NATO announced on Sunday, 6 March, that its Aegean Sea patrols have been expanded to Greek and Turkish territorial waters. NATO patrols have been operating only in international waters. And while NATO says its ‘mission is not to stop or turn back those trying to cross into Europe’, NATO has made it clear that NATO ships will return rescued migrants directly to Turkey: ‘In case of rescue at sea of persons coming via Turkey, they will be taken back to Turkey.’ NATO’s plan to summarily return intercepted migrants is consistent with previous statements made by the British and German defence ministers who have said that the purpose of the NATO mission is to stop migrants and return them to Turkey.
NATO’s characterisation of its operation seems to be an attempt to draw a distinction between a push-back practice where any migrant boat, regardless of whether it is in need of rescue, would be intercepted and pushed back and a search and rescue operation providing assistance to migrant boats in need of rescue. This is meaningless distinction given the current situation in the Aegean where every migrant boat is in need of assistance or rescue.
NATO ships are subject to the same rescue at sea obligations imposed by the SOLAS and SAR Conventions as all other ships and are obligated to disembark rescued persons in a ‘place of safety.’ And while disembarking in Turkey is safer than disembarking in Syria or Libya, there are serious questions as to whether Turkey is a place of safety. See the recent Q&A issued by Human Rights Watch concluding that Turkey is not a ‘safe third country’ as defined by EU law. While the question of a ‘place of safety’ under the SAR Convention is not identical to the ‘safe third country’ question under EU law, the fact remains that rescued migrants should not in all cases be automatically returned to Turkey without adequate screening and processing. The failure to screen rescued migrants is a clear violation of the non-refoulement obligations of the individual EU and non-EU States operating under the NATO command.
These are excerpts/highlights from comments made by HRVP Federica Mogherini at the conclusion of Saturday’s, 5 September, informal meeting of EU foreign ministers. The full text of her remarks is here.
- The meeting “was not an easy one…”
- “[W]e need to start using the right words: [the crisis] is partially a migrant flow, but it is mainly a refugee flow, which puts us in a different situation when it comes to our legal and moral duties.”
- “I hope – finally, finally – we all realise that these people are coming to Europe, not to one or another Member State. … Unfortunately, it took us some months to realise this, but maybe that awareness is finally there.”
- “We are all facing a … dramatic event. I don’t say an emergency event, because this is not an emergency: it is an urgency we are facing, but it is not something that starts one day and finishes another day. It is here to stay and the sooner we accept it, politically and psychologically, the sooner we will be able to respond in an effective way and manage it in an effective way.”
- “Now we agreed to strengthen our cooperation – not only within the European Union, but also with the Candidate Countries – on five different levels… Some of them have started already, some of them are going to be further defined … in particular with the package that the Commission is going to adopt in this coming week, with the decisions that the Ministers of Interior and Justice will be called to take within one week, ten days from now.”
- “[W]e will have a Foreign Affairs Council, a European Council, which for the moment are planned for October…”
- “[W]e agreed to strengthen cooperation on five different elements[:]
- First of all, how to ensure better protection to those in need of protection: asylum seekers are entitled to the status of refugee.
- Second, manage borders in full respect of our values, first of all respect for human rights.
- Third, fighting against smugglers’ and traffickers’ networks. … And as I did with the Defence Ministers the day before yesterday, today I shared again with the Foreign Ministers my suggestion to transit to phase 2 of this operation, which would allow us to operate in high seas to fight the traffickers and smugglers. And I have found a large consensus about that need for the naval operation. Obviously, we will also need to increase the level of our actions against the traffickers organisations on the mainland, when it comes to the Western Balkans route.
- Fourth, strengthening our partnership with third countries, mainly countries of origin and transit. Here, obviously, we are working on readmission and return agreements, but not only. We know very well that it is very important for our partners, especially in Africa and the Middle East, to work together with us on economic developments, opportunities for growth and jobs, especially for their young people. …
- Fifth point, that is maybe the most important, even if it is the most long term plan – it is our common work on what we call the root causes. In this case, that has mainly two aims. One is Libya, when it comes to the Southern corridor. And here, we have re-expressed all our active support to the last phases… hopefully, the last phases of the UN-led negotiations to form a National Unity Government in Libya. … And [the other is] Syria…”
UNHCR has launched a comprehensive data portal on the Mediterranean refugee and migrant situation and the various responses. The portal contains data, statistical information, maps, reports, situation updates, and other information.
In an interview published earlier this week in Les Echos, Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri noted that there already exists a small shift in migration flows from the central Mediterranean to the eastern Mediterranean: “The pressure is growing stronger on the eastern Mediterranean. … Since early 2015, and before last weekend, there were slightly more arrivals from Turkey: 40.000 irregular crossing in the Greek islands, against 37,000 in Italy. The number of Syrian refugees is decreasing steadily in Italy. Syrian families prefer to avoid Libya because the security conditions there have worsened significantly. The smugglers are much more violent in Libya.”
[“La pression est de plus en forte sur la Méditerranée orientale. … Depuis le début 2015, et avant le week-end dernier, il y avait légèrement plus d’arrivées en provenance de Turquie : 40.000 franchissement irréguliers dans les îles grecques, contre 37.000 en Italie. Le nombre de réfugiés syriens diminue de manière constante en Italie. Les familles syriennes préfèrent éviter la Libye car les conditions de sécurité s’y sont nettement dégradées. Les passeurs sont beaucoup plus violents en Libye.”]
Director Leggeri noted that an EU military operation near Libya may simply move some of the migration flow further to the east: “Migration routes are extremely flexible and can change rapidly. There is strong pressure [migratory] on the European Union in general from those who come from the African continent and the Middle East. … If there is a military operation in the vicinity of Libya, this may change the migration routes and make them move to the eastern route.”
[“Les routes migratoires sont extrêmement flexibles et peuvent se modifier rapidement. Il y a une forte pression sur l’Union européenne de manière générale qui vient du continent africain et du Proche-Orient. … S’il y a une opération militaire au voisinage de la Libye, cela peut changer les routes migratoires et les faire basculer vers la route de l’Est.”]
Excerpts from a short IOM report released on 6 January 2015 on the recent use of cargo ships, specifically the Blue Sky M and the Ezadeen, to transport Syrians towards Italy:
“IOM analysts do believe the prospect of single-nationality cargoes – on these latest voyages, migrants fleeing Syria – creates opportunities for smuggling rings to employ certain economies of scale that were not apparent in the more ‘mixed’ passenger manifests seen leaving Egypt and Libya in 2014.”
“‘The predictability of thousands now fleeing Syria every month allows smugglers to plan for a reliable stream of customers, which of course allows them to set a price point,’ explained Joel Millman, a spokesperson for IOM in Geneva. ‘So they can predict how much revenue each trip will bring, and then quickly deploy vessels and crews’. Millman added that Lebanon’s recent decision to require visas of Syrian migrants seeking to enter Lebanon may divert new migrant traffic to Turkey’s coasts, which will swell demand for smugglers’ services.”
“In the last four months of 2014 IOM learned of larger ‘mother’ ships waiting in open water to receive passengers ferried out by smugglers. Larger ships leaving Turkey loaded with migrants from Syria began appearing in greater numbers late last year in the Eastern Mediterranean.”
“Maritime experts calculate that such ships normally would be available for between USD 100,000 and USD 150,000, allowing smugglers to earn upwards of USD 3 million for voyages like the two that ended in recent days, with up to 900 migrants crammed on board.”
“‘This new route is a direct consequence of the Syrian crisis,’ added IOM’s [Federico] Soda. ‘Despite the end of the Mare Nostrum’s rescue-at-sea operations, arrivals continue because of the many crises close to Europe.’”
Click here for report.
“A total of 12,872 migrants trying to cross into Greece from Turkey over the Aegean Sea were captured by Turkish Coast Guard Command teams in 524 separate incidents in 2014, while 74 people were also arrested on charges of smuggling migrants, Anadolu Agency has reported. The number of migrants who were captured in 2013 was 8,047, including 6,937 on the Aegean Sea. The total number of migrants captured by authorities across Turkey in 2012 was 2,531. The official number in 2011 was 546, which means that the number of captured migrants has increased 24-fold since then. …”
An unspecified number of the intercepted migrants were reportedly subjected to push-back practices where the affected migrants were returned to Turkish territorial waters [“Yasa dışı göçmenlerin bir kısmı da ‘geri atma olayı (gittiği ülkeden Türkiye karasularına geri gönderilme)’ olarak arz edilen olaylar sonucu yakalandı.”].
The push-backs were presumably carried out by Greek patrol boats or possibly by vessels operating pursuant to Frontex Joint Operation Poseidon Sea 2013 (which operated through 2014 Q1).
Click here (EN) and here (TR) for articles.
Frontex press statement: The cargo vessel was carrying 360 migrants and had departed from Turkey. “People smugglers began using cargo vessels like Ezadeen last summer, and it has now become a new method of bringing migrants to Europe. These decommissioned freighters, up to 75-metre long, depart from Turkey and head for the Italian cost. Some 15 incidents involving cargo ships have taken place since August 2014.”