The secret pushback “prisons” on the ferries of the Greece-Italy route
A month-long cross-border investigation, coordinated by Lighthouse Reports, reveals for the first time the secret rooms of the passenger ships, in which hundreds of asylum seekers are illegally deported from Italy to Greece.
On the deck of the passenger ship that has just sailed from Venice towards the ports of Igoumenitsa and Patras, one afternoon last summer, the atmosphere is cheerful.
Groups of travellers are drinking cold beer, young people are reading their books on hammocks, couples are taking selfies, children are running around and playing.
Passengers seem to be in good spirits – but not all of them.
Two levels down there is a room, the existence of which is unknown to the tens of thousands of passengers who travel on this ship every year. Access to it is prevented by a heavy, steel door – the only door on the entire ship that, in addition to the lock, is externally locked with a latch.
Asylum seekers –including unaccompanied children– who are found to have secretly boarded the ship from Greek ports bound for Italy spend up to 50 hours locked up here, as they are returned to Greece on the same ship, in violation of international law.
They are forced to sign documents in a language they do not understand or answer questions without an interpreter. Their mobile phones, personal belongings, belts, and shoes are taken away. In some cases, they are handcuffed. In most cases, they have no information about what is happening.
We located 14 cases, talked to ferry staff and sources at the ports, travelled between the two countries over and over again, and managed to locate and visually capture the ‘prisons’ – as both staff and asylum seekers call the places where those being pushed back are held.
Today, we reveal for the first time, the hidden rooms of the ships on the line between Greece and Italy, which are used to carry out the lesser-known pushbacks in Europe.
Pushed back with no explanation
Mahdi thought he had made it.
After some 20 days of fruitless attempts at the port of Patras, one day last May he had finally managed to get past the heightened security measures, jump the last barbed wire fence, and slip through without being seen into the wheels of a truck that then boarded the Superfast Ferries Asterion II bound for Venice.
He completed 30 hours in hiding as the ship approached its destination. But, after the ship docked, and the trucks began to unload, the light of a flashlight during an inspection by the Italian authorities revealed the spot where he was hidden.
Mahdi says he was held in a police building in the port for about three hours. There, with the help of an interpreter, he was asked why he had left Afghanistan, why he had not stayed in Greece. When they asked him if he wanted to stay in Italy, he said he did. They took his mobile phone and shoes, they took his fingerprints, and took pictures of the tattoos on his hands.
Mahdi has lived in Greece for about four years , where he arrived as an unaccompanied minor. He came of age and decided to try his luck elsewhere in Europe when he received a second negative response – not to his asylum request as such, but to the very possibility of the request being considered, in the context of Greece’s unilateral declaration of Turkey as a safe country for Afghan nationals.
He said he was taken back to Asterion II, where without any explanation the crew members locked him in a room where “you can’t tell where the sky or the ground is” because there is no window.
He said the only way he had a sense of time, while returning to Greece, was “because they brought food three times a day”.
And he said there were messages written on the walls of the room where he was locked up, from other asylum seekers who had also been found trying to reach Italy irregularly and had been returned to Greece on the same boat.
“They have written as a reminder that ‘this name, on this date, was deported from Italy’.” Mahdi used a Greek word to explain how they were writing: plakaki, tile. “The material is tile, they have broken some parts of it, and they write with it.”
The old toilets that became the “prison” of Asterion II
Mahdi’s testimony was confirmed by Ramin, who says he was pushed back on the same ship in January 2022, the one and only time he managed to successfully sneak into a truck at the port of Patras.
“I arrived in Italy after 34 hours under the truck,” he said. “Because I’m tall I couldn’t move because they would see me. So when they took me out of the truck I couldn’t feel my legs.”
The first thing authorities in Venice did was put his cell phone on charge, ask him to unlock it, and look through his messages and photos. They removed his belt, and his shoes, and kept his phone and whatever money he had (it was given back to him in Greece).
Before they were forced to return to the ship, both Mahdi and Ramin got a brief glimpse of the country they risked their lives to reach, as both say they were driven to be tested for Covid-19.
They both confirmed the location of the “prison” on Asterion II, in which they spent the long return. On the outside, the “prison” is covered with photos of popular Greek summer resorts. Practically without realizing it, every passenger who climbs the escalators from the garage passes through it on arrival.
“Inside there’s a room with three toilets that are no longer in use, and that’s where they kept me,” Ramin said. “It smelled really bad, you could tell it was a toilet.”
For asylum seekers there are two mattresses. Ramin said his mattress was full of insects, which he killed.
There is a broken toilet, and worker and victim testimonies mention a washbasin, which we were also able to record.
In a photo we showed him, Mahdi identified the crew member who brought him food. And who, although not allowed, agreed to give him a cigarette “because he spoke a little Greek”.
The prisons of Superfast I and Superfast II
In the framework of a months-long journalistic investigation, we collected testimonies of victims who attest that the same practice is also carried out on other ships of companies that operate between the ports of Greece (Patras, Igoumenitsa) and Italy (Bari, Ancona, Brindisi, Venice).
Following interviews with victims of pushbacks, we were able to identify and visually record for the first time the “prisons” on two other Superfast ships, the Superfast I and Superfast II.
The illustration below shows the location of the “prisons” on each ship.
In Superfast II, asylum seekers are held in a place where rubbish is collected. Previously, one victim had managed to take a selfie from the spot where the crew had allegedly handcuffed him.
We went to the same spot.
Our visuals match the environment in the selfie, with the similarities e.g. being found in the marks on the worn wall behind the asylum seeker (see the cross or the grey drips that form in the photo below).
Company employees have confirmed that the Superfast II “prison” is located on this level.
On the Superfast I, asylum seekers are held inside a metal structure with a wire roof, located at garage level on one of the lower decks. During the summer months, the heat is unbearable.
Victims can sleep on a piece of cardboard. In interviews, victims identified the room as the place where they had been held and claimed that they had been given only a bottle of water and a croissant or banana.
Photos and videos from our visits to the room match the asylum seekers’ descriptions. Words in Kurmanji can be seen on the metal wall.
The Greece-Italy agreement that violates international law
In recent years, the pushbacks of people seeking asylum, in violation of international law, have been increasingly documented as a state practice across Europe.
But what is interesting about the process of pushbacks from Italy to Greece is that all main steps (the possible identification of asylum seekers on board, their transfer to closed detention facilities, their handover first to the Italian and then to the Greek authorities) are not carried out by a state agency.
There is no Greek or Italian security force present on board the ships. They are carried out by members of the crew in what appears to be a peculiar -and probably the only in Europe- privatised floating pushback system.
In a written response, the Greek Coast Guard provided the steps, confirming the findings of our investigation:
“In the case of readmissions of migrants from Italy to Greece, the Italian authorities hand over the migrants, who have left Greece illegally, to the captain of the vessel on which they were found. After the ship has docked at the port of Patras or Igoumenitsa, the captain hands them over to members of the Greek Coast Guard, who inform the local Public Prosecutor’s Office. Subsequently, the aforementioned officers hand over the migrants to the Greek Police.”
The basis for this practice is allegedly a bilateral ‘readmission’ agreement between the two countries, which has been in force since 1999 although it has not been ratified by the Italian parliament.
The agreement stipulates that Italy can return to Greece migrants who have arrived from Greece. However, experts pointed out that it has “no legal basis” and cannot be applied to asylum seekers as it is a violation of the right to freedom and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
Sarah Progin-Theuerkauf, professor of European migration law at the University of Freiburg, said the agreement lacked legitimacy “as detention and deprivation of liberty in this case is simply not covered by any legal basis”.
“The persons should be brought to the correct procedure in Italy, and then there are also possibilities for legal protection,” she commented. “Therefore, they should be given a decision. There should be a legal basis for sending them back to Greece.”
Italy’s conviction at the European Court of Justice
In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that Italy acted illegally when, under the bilateral agreement, it pushed back 35 asylum seekers who had travelled to Greece irregularly.
In the case “Sharifi and Others v. Italy and Greece”, the ECtHR found that the individuals had been subjected to violence by the police and the crew of the boats on which they were returned, that they had not been given the opportunity to apply for asylum in Italy, and that Italy had illegally carried out collective expulsions of asylum seekers to an ‘unsafe’ country.
The European Court held that, when implementing bilateral agreements concerning the return of asylum seekers to another EU country, member states cannot ignore or circumvent their obligations under the ECHR.
Since then, Italy has repeatedly claimed that this practice has stopped. And it is pushing for an end to the monitoring of border procedures put in place at its ports following the conviction, claiming that such violations no longer take place.
The chief of the Bari police, Giovanni Signer, argued that the rights of those who arrive in Italy irregularly and do not belong to EU countries are guaranteed.
“They are guaranteed assistance, immediate health protection and, if they decide to apply for asylum or international protection, the procedures start here in Italy,” he said. He repeatedly assured that the possibility of applying for asylum is provided, and said only those who do not wish to do so are returned to Greece.
He denied reports of asylum seekers being forced into readmission, arguing that on the one hand this would be in complete contradiction to the guidelines given, and on the other hand the uniformed officers would face criminal charges for such actions.
“I can assure you, at least as far as the state police are concerned, that no police officer wants to take such responsibility,” he said. On detention conditions inside the ships, he blamed the ferry companies.
Hundreds of victims, informal procedures
According to the data provided by the Greek Coast Guard, at least 231 people have been pushed back from Italy to Greece in the last two years:
In 2022, 57 migrants were returned to the port of Igoumenitsa and 17 to the port of Patras,
In 2021, 115 migrants were returned to the port of Igoumenitsa and 42 to the port of Patras
Regardless of the starting point, the majority of the victims return to the port of Igoumenitsa, where the first stop of the itineraries takes place. Asylum seekers are then detained for a few hours to a few days in a building at the port, and then usually released.
The authorities’ figures should be taken with a pinch of salt, as victims often claim that they were returned without signing any documents. Lawyer Erminia Rizzi, an expert on immigration issues, said that “these pushbacks are very often carried out in a violent way, also accompanied by detention”.
She said they are “invisible to everyone, because no one has access to this area, not even the organisations that, by mandate, should be present in the port”. She added that there is one person from an organisation in the port of Bari who speaks English and all African languages, but no one who speaks Pashtun, Dari, Farsi or Kurdish.
“The law states that [asylum seekers] must be legally informed […] How is it possible to inform these people of their rights if there are no mediators at the border crossings who speak the languages of these people?” he said.
Attica Group’s replies
The ships Asterion II, Superfast I and Superfast II, on which we visually recorded the “prisons” used for the return of asylum seekers from Italy to Greece, belong to Superfast Ferries, which is a subsidiary of the Attica Group, together with Blue Star Ferries and Hellenic Seaways.
According to its Annual Financial Report for 2021, Attica Group is the largest Greek passenger shipping group and one of the ten largest in Europe, with a turnover of €348 million in the same year. In the period 2014-2021, Attica Group received over €193 million in state subsidies.
Based on the information that emerged from the media investigation, we sent extensive questions to the group.
We received the reply that “Attica Group is widely known for the high quality services it provides to its ships, in full compliance with national and international legislation at all levels of operation. Embedded in our culture are the values of integrity, respect for human life and dignity, and protection of the safety of all persons on board.”
The group said it takes “very seriously the allegations” we have presented, which it assured us it will “further investigate”. At the same time, “and without prejudice to our rights in relation to unsubstantiated allegations made against our company”, it urged us to avoid “any publication that could damage Attica Group’s reputation”.
We thanked Attica Group for its response, but also asked for answers to the specific questions we had raised.
Two days after Attica Group had conveyed to us its intention to look into what we had reported, it categorically denied that such practices were occurring on any of its ships, without offering any specifics.
In the same email, the group “advised” us not to publish these “false allegations”.
“Should you nevertheless choose to publish such a report, which we again advise you to avoid, we urge you to first ensure that you do not in any way, explicitly or implicitly, associate it with Attica Group and/or any of its member companies and their vessels,” the reply concluded, in which the group reserved “all rights”.
Children pushed back too
During his interview, the chief of the Bari police, Giovanni Signer, said that the returns do not concern minors: “Minors arriving in Italy remain in Italy and readmission in their case is not applicable.”
Baloosh is a shy young boy, who lowers his eyes slightly when shaking hands with older people. He lives in one of the abandoned factories in front of the port of Patras, housing those who try their luck at the “game” of trying to successfully hide in a truck that will board a ferry to an Italian destination.
A document certifies he will be 17 in a few months, and that he used to live in a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Greece. He left Afghanistan about a year and a half ago. For the last six months, he has been here for the “game”, with the aim of reaching his brother in the UK.
Once, just like Mahdi, just like Ramin, he thought he had made it. A friend even informed his family back home of the great news, as the ship he had been hiding on was sailing to Italy.
But when the refrigerated cargo ship where he had been hiding pulled into the port of Ancona, he was spotted.
He was not questioned, he said, not fingerprinted. He was simply put in a small dark room; no bed, no food, just a small fan. “And they sent me back to Greece by boat, illegally. They didn’t ask me at all about my asylum claim or anything else.”
“I told them this is Europe”
The “game” from the ports of Patras or Igoumenitsa sometimes costs lives. The temperatures in the garage, where those who manage to get inside the ships are forced to remain hidden, are suffocating.
However, it is perhaps the only solution for those who cannot afford or don’t have the stamina for the Balkan route.
Last July, a 15-year-old boy died when he was hidden in a lorry with bicycles in the port of Igoumenitsa when he could not stand the temperature. According to reports, it was another unaccompanied child who had left the hostel to continue on to their destination in Europe.
Ramin is worried. He has been alone in Greece since his mother left in 2019, when his father and brother, who made it to Germany earlier, managed to have his mother transferred there through family reunification.
If the process was completed before he came of age, he could have accompanied her himself. By plane. He is now trying to reach Italy, then cross over to Germany. But his father is angry with him, he can’t understand why he’s taking so long.
“When the police caught me, I told them this is Europe, I want to go see my parents in Germany,” he says. “And they replied that this is Italy. Here we have our own laws.”