Maritime ambiguity and interagency collusion: how migrant pushbacks are enabled in the Aegean sea

Refugees and Migrants aboard reach the Greek Island of Lesbos after crossing on a dinghy the Aegean sea from Turkey (Shutterstock)

Over the summer of 2021, I began working at what I jovially refer to as my ‘first adult job’; the first professional position I’ve had in the humanitarian sector. To speak candidly, working as a consultant for an aid security firm is emotionally tumultuous and financially low-reward. My role involves compiling reports of injustices and atrocities committed against refugees and coding them into a database for the use of various NGOs and research groups. Albeit a laborious task, it has granted me insight into the role that geography and jurisdictional ambiguity play in the maintenance of ‘Fortress’ Europe.

Prevention through pushbacks

A significant number of the cases I file take place on the Southern frontier of Europe, in the Aegean Sea. A particular recent incident stands out: after arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos in the early hours of the morning, 16-year old Jeancy Kimbenga and a group of 12 other refugees were detained by the Hellenic Coast Guard whilst awaiting assistance from an NGO group. The group were beaten by masked men and forced onto a small dinghy that was left to drift in Turkish waters without food, water, or safety provisions. Despite having made it onto European soil, the group was unlawfully returned to Turkey, their lives endangered in the process. 

This is one example amongst hundreds of alleged cases of illegal migrant pushbacks taking place in southern Europe. This report by Mare Liberum details 321 pushbacks from 2020, affecting of 9,798 migrants.

The European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights defines pushbacks as ‘a set of state measures by which refugees and migrants are forced back over a border […] without any possibility to apply for asylum’. They violate of the 1951 Refugee Convention and International Maritime Law but are a highly effective border control method. 

Pushbacks allow states to circumvent the costs and labour required to house asylum seekers and to process their applications; crucially, they are also highly deniable. Pushbacks such as the one experienced by Jeancy allow European authorities to outsource their border control to Turkey and Libya, despite the latter of the two having a long and well-documented history of human rights abuses, sexual assault, and inhumane conditions in detention centres.

Evidence suggests that Frontex, the European coastguard agency, and even NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) ships are complicit. Of course, these institutions deny the allegations, but extensive satellite imagery and testimony from ex-employees prove otherwise. 

Lawlessness on the high seas

A key factor in Europe’s ability to commit such violence stems from the characterization of the high seas as dystopian spaces that are outside of the laws and norms of society. This places them in the public imagination as being ungovernable and lawless. 

The ability to act outside of the law in maritime spaces is an age-old and well-documented phenomenon; recent research suggests that up to 99% of crimes committed at sea go unprosecuted. Although jurisdictional boundaries exist, they are highly contested, thus, incidents of pushbacks can be difficult for those without the surveillance capacity of the EU border regime to track, much less prove. 

Thus, when refugee vessels in distress are abandoned and shipwrecked, states are absolved of blame even when they can rescue those on board but fail to do so. This conception of the sea suits the interests of competing states that all want to prevent refugees from arriving in their territory.

Of course, the irony of this is apparent when one considers that the Aegean and the Mediterranean are probably the two most surveilled maritime borders in the world. Border security and surveillance actors can locate and intercept migrant-carrying vessels with astute accuracy, whilst claiming to have no record or knowledge of vessels in distress, nor ones that appear to have been pushed halfway back to Tripoli.

This audacious denial is made possible by the collusion between Frontex, the Hellenic Coast Guard, and European governments, which has created a culture of silence and mutual alibis. These are the very institutions tasked with protecting people at sea and with tracing the movements of vessels; thus, they operate with the knowledge that they are effectively immune to prosecution. When incidents have been proven beyond doubt, they are dismissed as isolated events. A comparison to the US and UK Police claims of ‘one bad apple’ springs to mind.

Individual agency: challenges to the status quo

Returning to the reports I receive at work and, most significantly, Jeancy’s story, it’s important not to get nihilistic about such situations; everything is contingent. A plethora of organisations and determined individuals work to facilitate safe passage into Europe, and many of these groups seek to effect change at the highest political and administrative levels. Although their financial and legal resources are dwarfed by those of the European border security institutions, the determination and agency of those who work in the field is equal amounts inspiring and impactful.

The writing of this blog prompted me to follow up Jeancy’s story and to try to find some information on his current situation. Jeancy is now 17 and is still in Turkey after five failed attempts to claim asylum in Europe. Far from being disenfranchised, he has collaborated with Front-LEX, an NGO attempting to hold European border control agencies to account for their rights abuses. His resolve and tenacity serve here as a touching reminder that the increasing securitisation and fortification of borders is met with steadfast and organized resistance from those seeking to overcome them. 

Eve Johnstone is an MA Migration and Diaspora Studies student at SOAS. With a background in humanitarian crisis response, her research interests include EU migration policy, and homelessness and destitution in the UK.

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