Letter from Athens: Greek Smoke on the Water Clouds Refugee Pushbacks Claims

“They Just Left Us: Greece Is Accused of Setting Migrants Adrift at Sea”

That was the headline in The New York Times, a story – citing a video – claiming Greece was pushing back refugees in the Aegean, the Coast Guard allegedly putting a group of them, including a baby, on a rubber raft to float away.

The British newspaper The Guardian said pushbacks have happened. The United Nations’ refugee body UNHCR said they happened. Human Rights Watch said they happened. Doctors Without Borders said they happened.

But Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi said they didn’t, and in this day and age of denial of any allegations of wrongdoing that means they didn’t, so print what they said and don’t check the facts.

So what did and didn’t happen is refugees being pushed back, mostly at sea, as the then-ruling New Democracy openly said it was trying to keep them out by any means necessary, extending a wall along the border with Turkey near the Evros River and stepping up patrols in the Aegean.

They come from Turkey, where they went fleeing war, strife, and economic hardship in their homelands.

Under an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union that’s as worthless as a drachma, Turkey is supposed to contain some 4.4 million of them in return for 6 billion euros ($6.39 billion), visa-free travel for Turks, and faster-track entry into the bloc.

Not all the money’s been delivered to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who therefore threatens from time to time to send them all at once, and now that he’s been re-elected while Greece is in limbo between elections they’re another wild card.

No one knows what happened in the seas except those who were there – if it did happen, and if the Aegean is really there, of course – but the waters have seen the drowned bodies of enough dead refugees, including children.

They keep trying to reach five Greek islands near Turkey’s coast, taken by human traffickers that Turkey lets operate without being penalized, and Mitsotakis has complained of ‘pushforwards’, while denying pushbacks.

He’s also taken shots at journalists who print stories that aren’t flattering or fawning, Greece having the worst record of media freedom in the EU, according to Reporters Without Borders, a source Greece said isn’t credible because it is, so the tactic is to try to impugn or discredit or maybe surveil.

Unlike 15,745 other people whose phones are bugged, Greece can’t track those of foreign journalists – or maybe it can – but taking shots at The New York times and Al Jazeera and other major media who do their homework isn’t going to wash, even with salty water.

Tweeting denials and putting out press releases without facing reporters isn’t going to work either to dissuade thinking people that if it floats like a body and looks like a body, it’s a body, and how it drowned has to be found out.

The report surfaced like a body just before May 21 elections that saw Mitsotakis and New Democracy government win in a rout, without a parliamentary majority, requiring a second ballot June 25 he’s favored to win, likely outright and return to single-party rule.

Before that happened, Mitsotakis told CNN that, “I… take this incident very seriously,” and ordered an investigation that will probably be like the investigation into the deaths of 57 people in a train accident, leading to nobody in power being blamed for anything. Because it didn’t happen.

When he returns to office let’s see if the incident taken very seriously is shelved, but you can’t really have people who are beholden to you investigating you, and he didn’t say who would be doing it, if anyone.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson have called for an independent investigation but they won’t get it, and this story will fade away faster than the train tragedy.

“We didn’t expect to survive on that day. When they were putting us on the inflatable raft, they did so without any mercy,” said Naima Hassan Aden, 27, who was holding the baby on the dinghy, the story claimed, saying it was backed up by a video obtained from an Austrian aid worker, Fayad Mulla.

Unless Aden decided to float around the Aegean for fun, holding a baby, Something Happened, as Joseph Heller wrote in a novel as darkly disturbing as this story, although his stream of consciousness is more lucid.

But Nothing’s Going to Happen.

No one in the incoming meet-the-new-government-same-as-the-old government is going to read them, but the responses to the story would be revealing to them if they did, although they could just say the responses didn’t happen either.

“Some of the most disturbing news. Greece would deny it but video doesn’t lie! I am done spending money in Greece and on their exports,” said one reader, echoing many others, although there were defenders of keeping out refugees.

“It’s good to see people cancelling their Greek vacation plans. Greece should be boycotted for this evil act of putting an infant and others out to sea in an unnavigable boat,” said another.

What happened?



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