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Are You Syrious?

AYS News Digest 31/01/22: Group of Syrians trapped for a second time this month on Evros river island

Spain sentences two ‘boat drivers’ to nine years in prison // Greek media investigating migration receive legal notice to stop work // Expensive border walls & cameras around Belarus // Ireland launches scheme to legalize its undocumented

FEATURE — In bizarre twist of fate, 24 Syrians are abandoned again on Evros river island

A flooded Evros river near the Greek town of Lavara, 2005 (Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0)

It’s a story almost too terrible to believe, but it seems that the very same group of Syrians who earlier this month were stranded for days on an island in the middle of the Evros river have once again been abandoned in the same area. The Greek newspaper EfSyn, who originally came into contact with the group of some two dozen Syrians several weeks ago when they were first on the island, reported the news on Monday.

“29 refugees trapped in Evros — urgent appeal for help” ran EfSyn’s initial headline on January 21. The news outlet reported it had been contacted on WhatsApp by a group of 25 Syrians and 4 Turks “trapped in a forest area on an island in the middle of the Evros” river, which separates Turkey from Greece. The 29 people had been there for three days already, and said they had no food or water as snow blanketed the ground upon which they slept. Among them was a man with kidney problems.

The people were stranded on the island after trying to reach Greece. They said they were beaten by Greek authorities and pushed back to the island, where they were unable to move either forwards into Greece or backwards to Turkey. Greek authorities visited the group on Saturday, January 21, the people told the media, but refused to bring them to Greece.

Last Sunday, January 22, Turkish authorities brought the people back to Turkey and placed them in a detention facility. However, this Monday EfSyn reported the people had said “the Turkish border guard transported them yesterday from the detention center on the bank of the Evros, put them in a boat and led them to an islet on the river, where it abandoned them.”

The group is said now to consist of 24 Syrians, among them five children, a pregnant woman, and someone with an injured leg. A photo of the people posted by EfSyn shows families with small children crouched on the bare winter ground, swaddled in heavy coats but without socks.

When the people were returned to Turkey last week, they were reportedly beaten by authorities, and according to the stranded people, a 33-year-old father of two from Aleppo with a pre-existing health condition died from the beatings. EfSyn wrote that the four Turkish people among the group remain detained in a Turkish prison. No further information is known about them.

SEA / SAR

Aita Mari granted port of safety in Lampedusa

Spain rescues six from a boat off coast of Ceuta

The Ceuta Civil Guard has rescued a boat with six men aboard one mile off the Tarajal beach in Ceuta on Monday, media reported.

The men, who are from sub-Saharan Africa, are reportedly in good health.

AlarmPhone’s lifesaving work, in numbers

AlarmPhone, the international hotline for people on the move in distress, released some statistics about their work in 2021, illustrating that they have assisted in:

  • 778 distress situations in total
  • 116 cases in the Aegean (sea & land)
  • 241 boats in the Western Med & Atlantic
  • 407 boats in the Central Med

The group said that the 778 distress cases constitute the highest workload since 2015, when they were involved in 1,239 rescues on both sea and land.

GREECE

NGO serves SLAPP to independent Greek media following investigation about asylum-seeker accommodation

The NGO “HopeTen” has served journalists at the We Are Solomon and Reporters United with a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) after the journalists had reached out to the organization regarding an investigation into Greece’s migration management, Solomon wrote on its website on Monday.

“This is not their first attempt at hindering our research and reports before we even publish anything,” Solomon said.

In late November, Kostas Koukoumakas, a journalist working on a joint investigation between Solomon and Reporters United, reached out to the Greek NGO “HopeTen” for an interview regarding accommodation for asylum-seekers in Greece. Koukoumakas and another Solomon journalist interviewed HopeTen’s director and public relations manager in early December.

Ten days later, on December 20, without warning, HopeTen served the two journalism organizations with a legal notice.

“In Europe, more and more instances of journalists being served with legal notices and being sued, by those involved in a report − (before a report is even published), in an attempt to prevent the publication of information that they may find incriminating − are being recorded,” Solomon wrote.

Such legal proceedings, Solomon continued, are intended to bring about independent media’s “financial, psychological and moral destruction.”

More information on the background of the investigation can be found here.

POLAND / BELARUS

Poland says it will help Ukrainian refugees, but ignores those already at its door

In a textbook display of irony, a deputy minister of Poland has said the country is prepared and willing to host one million Ukrainian refugees should a war with Russia break out in the neighboring country and trigger a humanitarian crisis. What the minister neglected to mention is that a few thousand people in need of protection and assistance are already at Poland’s door — and Poland is not only ignoring their cries, but actively putting them in harm’s way by pushing them back to Belarus.

“Where there are indeed refugees, we must help them, this is international law, but these are also the principles of coexistence of civilized people, the principles of European and Christian culture,” deputy interior minister Maciej Wąsik told Polish media.

As border walls go up around Belarus, sign a petition to stop them

Lithuania is planning to install surveillance cameras all along its border with Belarus. Poland is building a permanent wall. While the cameras, at 40 million euros, will be significantly cheaper than Poland’s 353 million euro wall, both are symptoms of the same xenophobic, Islamophobic and alarmist rhetoric about the Belarusian ‘border crisis’ that has dominated the political debate and most mainstream media coverage of the issue since last fall.

A number of organizations, including Greenpeace, have launched a petition directed to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to the stop the wall, saying it will “destroy the unique nature, harm local communities and will not solve the humanitarian crisis.”

The organizations point out that the border wall will cut straight through the Białowieża Primeval Forest, Europe’s last old-growth forest, and destroy the natural environment for numerous animal and plant species. (If interested, see this National Geographic feature on the subject.)

In addition to the environmental havoc the border wall will undoubtedly create, the petition notes that it won’t fix any human problems, either:

By building more dams, we will not solve the humanitarian crisis that is taking place at the border. Even if we build a wall around the entire Polish border, we will not escape the fact that the climate crisis and its effects are drastically increasing the number of people looking for security and fleeing from armed conflicts, hunger and poverty. Migrations will not stop, therefore Poland needs a migration policy based on respect for human rights and protection of life and health, and not oppressive and harmful solutions.

You can sign and share the petition at this link.

SPAIN

Two ‘boat drivers’ sentenced to 9 years in prison in Spanish court

In a case that has received relatively little media attention, a Spanish court has sentenced two people who drove boats headed for the Canary Islands last year to nine years in prison, media reported. Nine people, including two children, died either aboard the boat or shortly after. A total of 52 people were found on or near the dinghy, which left Western Sahara for Spain in March 2021.

A court in Las Palmas on the island of Gran Canaria sentenced the two people, a Senegalese and a Gambian national. They accepted the charges last Wednesday.

A boy and a girl, both two years old, were among those who lost their lives. The boy was reportedly thrown overboard and the girl died of dehydration in hospital. The two convicted persons were also ordered to pay compensation to the children’s parents — 118,524 euros in each case. Other people on the boat died of dehydration, thirst, exhaustion, or threw themselves overboard in distress during an incredibly difficult journey to Europe.

IRELAND

“Once-in-a-generation” path to legalization in Ireland begins this week

A scheme to offer undocumented people in Ireland a path to legalization opened on Monday, Irish media reported. Some 17,000 people, including thousands of children, could find legal relief through the program.

The scheme will allow people long-based in Ireland but without proper papers to regularize their status, access the labor market and begin citizenship applications. Those with expired student visas, pending deportation orders, and those who have applied for international protection a minimum of two years ago are among those who can apply.

“It will bring some much-needed certainty and peace of mind to thousands of people who are already living here and making a valuable contribution to our society and the economy, many of whom may be very vulnerable due to their current immigration circumstances,” Irish justice minister Helen McEntee said last month when she announced the program.

The scheme is only open for six months, so those who may benefit from it are encouraged to apply as soon as possible. The application fee for a single person is €550, and the application fee for family applications is €700.

More information about how to apply can be found here.

EU / FRONTEX

5 year anniversary of Libya-EU cooperation agreements

Over 82,000 people on the move have been pushed back to Libya from the Central Mediterranean since Libya and the EU began to cooperate on pushbacks five years ago, according to Amnesty International.

The EU began to assist the so-called Libyan Coast Guard in 2016, and interceptions at sea began the same year. Italy and Libya signed an official Memorandum of Understanding on February 2, 2017.

“EU leaders’ cooperation with Libyan authorities is keeping desperate people trapped in unimaginable horrors in Libya,” Matteo de Bellis, a researcher on Migration and Asylum at Amnesty International, said. “Over the past five years, Italy, Malta and the EU have helped capture tens of thousands of women, men and children at sea, many of whom ended up in horrific detention centres rife with torture, while countless others were forcibly disappeared.”

How much does it cost to keep people on the move out of the EU? Try €1.9bn over 6 years.

A new analysis of tenders by Statewatch reveals that Frontex, the EU border agency, and eu-Lisa, the agency which maintains and operates large-scale IT systems and databases, have cost a mind-boggling €1.9bn to operate from 2014 to 2020. Private sector contracts have increased dramatically since 2017 as the EU outsources ‘migration management.’ Read more about these tenders here.

First Frontex-led deportation removed 40 Albanians from Madrid

Frontex led its first deportation this week, deporting 40 Albanians from Madrid to Tirana, the agency wrote in a press release.

In 2021, Frontex assisted in the deportation of more than 18,300 people, an increase of 53% from 2020 and 16% more than pre-Covid levels in 2019, the agency said.

EVENTS / DEMOS

Demonstration against pushbacks / Omonia Square, Athens / Sunday, 6 Feb at 13.00 EET

See more info here.

Demonstration against the new deportation prison at BER airport / S-Bahn Flughafen BER terminal 5 / Wednesday, 9 Feb at 16.45 CET

AlarmPhone’s ‘CommemorActions’

Danish Refugee Council, “Externalization and the Global Compact on Refugees: Responsibility Shifting and the role of the EU” / Wednesday, 2 Feb at 10.00 CET

WORTH READING / WATCHING

You think it is a prison’ — inside barracks used to house asylum seekers (Evening Standard)

Asylum seekers housed in an ageing military barracks say they feel like they are in a “prison” at risk of coronavirus despite improvements made to the controversial site. Link here.

Migrants on Poland’s Eastern Border (ARTE)

No rescue from above: Europe’s surveillance in the Mediterranean leaves migrants to their fate (Middle East Eye)

Those crossing from Africa are often left to drown, even when activists — and EU’s border force — know where they are. Link here.

Opinion: Asylum-seeker smuggling is a symptom, not a root cause (Globe & Mail)

Rather than look at how policies incentivize such irregular migration and produce such tragedies, Canadian politicians and news media have been quick to parrot rhetoric from other rich countries, speculating about the responsibility of criminal smugglers and wider networks of nefarious actors.

Beyond Policing: A handbook for community-led solutions to the violence of policing in Western Europe (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung)

In Europe today, more people than ever are asking: what actually makes communities safe? Beyond Policing offers a brief glimpse into some of the groups actively attempting to answer that question by exploring the demand from social movements to “defund the police”.

Albania: Afghan women start eatery to help refugees feel at home (Al Jazeera)

The new restaurant run by two women offers Afghan cuisine attracting refugees as well as the local population.

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