Leros: Island of Exile

Published

On January 20, 2014, Fadi Mohamed, a teacher and displaced individual from Afghanistan stood still on the concrete peer of an island he didn’t know: Leros, Greece. In a video issued by Greek NGOs, he seems lost and stays silent the entire time coast guard officers wearing surgical masks and gloves, deliver protein cans and water bottles to those on the peer. Fadi had just lost his wife and three children, when Gönzuru, the small fishing boat that was carrying them from the Turkish shore to Greek territory and the “safety” of European soil, capsized near the island of Farmakonisi, 12 nautical miles northeast of Leros. In total 11 Afghan civilians died that day, 8 of them children under the age of 12.

In the following press conference on January 25 in Athens, the 16 survivors blamed the Greek maritime security force. Amnesty International together with multiple Greek and European NGOs, argued that there was sufficient evidence to bring this case to court, at minimum to further investigate serious human rights violations that took place in the cold, wintry waters of the Aegean Sea. The migrants claimed that the coast guard not only failed to help but caused their already sinking boat to capsize when attempting to tow them back to Turkish waters at high speed. They testified that the coast guard, when realizing that the vessel was sinking, cut the rope and left them to drown. Only when the stronger migrants fought back and started climbing onto the coast guard boat, did they rescue survivors and reportedly the officers fired in the air and pushed and kicked people away from the rescue boat.

Smaller than 4 square kilometers, with a population of 10 people (2011 survey), Farmakonisi belongs to the municipality of Leros. Nicknamed the “biscuit island” due to the unsavoury practice of Greek military illegally selling refugees biscuits, Farmakonisi is the point where smugglers abandon refugees — it is close enough to Leros to be collected and processed, but safe from the risk of prosecution and imprisonment. The municipality has a total population of 7,900 and, like all of the Dodecanese archipelago and the adjacent Turkish coast, it is heavily militarized. The small isolated Farmakonisi army unit, stationed on a 10-day rotation, belongs to the notorious special forces regiment in Partheni in northern Leros, a ground marked by postwar political conflicts — a space of displacement, incarceration and torture.