Crete and Gavdos: the possibility of a new smuggling route and the hypocrisy behind migration agreements

Written by Alice Ugolini, long-term at OCC Greece.

For the last twenty years or so, boats that leave Libya generally head towards Italy through the Mediterranean migration route. However, during the past months, more and more ships from the North African country have reached Greece, in the two islands of Crete and Gavdos.

UNHCR data shows that since the beginning of 2024, more than 1300 people reached by sea the southern shores of the islands, piling up the pressure on ill-equipped authorities and creating what might become a new smuggling route in the Mediterranean Sea.

The most concerned arrival points are Agia Galini (Rethymno) and Kalou Limenes (Heraklion) in Crete, and the beaches of the small island of Gavdos1.

Resource: UNHCR, Operational Data Portal, April 22th, 2024

Trafficking rings

For the people reaching the islands, the journey begins long before they go out into the open sea. 

Mainly coming from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Egypt, they enter Libya, where they must pay sum ranging from 2,000€ to 5,000€ per person to a trafficking ring to leave the shores of Tobruk via overcrowded old boats. The crossing of around 200 km takes at least 36 hours. Whether they will be able to arrive depends directly upon the weather conditions.

Boats are frequently steered by a person from the group, usually someone paying the least to smugglers or being violently threatened, who not only risks their life at sea but also risks Greek prison at the arrival due to accusations of being a trafficker.

The Press Project (TPP)  sources say that some people arriving in Crete think they are in Italy, having been deceived by trafficking rings. The trafficking rings also promise large and safe boats and in the end they end up with dozens to hundreds of people crammed into small and old wooden or iron boats.

Resource: Google Maps, 2024

Reception procedures

The accommodation procedure differs depending on the coastline where people arrive.

Gavdos

The geographical isolation of the island makes care and temporary accommodation strongly difficult for the local government, especially because the supplies arrival by boat strictly depends on the weather and strong winds.

People reside in abandoned buildings until the pre-trial procedure, which usually takes two days, is completed.

Kalou Limenes, Heraklion and Agia Galini, Rethymno

Once they reach the port of each village, people are transported (by bus if needed) to Heraklion2. There, they are temporarily accommodated in a former bus station now owned by the Heraklion Port Authority, without any essential services. The Red Cross is present to cover basic sanitary needs and UNHCR sends non-food items to meet basic necessities. Food is still based on volunteerism and municipalities’ cooperation.

PROKEKAs (Pre-Departure Detention Centres)

Resource: Google Maps, 2024

Once the preliminary investigation process is completed, which is often too short and does not look for the real trafficking schemes, accusing who was driving the boat of being the smuggler themselves, people are taken to PROKEKAs (Pre-Departure Detention Centres) in Athens (Amygdaleza) by commercial ships, accompanied by one Coast Guard officer for every four people.

Here is where a flaw in the system occurs: people essentially end up as administrative detainees. Other procedures are arbitrarily omitted, as under the law they should normally get access to Reception and Identification Centres (RICs), where they could apply to ask for asylum in Greece, an application that is mandatory to be lodged in person.

The asylum procedure should proceed, and only if this is deemed unacceptable should they risk ending up in these structures. 

The three-year EU-Egypt strategic migration deal

On March 17th, 2024, EU leaders sealed a €7.4 billion deal with Egypt to support the country’s economy in preventing people’s departures towards Europe. Six EU leaders, including the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, went to Cairo to sign the three-year agreement that represents another attempt to stop people crossing the Mediterranean.

European governments have long been worried about the risk of instability in Egypt, a country whose economic adversity has pushed increasing numbers to leave in recent years and which, according to UNHCR data, hosts about 9 million displaced people.

Human Rights Watch wrote that the EU deal with Egypt “rewards authoritarianism” and “betrays EU Values”: since taking power in a 2013 coup and becoming President of Egypt in 2014, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi implemented a government of strong oppression, jailing and torture, which is now rewarded with European institutions hypocrite support.

Details of the pact are under negotiation, but the message is clear: stop people on the move at all costs, ignoring abuses and violence implemented by partner countries at the borders.

Joint meeting of Giorgia Meloni (Prime Minister of Italy), Ursula von der Leyen (President of the European Commission), Nikos Christodoulidīs (President of the Republic of Cyprus), Alexander De Croo (First Minister of Belgium), Karl Nehammer (Federal Chancellor of Austria), Kyriakos Mītsotakīs (Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic) with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the President of Egypt.

Resource: Governo Italiano, Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri, March 17th, 2024

The demonstration that migration pacts can’t work as “deterrents”

Once again, the reality of migration routes proves that pacts such as the EU-Egypt migration deal do not reduce the number of people leaving their countries as the reasons for fleeing are much stronger than the possible fear of what is thought by EU institutions to be “deterrents”. Crete and Gavdos’s emerging contexts represent very strong examples.

As the Greece-Turkey pact, Frontex’s cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard, and the EU agreements with Mauritania and Tunisia did not limit the flows but only increased border violence and push-backs, the new agreement will not represent a long-term plan in compliance with human rights. It will only express the EU’s complicity in the abuses and deaths of people forced to reach their future in illegal ways without any other choice.

It is probably too soon to say whether the Libya-Crete trajectory will become a new established route and the question of creating a Reception and Identification Centre in Crete has not yet been raised, but as arrivals are expected to increase during the summer months when the weather will improve, the matter of resources on the islands is to be seriously addressed or people will continue paying the price of an approach not taking into account the value of their lives.

  1. Gasvos is a 29.6 km² island located to the South of Crete, of which it is administratively a part, in the regional unit of Chania ↩︎
  2. Locals report the process takes place in the early hours of the morning with a strong police presence and Red Cross teams. They also suggest this could be done in order to give poor visibility to what is happening and to avoid any possible resident’ protests. ↩︎

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