Interview by Argiris Panagopoulos published today on AVGI, SYRIZA's newspaper
Iasonas Apostolopoulos, Mediterranea and MSF rescue coordinator: EUROPE FINANCES CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
“It is unacceptable to cancel a person’s decoration for criticising the government. In fact, when this happens on the anniversary of the fall of the military junta, with pressure behind the scenes and with the entire far right celebrating even before the decision to cancel the decoration is announced, it is clear that the far right has strengthened itself at centre stage by influencing even two centre-right figures, such as the foreign minister and, even more seriously, the president of the republic, who have completely submitted to the logic of exclusion of the extreme right,” stressed Iasonas Apostolopoulos from the Doctors Without Borders ship in the port of Augusta, Sicily, in which he is a rescue team leader.
“In the Aegean, after March 2002, a great innovation was started for the first time in the world: the Coast Guard not only does not save, but also causes shipwrecks. In fact, people arrive on the Greek islands alone and disappear,” added Iasonas Apostolopoulos, who has distinguished himself outside Greece by working on the Mare Jonio rescue ship, which has also received praise from Pope Francis.
Q: We have learned in recent days that you are an ‘aggressive critic’ and that is why you should not take the medal from the president of the republic, but since you are in the port of Augusta in Sicily, you have reminded me that crimes of opinion existed only during fascism and then everyone became a free citizen.
I think they shouldn’t underestimate people. Many people were indignant, because they were basically asking for a certificate of social conduct, my opinion had to be the same as theirs or be declared as such. Those who are not in line with state policy must be eliminated. This is what they told us. Between democratic inclusion and far-right exclusion, far-right exclusion won at the highest levels of the state, but fortunately not in society. I was surprised by the solidarity and support I received in Greece and beyond…
Ultimately, the paradox would be instead to reward me, not to reward me, because what we do has a very strong political character, unfortunately, because we have reached the point where saving lives at sea has become a political act. We take people out of the water because the ‘official’ states refuse to do so. We preside over a constitutional obligation of states, but the lives of refugees and immigrants do not count as those of Europeans. I wish we didn’t have to exist and that the authorities would do what they have to do.
Q: Today you are on the Doctors Without Borders ship, because the ship you were on before, the Mare Jonio, was hijacked..
The persecution and criminalisation of rescues is another major problem in the anti-immigration policies of European governments. Obstructing the rescues we carry out increases the death toll in the Mediterranean. When more people die at sea, they think it will deter others from coming.
The criminalisation of rescue began in March 2017 by PD minister Marco Minniti and the agreement he signed with Libya, and culminated with Matteo Salvini, who closed ports and arrested ship captains, considering them accomplices of the traffickers.
What can one say in the face of these miseries? Even Pope Francis himself wrote a letter to Luca Casarini, addressing all of us who save lives and not just the Mediterranea, where we were at the Ionian Sea, telling us that he was beside us. Is the leader of such a large religious community also a trafficker of immigrants?
Q: Minniti used to call you ‘immigrants’ taxi drivers’ and then Salvini arrived..
Exactly, the wildest expression of the same policies arrived. The policy is the same, but it takes different forms. With the Draghi government they found a more cunning way to stop rescue ships, a more technocratic way, which has to do with a more bureaucratic function of state repression.
With Port Authority inspections they can stop us for the slightest violation, for any technical irregularity, related to refugee safety. This is their new trick. Ports are not closed with Salvini’s racist ravings. Now we are told that they have no problem with rescues, but they control the ships in such a way as to prevent them from sailing. This is something similar to what the Greek Police – ELAS says, throwing refugees out into the streets because they are not living in proper conditions in the buildings they were living in. We are talking about Orwellian situations.
Q: However, they accuse you of collaborating with traffickers..
If there is anyone who collaborates with traffickers and their gangs, it is the official European states who openly and publicly finance some bandits with Kalashnikovs from Libya, people who with countless evidence are involved in kidnapping, torture, rape, mass rape. In Libya we have regular slave markets, militias that kidnap people and keep them in private prisons and sell them for all kinds of hard labour. An African immigrant sells himself for about 400 dollars.
I have not rescued a single sub-Saharan African who has not told me that he would rather jump into the sea than go back to Libya. When I was on the Mare Jonio, most of the women as soon as they came on board asked us for a pregnancy test to see if they were pregnant because they had been raped by many different rapists. Unfortunately, all and sundry of the women were raped. Many times a woman is raped in front of her husband as torture.
Almost once a month, executions are carried out in prisons to ‘make room’, executing those who are not sold. We are talking about the same slavery as in the 18th century. These gangs are financed by European governments and authorities. Europe thinks that the detention centres in Libya are a lever to stem the flow of migrants because of the fear and the “barbaric” reputation they have acquired. Europe finances crimes against humanity.
Q: You are now on the Médecins Sans Frontières ship, which, as you say, has just been released. What does this mean?
The ship is new and has just rescued 410 refugees. The ship is a new 78-metre monster with a helipad, and it is the most modern and seaworthy civil society ship the Mediterranean has ever seen. However, they found irregularities. These were political rather than technical controls, by a group specialising in NGO ships, coming from Genoa, in violation of the provisions of the law that states that the control of ships is the responsibility of the port services of the port in which they are located.
Q: Whether we are talking about the Sicilian Channel or the Aegean, it seems that the Mediterranean is an open graveyard for Europe..
This is exactly what is happening. The policy of the European Union is common to its borders and is based on prevention, of turning refugees and immigrants into illegals, of excluding them, it wants the non-inclusion of people and their exploitation as cheap labour. Nothing to do with the protection of human rights.
We read in newspapers and on websites all over the world about Greece: “Boats arrive, people disappear”. The Greek authorities catch them and put them in hidden places and warehouses and before long they are in the middle of the Aegean Sea, in inflatable rescue boats. They use a rescue tool to torture people and put them in danger. Talk about mob behaviour. In October 2020, refugees called the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Lesvos and were told where they were. UNHCR informed the Greek authorities and the refugees disappeared. UNHCR was eventually forced to publish announcements about the disappearances of migrants who had come into contact with the High Commission from Greek territory, with detailed descriptions of the landscapes and places where they were.
Q: You have said many times you know what is happening in Greece from the foreign media writing about the refugee situation.
In Greece it seems to me that there is an omertà. A veil of silence, this is not censorship. What is happening is a crime, and a serious one, like kidnapping, and the perpetrators should be prosecuted.
Q: No judicial authorities seem to be interested in the complaints..
They don’t seem to want to see or hear. It’s only the NGOs that are talking, and especially the small NGOs, such as Alarm Phone, Sea Watch and others. All these NGOs are in the crosshairs of the state. Within a year there have been three police operations against NGOs on Lesvos, while there are no refugees. The supportive people of Lesvos have made public the illegal rejections. Mare Liberum alone made public 300 of them. They were attacked by the Greek Coast Guard, their ship was smashed to pieces and their laptops were confiscated.
We learn that 35 people in solidarity run the risk of seeing their struggles criminalised and penalised, but we have yet to see any prosecutor proceed with prosecutions and indictments. They just want to intimidate and terrorize the solidarists and the people close to them. They are trying to preserve the denialist narrative of bad NGOs taking money from Soros and to divert attention from illegal returns by bringing charges against solidarity people.
In the last five months there has been no shortage of good news. Frontex is referred to a landmark case before the EU court for refoulements in Greek waters. Greece does not dare to speak, but the case against Frontex has begun. We have five cases against Greece at the Strasbourg Court and one at the Hague Tribunal for crimes against humanity committed by Greece. The issue is open and there are many voices in Europe calling on Greece to stop illegal rejections. The only hope for some humanity in Europe can only be based on movements and solidarity from below. In Palermo we tried to unite and build bridges between the movements of the sea and those of the land. The possibilities of reception in Europe are enormous. For example, more than 100 German cities want to welcome refugees, but the German government denies it.