Off the isles of Greece

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Harry van Versendaal
Photo by Harry van Versendaal

This week marked the anniversary of the birth of Lord Byron, a foreigner who loved Greece but was also embraced by Greeks. One of his most famous poems, The Isles of Greece, invokes the wondrous spirit of Greeks’ ancient ancestors. Great victories, such as in the Battle of Salamis, are exalted in this memorable example of his work.

Here is how Byron describes Persian King Xerxes preparing to watch the momentous naval clash between his navy and the Greeks:

"A king sat on the rocky brow
Which looks on sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations; - all were his!"

But this week was also stained by tragedy. Foreigners who will never develop a loving relationship with Greece found themselves fighting for survival off another Greek island, Farmakonisi. Some made it. Others drowned, their boat ending up at the bottom of the sea, like the vessels of Xerxes some 2,500 years ago.

Twelve migrants, nine of them children, drowned off the Dodecanese islet. The Afghans and Syrians had paid money to smugglers who put them in a boat and pointed it in the direction of Greece; the European Union. What happened next is not clear, and perhaps never will be, but the allegations are shocking. According to accounts from some of the 16 survivors, Greek coast guard officers spotted the undocumented immigrants' vessel and attempted to tow it back towards Turkish waters. In the process, the migrants claim, the boat capsized and twelve lives were lost.

Greek authorities deny this version of events and say that the patrol boat was attempting to pull the smaller vessel to the safety of Farmakonisi, when one person fell overboard and commotion among the remaining migrants caused their boat to tip over. Greece's Merchant Marine Minister Miltos Varvitsiotis says he has data proving the vessels were heading towards Greece, not Turkey.

The UNHCR seems sceptical of Greece's explanation and has called for an investigation. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Niels Muiznieks, expressed his shock at what he said appears to be “a case of a failed collective expulsion.” He highlighted that just a week earlier, the Greek government had pledged in writing to stop the practice of “push backs” and investigate any allegations of such incidents. The Germany-based rights group Pro Asyl indicated it was not convinced that the coast guard was attempting to rescue the migrants.

The allegations being made against public officials are grave: That in the first days of Greece's presidency of the European Union, with Athens aiming to place irregular immigration and maritime security high on the agenda, they somehow contributed to the drowning of 12 people.

However, even if this is not the case and Varvitsiotis is proved correct, the migrants' deaths leave an indelible stain. Even if they were being towed to safety, they were still in Greece's care. The European Union’s northern countries must also examine their conscience as Greece, Italy, and Malta are being left largely unaided to deal with a problem that has to do with the EU as a whole. Last year some 40,000 irregular migrants arrived in these three countries by boat, while hundreds of others died trying. They did so in the search of the stability the EU can offer. Few of those making the treacherous journey do so with the aim of Greece being their final destination. They are looking for the jobs and security that more prosperous member states can offer.

Nevertheless, it is Greece and other southern European countries that bear the brunt of this influx of refugees and economic migrants. A small country with few resources and little money to spend has been given a tall order. This creates inexorable pressure on the people whose duty it is to deal with the fallout of poverty and conflict in other parts of the world that washes towards Greek shores. Often, Greek coast guard and border guard officers are the saviours of those desperate enough to risk their lives reaching the EU’s outer borders. This should not be forgotten. This week, 47 migrants were rescued off Samos. Varvitsiotis said that the Greek coast guard had saved 3,500 people in the last 18 months.

Even when taking this into account, though, nothing can excuse treating the people who arrive here as anything less than fellow human beings. Too often over the years, Greece has been criticised for its treatment of refugees and migrants: Abuse, subhuman conditions and racism have been recorded and criticised by Muiznieks, the UNHCR, Pro Asyl, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom and others. In November, the European Court of Justice ruled that refugees face a "face a real risk of being subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment" in Greece.

This is a rap sheet of shame for Greek officials. Yet, when faced with concern about the circumstances in which 12 people died this week, the government’s reaction is not to treat this with the solemnity it demands.  “Muznieks and others want to create a political issue in Greece,” Varvitsiotis said on TV. This is a preposterous and juvenile position for the minister to take, especially given Greece’s notorious record. It also undermines the commitment he gave to Muiznieks in a letter dated January 10 that any report alleging malpractice against a Greek coast guard officer would be “thoroughly and expeditiously investigated in a transparent and equitable manner.”

Regardless of what happened off Farmakonisi, to react with counter-accusations over concerns about the way in which 12 innocent people lost their lives is shameful.

Until Greece's EU presidency ends in June, there are likely to be numerous times when the government will argue that protestors, striking workers, opposition politicians, commentators criticising its policies and others are tarnishing Greece's image. Perhaps some of them will be doing just that but it is unlikely that any of them will be doing as much damage to the country's standing as the public officials tasked with handling the immigrants and refugees who reach these shores.

Either through error, bad luck or malpractice nine children and three women who may not have known anything of Lord Byron, ancient Greeks or their modern successors are dead. The least that can happen now is for the survivors to be cared for and for the deaths to be investigated properly. To do anything less than this is to demean this tragic event. Even so, this week’s events leave a feeling that we have surrendered much more than the 12 lives engulfed by the Aegean. Like Xerxes in Byron’s poem, we are left gazing at Greek waters and wondering just what we have lost:

“He counted them at the break of day
And when the sun set, where were they?
And where are they?
And where art thou,
My country?"

2 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: H.Trickler

    >"The European Union’s northern countries must also examine their conscience as Greece, Italy, and Malta are being left largely unaided to deal with a problem that has to do with the EU as a whole."

    It is a truly sad story and you are 100% right.
    Imho the solution can only be found by an automatism which promptly distributes all such fugitives to all EU countries proportionally to their population.

    Only after this immediate redistribution those countries have to investigate if asylum has to be given.

  • Posted by: Jimitri

    I personally love the way Mr Varvitsiotis, in his reply to the commissioner, has striked out the word 'Commissioner' and replaced it with the commissioner's first name.

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