DEATHS AT THE BORDERS
A pressing need for appropriate protocols for refugee and migrant shipwrecks

DEATHS AT THE BORDERS
A pressing need for appropriate protocols for refugee and migrant shipwrecks

Until recently, the bodies of missing refugees and migrants were found scattered all over the Aegean Sea, two months after the tragic shipwrecks in Paros, Folegandros and Antikythera. The survivors – relatives and companions of these people who are anxiously searching for clues about their fate, instead of receiving the necessary psychosocial care under dignified reception conditions, were taken to the Pre-removal Detention Centre (PROKEKA) in Amygdaleza where they remained in administrative detention for more than a month. The recent shipwrecks have once again highlighted the huge shortcomings in the information, support and care of survivors, in the coordination of the management of shipwreck victims such as the protocol for the search and identification of the missing and dead respectively and the referral to an appropriate reception facility.

Folegandros, Tinos, Sifnos, Naxos, Paros, Sikinos, Kos, Symi, Rhodes and Crete. The sea has been washing up bodies for two months and there seems to be no end to the tragedy. They are believed to belong to the unfortunate refugees missing from the recent shipwrecks. Residents of the islands are once again afraid to walk along their coasts, worried about the images they may encounter.  

Rescued detainees without psychosocial support

Rescued detainees without psychosocial support

Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) legally represents three families rescued from the shipwrecks in Antikythera and Paros who have lost relatives. Despite the shock and the overwhelming mental state these persons do not seem to have received psychological first aid. They were transferred from the islands to the PROKEKA of Amygdaleza almost immediately after the tragic events. Initially, sources at the Ministry of Migration and Asylum said that the shipwreck victims would be transferred there for registration and that they would be taken to reception facilities within two or three days. Eventually they stayed in administrative detention until the beginning of February. 

During this period of detention, they had insufficient access to telephones in order to contact relatives and services related to the identification of the bodies or the tracing of their relatives. They also did not have psychological support. They were held in very difficult conditions, under poor hygiene, without adequate clothing and heating, and without medical care. The communication with their lawyers was also difficult, as it took place in the presence of police officers and under time pressure. The detention conditions further aggravated their mental health state.

"We were psychologically really not fine and they took us straight to detention. From bad to worse. So far we have received neither psychological nor social assistance. The authorities only provide us with food. If we did not have ourselves the strength to continue, we would have collapsed. The only thing the children saw inside Amygdaleza were policemen and barbed wire," says Karim*, who lost first-degree relatives in one of the recent shipwrecks.

Now the survivors have been moved to an open shelter in central Greece far from the urban centres of Athens and Thessaloniki, while only there could they receive specialised psychosocial support and reception services. Their immediate transfer, even now, to the ESTIA II housing programme for vulnerable asylum seekers is considered urgent and necessary.

*Name has been changed for privacy and security reasons

Lack of coordinated information for relatives

Lack of coordinated information for relatives

After the shipwrecks were reported, relatives and friends of the missing persons in Greece and abroad contacted the Greek authorities, organisations and solidarity groups in order to find information about these people, whose bodies are scattered in various mortuaries across the country. In many cases they have been confronted with a lack of interpretation services and bureaucratic procedures, which they are unable to cope with. According to reports, the Greek authorities have failed to ensure that relatives in different countries and continents are informed in a coordinated manner. They told them that, in order to give an official response to their queries, the Greek authorities would have to first obtain an information request from Europol for EU residents and from Interpol for non-EU residents.

Furthermore, DNA collection from relatives in the countries of their residence is necessary to carry out the investigation/recognition and identification, followed by the burial of the dead. The procedures differ by country and become impossible to carry out in war zones. There are also cases where parents are at risk of being charged with child neglect. The relatives of the dead and missing continue to search, often without knowing where the corpses have been transferred and where they have to go to start the procedure of identification of their beloved.

Support to relatives in the search processes is currently provided by organisations and citizens in solidarity. The competent authorities did not consider it necessary to set up a special 24-hour hotline for a period following the shipwreck, as would be the case in a similar incident involving European citizens. 

Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) participated in the drafting process and has signed the Mytilini Declaration on the Dignified Treatment of All Missing and Deceased Persons and their Families as a Consequence of the Migration Journeys.

The institutionalised policies and systematic deterrence practices at the EU's external borders lead to deadly journeys. Shipwreck victims must be given all the necessary support and protection. Existing protocols are not sufficient as dealing with shipwrecks presents peculiarities. Timely and clear information, provision of appropriate reception conditions, DNA collection when relatives are in a country outside Greece, search in Turkey must be immediately and flexibly addressed.

Natassa Strachini, lawyer, legal team coordinator of Refugee Support Aegean (RSA)

Dead and missing in Evros

Dozens of refugees lose their lives at the land border along the Evros river as well. Last year the number of registered deaths reached 51 people. The total number of victims, however, is estimated to be much higher given the conditions in the area, involving strong cold and rushing river waters. Appeals for information on missing persons who tried to cross the Evros are posted almost daily in Arabic- and Farsi-speaking groups on social media. The photos of the 12 dead refugees in Edirne province are shocking. Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said that 12 of 22 people “pushed back” from Greece died from the cold. Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarakis accused Soylu of false propaganda and claimed that “these migrants never made it to the border. Any suggestion they did, or indeed were pushed back into Turkey is utter nonsense”. Somalia has asked the UN to investigate the death of five Somalis who were found frozen to death along the Greek-Turkish border. This is one of the few cases where foreign authorities have taken such an action to investigate the circumstances of refugee deaths at the border.

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