Alaa Hamoudi was adrift in the Aegean sea and thought he was going to die. The orange dinghy – the only hope for him and 21 other people – was starting to sink, while desperate passengers threw their bags overboard. “I thought I wouldn’t survive, I was close to death,” the the 22-year-old Syrian said.
Only the day before, it seemed he was starting a new life. After landing on the Greek island of Samos soon after dawn on 28 April 2020, he and his fellow passengers had trudged up the steep coastal path, searching for Greek police, in order to claim asylum. “I was just so happy to leave everything behind,” said Hamoudi, who fled his Damascus home aged 12, moved to Lebanon, then Turkey, and hoped to reach Germany to be reunited with his father.
It did not go to plan. Instead, Greek authorities returned the refugees to shore, put them in an inflatable boat with no motor or navigation equipment, and towed it to sea, Hamoudi said. “And [they] left us in this small raft in the middle of the sea,” the young Syrian said in his native Arabic, speaking through an interpreter. “My brain stopped working. We didn’t know what to do. We’re in the middle of the sea. And the water is surrounding us everywhere. And the people in the group started to cry.” He recalled his fellow passengers, who included a 12-year-old girl and two old men: “It was so sad and hopeless.”
The refugees spent a terrifying 17 hours at sea, with almost no food, water, or hope of rescue. In the final hours, the current was pushing the raft back towards Greece. Watching Greek authorities had other ideas, Hamoudi said. He said a Greek jetski approached the boat, making rough zigzags to create waves to move them back. Water flooded the craft. “People were very scared; some of us were crying, some of us were screaming,” he recalled.
Eventually, the Turkish coastguard rescued them. Now, more than two years later, still in limbo in Turkey, the young Syrian is suing the European border and coastguard agency, Frontex, which he believes was involved in the operation.
Hamoudi recalls seeing a red light in the sky and hearing a distant plane. According to an investigation led by Bellingcat, a private surveillance plane working for Frontex passed twice over the asylum seekers left adrift at sea.
Omer Shatz, legal director at Front-Lex, who is representing Hamoudi pro bono, is seeking damages of €500,000 for his client over numerous alleged violations, including the right to life and the right to claim asylum.
After years battling national governments in court, the lawyer thinks the best way to change European migration policy is to target the EU agency. “The common strand is Frontex: the policies are coming from Brussels, not from Rome, not from Athens and so on.”
Frontex has become the Europe’s answer to border control, after the arrival of 1.26 million asylum seekers in 2015, an event that plunged the EU into crisis. With a €754m budget for 2022, the organisation is the EU’s best-funded agency. It is also the bloc’s first and only uniformed service, whose officers may carry handguns – a promotional video shows off a navy jacket embossed with an EU flag. But Frontex has been dogged by accusations of complicity in illegal pushbacks, and was thrown into turmoil when its long-serving director resigned in April.
Analysts say the agency’s challenges are bigger than one person, as European leaders vie to be tough on border control. Less than two months before Hamoudi crossed the Aegean, the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, praised Greece as Europe’s “shield” for deterring migrants, after hundreds of people attempted to cross the EU border, encouraged by Turkey’s president.
Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe , based in Brussels, said: “The legal and the political line is non-refoulement. But if you look at the political landscape in the past few months, there was a kind of alternative pact: a number of member states and political leaders were arguing for the legalisation of pushbacks.”
She sees an increasing tendency for governments to claim “an inherent contradiction” between protecting their territorial integrity and the right to asylum, enshrined in the Geneva conventions, “whereas for the last 70 years we have dealt with this”. In that context, “the danger now is that we have an executive agency coming up with their own procedures”, she said.
Tineke Strik, a Dutch Green MEP, who chairs the European parliament’s Frontex scrutiny group, said the agency had improved its procedures since MEPs issued a damning report a year ago. Frontex has a relatively new fundamental rights officer, Jonas Grimheden, charged with investigating human rights abuses, who told the Guardian he planned tougher monitoring of Greece, but declined to comment on specific cases.
The MEP, however, worried that Frontex was failing to persist with investigations when faced with obfuscation or incomplete answers. “Specifically, Greece is very clearly non-cooperative when it comes to these assessments,” she said. “They simply give no answer or they deny. It feels very problematic that sometimes Frontex doesn’t persist. Some cases are open for a long time, or more often, simply closed because they cannot be resolved.”
The Greek ministry of foreign affairs has rejected charges of failing to uphold fundamental rights. It said officers at the Hellenic coast guard had “for months maximised their efforts, operating around-the-clock with efficiency, a high sense of responsibility, perfect professionalism, patriotism, and also with respect for everyone’s life and human rights”.
The ministry dismissed all claims in Hamoudi’s case as “tendentious allegations of supposed illegal actions”, adding: “The operation practices of the Greek authorities have never included such actions.”
Frontex said it would not comment on ongoing cases, adding: “Fundamental rights, including the respect for the principle of non-refoulement, are at the core of all the agency’s activities. Frontex treats any reports on alleged fundamental rights violations seriously. Each such information is immediately transmitted to the Frontex fundamental rights office for evaluation and issuing of a potential serious incident report.”
While Hamoudi’s case progresses, his future remains uncertain. While still hopes to be reunited in Germany with his father and lead “a normal peaceful life”, he remains deeply troubled by his memories.
“I’m very sad, because I was thrown into the sea. Whenever I remember that. I feel very sad. And I try to forget,” he said. “When they [the EU] say, ‘we are accepting refugees’, why do they close the door?”
Source: The Guardian