On Saturday, I sat feeling helpless as I tracked a Greek naval vessel leaving Mytilene harbor on the island of Lesbos to an unknown destination. A Syrian asylum seeker who I have been in touch with for the past two weeks was on that boat, with his family and about 450 other people.
The Greek government has suspended asylum claims for a month and announced its intention to send unregistered border crossers back to Turkey or their countries of origin. On Friday, Greek authorities gave the people aboard the boat forms to sign for their “immediate readmission to Turkey.” The forms were written only in Greek. My contact said he and other Syrians refused to sign, but he couldn’t speak for Afghans and other nationalities.
By Sunday morning, we discovered the detainees had been taken to a closed camp in Malakassa, north of Athens, culminating two weeks of nightmare for my contact and his family.
They embarked from the Turkish coastline on an overcrowded, rubber inflatable boat on March 1. A Greek coast guard vessel tried to capsize the boat by speeding close by and creating a large wake. Unidentifiable men on a speedboat attacked their boat and disabled its motor. A mob of local people on the Greek shore threw rocks at them. The coast guard towed their boat to the naval ship docked at the Mytilene harbor instead of taking them to the Moria center, where new arrivals are normally registered and given the opportunity to lodge asylum claims.
There they were held in abysmal conditions. When I asked my contact about the quality of food, he said, “I throw most of it in the bin.” For days, only three toilets were provided for about 450 people, until five portable toilets were later added. Authorities allowed no one to shower and no soap was provided. Both facts undermine claims by Greek authorities that their treatment of these people has been motivated by concerns for public health.
I made several unsuccessful attempts to visit the detainees. Lawyers with clients aboard the boat told me they experienced similar runarounds. My contact was never able to see his lawyer face to face.
The Greek-language form distributed to detainees indicates Greece’s intention to deport these people on the boat to Turkey without giving them an opportunity to seek asylum. That would flagrantly violate the most fundamental principle of refugee law – nonrefoulement – that no refugee should be returned to a place where he or she would face the threat of persecution, torture, or other severe harm. Asylum seekers are likewise protected from forced return until their claims are determined in a fair procedure.
The EU and wider international community need to provide speedy support to Greece; but however unfairly burdened the Greek government and its people are feeling, they still have fundamental responsibilities that cannot be shirked. Within the bounds of law, Greece cannot deny people the right to seek asylum, arbitrarily detain them, and summarily send them to Turkey or any other place where they would not be protected from return to their countries of origin, where they fear for their lives.