Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

Beirut, Lebanon When Ahmad, a goldsmith in Lebanon’s coastal town of al-Mina, could no longer operate his machines due to prolonged power outages, he knew it was time to find a way out.

“I sold all my equipment and decided to leave,” the 25-year-old from Lebanon told Al Jazeera. Some of his friends reached Italy by embarking on the dangerous boat journey from the northern city of Tripoli. They persuaded him to do the same.

With three quarters of the population live in poverty, fuel shortages forcing power plants to shut down and currency depreciating with no end in sight, a growing number of Lebanese and Syrians are move to migration.

Ahmad said he was among 82 Lebanese and Syrians who boarded a fishing boat on October 26 and sailed far out to sea. But the group never reached its destination.

Al Jazeera spoke to three of the passengers, whose full names were withheld because they were afraid of jeopardizing their chances of migrating.

They say they are trapped in a web of illegal setbacks and arbitrary detention that describes human rights organizations as an increasingly common tool to keep migrants out of Europe.

Leaving Lebanon

No smugglers were involved in planning the trip. The families sold their possessions or borrowed money to buy the boat and food supplies.

“We were all friends, family members and neighbors from the same area,” Ahmad said.

Another passenger, the 36-year-old Amani, has spent her entire life in al-Mina, an independent municipality often seen as an extension of Tripoli’s port. She never thought she would one day sell her house and jewelry to give her three children a “dignified life.”

“I decided it was time to leave when my son became ill and I could not get any medicine,” she told Al Jazeera.

Bilal, a 43-year-old Syrian from Idlib, has lived in Lebanon for almost three decades, works at a cafe and an ice cream shop, and has married a Lebanese woman.

“I worked up to 18 hours a day to make enough money,” he said. Because he could not cope due to inflation and he could not get a raise, he decided to sell his car, his wife’s jewelry – even his daughter’s earrings – and leave the country forever.

The group sailed on October 26, but drifted at sea for three days after a storm damaged the engine.

They decided to try to dock at the Greek island of Kastellorizo ​​to fix the boat. “We contacted the coastguard and asked for permission,” Amani recalled. “They told us we were welcome and even asked if they could help us with anything.”

Several minutes later, a Hellenic Coast Guard ship approached the boat. According to witness reports, officers wore black balaclavas to hide their faces.

“They dropped what looked like big balloons and hooked our boat to theirs,” said Amani. “Then they ordered us to come on board.”

One passenger, who spoke to Greek officials in English, refused to board. He was beaten and forced on board, witnesses said.

The Coast Guard fired shots into the air to intimidate the rest of the passengers. “Then they took our phones, money, clothes and suitcases,” Bilal said.

Cold and drenched, the passengers asked the officers to let the women and children sit indoors. “But we were taken to a very small room where they blew the AC at a cold temperature,” Amani told Al Jazeera.

The men were beaten with shock knobs when they demanded to know where they were being taken.

The Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy denied any wrongdoing, saying their actions complied with international legal obligations, and denied using force against the migrants.

“We must emphasize that the operational practices of the Greek authorities have never included such action,” the ministry said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

‘Italy is like that’

After spending one night on the Coast Guard vessel, the passengers were split between four life rafts. “There were 20-25 people for each lifeboat that fit a dozen people,” Ahmad said. “[The officers] said ‘Italy is so’ and left.

Some returned their belongings, while others were left with whatever was in their pockets.

“One man asked to get his phone back. The guard told him to get on the raft, otherwise they would hit him, “Amani recalled.

The group estimated they stayed in the rafts from about 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. “The men rowed with their hands, the children screamed and cried, and we all thought we were going to die,” Amani said.

One of the passengers who still had a phone called an emergency number on the network. Someone picked up, but it was not the Italian authorities.

“The Turks responded and told us we were in their waters near Izmir,” Bilal said. “About four hours later, a Turkish bakkie arrived.”

The European Commission has asked Greece to set up an independent mechanism to monitor and avoid the repatriation of migrants at its border.

Niamh Keady-Tabbal, PhD researcher at the Irish Center for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, Galway told Al Jazeera it is a “systematic policy of collective evictions”, with the coastguard usually deactivating trawlers and sometimes identifying documents, money confiscate. , and personal belongings.

“They are typically forced on life rafts, abandoned and left to drift to Turkey, in violation of international and European law,” Keady-Tabbal said.

Since March 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been receiving reports about alleged setbacks, both on land and at sea.

Al Jazeera reported earlier this week that at least 30 Cubans hoping to claim asylum in Europe had been abused by Greek authorities and forcibly deported to Turkey across the border late last year.

Stella Nanou, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Greece, told Al Jazeera that boats had intercepted in Greek waters and that their engines had been destroyed before being towed to Turkish waters. In other incidents, refugees and migrants were taken back to sea after landing on Greek islands and left on life rafts without life jackets.

“UNHCR has interviewed people who have reported being pushed back and many have apparently been deeply affected by this traumatic experience, which has exacerbated the trauma they already carry from the situations they have faced in their country of origin. , ”Said Nanou.

“Women, men and children showed severe emotional distress while recounting experiences while seeking protection.”

The Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy said in the same statement to Al Jazeera: “The Hellenic Coast Guard officers responsible for guarding the Greek and European sea and land borders have been maximizing their efforts for months and 24 hours. operate daily, with efficiency, a high sense of responsibility, perfect professionalism, patriotism, and also with respect for everyone’s lives and human rights. ”

Detained in Turkey

The Turkish authorities took the exhausted families to an EU-funded removal center in Aydin, southwestern Turkey, where they were detained for almost a month, until November 28.

Turkey has one of the world’s largest migration related detention systems, which operate 25 detention centers with a capacity of nearly 16,000, in addition to ad hoc detention sites along its borders, airport transportation zones and police stations.

The 2016 EU-Turkey refugee agreement has expanded Turkey’s migration removal system with EU funding, leading to an increase in detentions and summary deportations of refugees and asylum seekers, according to the Geneva – based research center Global Detention Project.

“The European Union is giving money to Turkey to be a buffer,” Michael Flynn, executive director of the Global Detention Project, told Al Jazeera.

EU funding of just over 87 million euros ($ 99 million) has paid off over the past few years for the construction of eight removal centers, and the refurbishment of 11 others in Turkey.

“The purpose of EU support to removal centers is to improve standards for the host of migrants for whom a removal decision has been taken, in accordance with the Aliens and International Protection Act of Turkey,” an EU spokesman said. commission told Al Jazeera. email.

Conditions in Aydin have been described as “very good” by a European delegation that visited Turkey in 2015.

Yet those detained at the removal center say their stay was far from pleasant.

“It was more like a prison,” Ahmad said. “We were among drug smugglers and people accused of being linked to Daesh (ISIL).”

Amani said translators are not cooperating and the language barrier has created tensions. “We would try to communicate, and out of frustration they would start yelling at us,” she recalled.

When a woman stumbled and hit her head, with heavy bleeding, accumulated tension broke out in handcuffs. “Some of the women were panicking, crying and screaming. They thought she was dead, “Amani recalled.

Meanwhile, the men from their cells could only see the women crying.

“We thought it was one of ours who got hurt, so we started arguing with the guards to be let out,” Ahmad said. “Then they came in and beat four of us with clubs.”

Turkey’s Directorate of Communications declined to comment when asked by Al Jazeera about the allegations made by Lebanese and Syrians about their detention in Aydin.

Merve Sebnem Oruc, columnist for the pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, told Al Jazeera that the Turkish authorities were doing everything they could to respect the rights of migrants and refugees.

“The only ones being deported are those who are entering the country illegally,” she said, adding that exemptions are being made for those who face danger and persecution in their homelands.

“Syrians who apply to the government and declare themselves refugees are not sent back to Syria because their lives are in danger.”

The migrants were sent back to Lebanon by plane on the night of November 29, although it is unclear who financed the flight. They said Turkish guards returned their belongings but retained the cash and claimed it was for the plane home.

The European Commission has not confirmed funding for the repatriation, but said it supports Turkey with two projects on “supported voluntary return.”

The EU spokesperson told Al Jazeera that migrants have the legal right to contest their administrative detention and deportation and to apply for international protection. However, those interviewed by Al Jazeera said they were not given access to a lawyer or could seek asylum during the detention period.

“I will try again”

Back in al-Mina, the family members remembered the anxious wait for their loved ones to return home. Ahmad’s mother did not receive any news from her son for a whole week after his departure. “I thought he was dead,” she said.

During the detention period, the families held several demonstrations in Tripoli, near the residences of Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, to demand that their relatives be released and brought home.

The Lebanese Interior Ministry issued brief public statements in which it said it was following up with the Turkish authorities and preparing the necessary paperwork.

At least three undocumented Syrians remained in Turkey and were released.

Those who are back in Lebanon find themselves worse off than before.

Ahmad’s mother told Al Jazeera she fears he will try again. Her concern is not unfounded.

“If I have the chance, I will try again for a second time,” says Ahmad.

“Or a third time, or even a fourth time, until it works.”

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