The part designed to become a first reception centre can take 98 people,” comments Papazoglou Konstantinos, the local immigration police chief and camp manager. “But we have made space for two hundred additional newcomers in the buildings designed for retention should too many migrants turn up.” Simply, the first new reception centre is overcrowded even before it has started operating. “What we do is list the names, first names, ages and origins,” the manager goes on to say.” We also discuss cases, with a view to establishing the migrants’ itineraries from the places they started from to this place.” Officially, those debriefing sessions are meant to identify the smuggling networks but they are actually an exceptionally efficient way of putting thousands of human beings on file. The manager sounds hesitant when Frontex and “Poseidon” come up in the interview. He is obviously at a loss to decide what he may or may not say.
Eleven o’clock. A van stops outside the door to the part of the camp reserved for detention, the doors open, that have no windows, showing benches inside to sit six to eight people. Migrants stand in a line within the camp. A supervisor calls out names. At each shout a migrant hurries into the van. Fifteen or sixteen people are huddling there, among whom women and children and old people. Then comes a second van. Papazoglou Kostantinos explains that they are about to be transferred to be identified biometrically, within the cadre of the Eurodac system. They will be freed on the port of Mytilene. Then comes a four-wheel drive. Three supervisors get out, among them a Spaniard who presents himself as a “Frontex support officer”. “We provide assistance for identification, debriefing and missions at sea,” he proudly declares. “We coach special interrogation units. But no, we don’t store any data.”
When caution goes unheeded
One after another vans arrive from the Moria camp at the haven of Mytilène. Out come Afghans and Syrians of all ages, each holding an official notice to leave the island. They queue to buy tickets for the ferry to Athens. “When we were out at sea, men wearing masks arrived on very fast boats”, relates George, one of the Syrians just out of the vans. “They took our money and our cell phones, and ordered us to turn back. They spoke German. I know this language!”
Standing some way off, Abbas Ali, who has not yet turned sixteen, explains that he had a nice crossing but that several people told him that there had been violent treatments out at sea by supervisors speaking another language than Greek. A female lawyer, hired as interpreter, confirms that she regularly receives similar oral evidence.
Associations regularly denounce the secrecy around Frontex operations, and the prevailing military and repressive logic that is gradually becoming the norm in the management of migratory flows. “Policies like these unquestionably violate universal human rights,” Migreurop insists. “They are costly and inefficient.” But caution goes unheeded. The European institution is shortly to allot three million euro to Frontex monthly, in addition to six vessels, two planes and one helicopter, in order to deploy operation “Triton”. The prospect does not appeal to Stella Nanou. “What we need, for the management of immigration, rather than “Triton”, is a rescue program like “Mare Nostrum”, but one that is set up collectively in Europe,” the UNHCR officer specifies. She dreads the coming of winter and its tempests. “Tragedies at sea are bound to multiply,” she fears.