Vigil for shipwrecked refugees

A year after the coastguards first abandoned then facilitated the wrecking of a fishing vessel packed with refugees off the coast of Greece, Julia Bard spoke at a vigil outside the Greek embassy in London

Vigil for shipwrecked refugees

Greek Embassy, 14th December 2023

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this vigil. And thank you, Amnesty International, for your persistence in pursuing justice for the 600 refugees and other migrants who died when their boat was wrecked in Greek waters a year ago today. I know there are simultaneous vigils, rallies and events in Athens this evening and in other places across Europe.

Those people – women, children and men – should not have been forced to leave their homes. They should not have had to crowd on to a boat too small to accommodate them. They should not have been abandoned by a service whose task was to rescue them, and who could and should have saved them. And the traumatised survivors should never have been put on trial for crimes that were actually committed by the Greek authorities: authorities whose job was to save lives but instead decided to abandon a vessel that they knew had been in trouble for 12 hours.

We need to pay tribute to the knowledge, skill and courage of the campaigners and the lawyers who are supporting and advocating for the survivors, the victims, and their relatives in attempting to hold the Greek state to account for the criminal acts – and failure to act – which resulted in this catastrophe.

But this is part of a bigger picture, which has become more and more bleak in the year since this tragedy. A year in which political parties across Europe, including in Britain – and including the Labour Party – have tried to outbid each other in their dehumanisation of migrants and refugees, in their normalisation and acceptance of racism and incipient fascism.

Six months ago, like today, I spoke here on behalf of the Jewish Socialists’ Group. During that six months we’ve seen callousness and brutality meted out in the name of security, of protecting borders, of defending nation states, on a scale we never imagined we would witness. And in the last week, we’ve seen the far right make frightening political gains across Europe. The so-called moderate political parties have enabled those gains by themselves pursuing devastating policies that force people to migrate from their homes then demonising them when they arrive asking for sanctuary.

“Stop the boats” is a central campaigning slogan of the two main political parties. It’s a murderous mantra which belittles and dehumanises not only the hundreds of desperate people who lost their lives off the coast of Greece a year ago but the many thousands who have lost their lives trying to reach Italy, Britain and other countries where they should be safe.

There are a few politicians who are refusing to abandon their humanitarian principles, who would never tack to the right in pursuit of the most racist and disreputable votes. We’re less than three weeks from an election now, and we have a chance to demand better of our representatives. Whether they are in the main parties or standing as independent candidates, we must support and strengthen those who have the courage to challenge the received wisdom that our security depends on perpetual threats of war and constant “economic growth”.

I’m lucky to live in Islington North and to have Jeremy Corbyn as my MP. He, like Andrew Feinstein, Emma Dent Coad, and a few others, are doing what they’ve always done: stood firm in their support for migrants and refugees, in their challenge to racism – in their defence of the rights of all human beings, wherever they are or want or need to be, to be nurtured and welcomed so they can fulfil their potential and live in dignity.

As a Jewish socialist, I believe that my people’s long and varied history living as a minority in countries across the globe, is normal, and nation states, which are rather a recent innovation, are the anomaly. In the Jewish Socialists’ Group, most of us come from migrant families, some of whom came here as “illegal immigrants” when Britain refused to open its doors, and some who got here by the skin of their teeth before Britain enacted the first law against immigrants – the Aliens Act – in 1905.

What we have learnt is that our fate is bound up with the fate of everyone around us: that we must build strong relationships of solidarity in order to protect and defend our fellow human beings, whoever they are, wherever they come from in the world. Most of our politicians seem to believe that ordinary people are filled with hatred and suspicion for each other – and if we aren’t, they will do their best to set us against each other.

We know that this is not the way the world works. We are here at this vigil because we know that we need each other and will not allow ourselves to be divided. We will not blame each other for our difficulties or treat each other as less than human, but will stand united, alongside each other. Whether we’re marching through the streets, giving medical care, writing letters of protest, rescuing people on beaches or defending them in court, or getting decent representatives elected – we will defend our common humanity. Thank you for being part of that, and for being here today.

Author: julia bard  |   Posted: 15 June 2024
Topics: greek refugee deaths, pylos shipwreck