Nothing will be spared to refugees who brave the sea to escape the tragedies underway in Africa and the Middle East. Not even infamy. The Greek and European coastguards in the sea-bays which separate the Greek islands from the Turkish coasts do not hesitate to use their firearms to board boats carrying refugees, at the risk of hurting or even killing some ‘between them. The whole, with the tacit blessing of Frontex, the European Border Agency, whose powers are constantly expanding. A survey of the US magazine The Intercept, translated from English by Basta!
Two years ago, on board a contraband boat from Turkey, 19-year-old Rawan saw the other passengers panic when a Greek coast guard vessel began to approach and circle around them . Rawan first heard two shots from the patrol. Afraid of being arrested, the boatman, a Turkish fisherman, turned around to flee to Turkey. Then Rawan heard additional shots. When a bullet hit her lower back, at first she did not feel anything. Then, she remembers, it was like a fire.
Rawan’s husband had joined Germany a year earlier. Both had decided to leave Damascus, the Syrian capital, their hometown. Rawan and twelve other Syrians were heading for the small Greek island of Chios in a small fiberglass boat, much faster than the inflatables used by most refugees to cross from the Turkish coast, eight kilometers the.
Before the shots, Rawan had heard someone shout “Stop! In a loudspeaker, from the coastguard vessel. She was with four other people in the front compartment of the boat; The others were sitting at the back near the engine. His stepfather, Adnan Akil, was also hit with a bullet in his lower back. And Amjad A., another Syrian refugee who demanded that only his first name and the initial of his name be revealed, was hit in the shoulder.
On the boat, 16 bullet holes
Akil declares to remember perfectly the sequence of events that led to the shots. One officer was armed with a pistol, the other with a machine-gun. Akil, Rawan and other witnesses recall hearing an officer shoot. “We were shouting to the driver to stop,” recalls Braa Abosaleh, another Syrian refugee who was on board that day.
Seeing that the driver did not stop, the coast guards drove them in from the back. According to Akil and Rawan, the fisherman then cut off the engines, pretending to surrender. But when the officers lowered their weapons and approached, he relaunched the boat, turning the bow to Turkey. This time, the Coast Guard fired directly at the fleeing ship.
After these new shots, the driver finally stopped. From his position just outside the front compartment, Abosaleh saw a Coast Guard officer pass in their boat and come to blows with the driver. He testified that he saw the officer beating the fisherman with the butt of his pistol before handcuffing him – a testimony confirmed by Rawan. The wounded were taken to the hospital and the remainder of the refugees were taken to a hotel in Chios for interrogation.
An uncensored Frontex incident report on coast guard shots on a refugee boat. (Click on the image to enlarge)
According to an official report, as of March 2014, on the damage caused by this incident, a total of 16 bullet holes were found on the boat, mostly around the front compartment.
Even injured, treated “like animals”
Sitting on a sofa in her apartment in northern Germany, Rawan rolls nervously cigarette after cigarette. Since her wound, she limped. She insists that only her first name be published: her family in Syria does not yet know that she was hit by a bullet. She says that the Coast Guard officers threw them into their boats, she and the others wounded, “like animals.”
After the shooting, one of the officers involved was arrested. According to the documents submitted to the court, he admitted emptying a cartridge of 30 bullets and reloaded his weapon to continue firing. In front of the judges, the other two officers who accompanied him had rejected the fault on their colleague, assuring that he had acted by himself and not by order of his superiors. The shots were presented as an isolated incident.
Less than a month later, a Greek court found that the coastguards, including the one who had been arrested, had committed no fault; They had opened fire only to arrest a presumed smuggler.
The use of firearms, a recurrent practice
Yet a set of incident reports from Frontex, the EU’s border agency, obtained by The Intercept, shows that the use of firearms to intercept smuggled ships – despite the risk , Thereby injuring or killing refugees – is a common strategy for Greeks and Europeans.
These documents, which should have been redacted to keep the operational details confidential but which Frontex has made public by mistake, highlight numerous cases of the use of firearms against boats carrying refugees. The Intercept decided to publish The unredacted documents in their entirety, to demonstrate how lives are endangered during these incidents. These reports cover a period of twenty months from May 2014, two months after the shooting in Chios, in December 2015. Each case of firearms – even when it has resulted in injuries – Described as “rules of engagement” used to stop a vessel at sea.
“Sometimes we pull on the engine”
Chios is a small sleeping island of 50,000 inhabitants, only eight kilometers from the Turkish coast. It has long been one of the main crossing points for refugees who want to enter Greece from Turkey. In the early months of 2015, at the beginning of the most recent wave of crossings, the city’s main park is used as an improvised reception area, where many locals come to offer their services or food. Today, one of the three camps established on the island is close to the same park, right in the city center.
Some members of the Chios Coast Guard report being overwhelmed by refugee arrivals, lacking adequate resources and lack of proper training. According to UN statistics, more than 100,000 refugees have passed through Chios in 2015 – twice the local population.
“It is very difficult to stop a fast boat,” says a Coast Guard captain who is currently working on the Greek islands. On condition of anonymity, he details the protocol for intercepting smuggler boats from Turkey. “We are approaching the boat, we say” Stop! “With your hands or with a siren. If the boat does not stop, “sometimes we pull on the engine”. He states that shooting is “only if there is no risk. If there is a risk, he assures us, we let them go. ”
To move from Turkey to the Greek islands across the Aegean Sea, refugees use two types of boats. The most common are slow, overloaded inflatable boats, often with more than fifty people on board. They push hard, hardly above the water, actuated by small engines that often break down before reaching the other shore. These inflatable boats usually have no smugglers on board; The latter offered the passage to one of the refugees, provided that he pilot the boat.
Faster boats, such as Rawan, were made of wood or fiberglass, and were often driven by local fishermen who worked for smuggling networks and made several trips per day. According to the testimony of refugees in Chios, Lesbos or in mainland Greece, confirmed by reports of Frontex incidents, these pilots, when faced with coast guards in Greek territorial waters, often try to turn around and flee to Turkey. That’s when the shots come in.