Surviving hell in Samos: Beaten, robbed, and pushed back from Greek ‘paradise’
Following a months-long investigation, Solomon has been able to locate and document for the first time the picturesque spot on the Greek island, where ten asylum seekers were detained, abused, and robbed by masked men before being cast adrift in the Aegean sea.
Tucked in the southeastern shore of Samos is a scenic bay called Klima. Unseen from the main road, a narrow pebbled beach is washed by the glassy blue waters of the Aegean. The spot, with its seaside taverna and a handful of lodgings, is a quiet and beautiful swimming spot during the summer.
It was in this idyllic backdrop, but in the stillness of wintertime, that a group of ten people would see the dark side of Greece’s paradisal island: on January 23, these ten men, women, and children would be beaten, stripped of their belongings, forced onto a boat and ultimately abandoned in a life raft mid-sea, fearing for their lives.
Like other Greek islands, Samos has become the backdrop for hair-raising accounts of violence against asylum seekers arriving on flimsy boats from Turkey. NGOs, international organisations, independent researchers, and media investigations have documented how people are routinely picked up by authorities, denied their right to request international protection, assaulted and robbed, ending up in life rafts cast adrift by masked men.
Reports of forced returns or pushbacks, as these illegal and inhumane practices are commonly called, have proliferated since the centre-right government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis came to power in 2019, vowing to combat migrant arrivals to the country.
The Greek PM recently regurgitated the mantra of Greek officials: “We don’t do pushbacks […] I have seen the allegations and I can tell you we have not been able to substantiate a single incident,” Mitsotakis told a German newspaper in the runup to the general elections scheduled for May 21.
Following months of research, Solomon has documented -based on interviews, testimonies, legal documents, confidential sources, and audiovisual evidence- the ordeal of this group of ten asylum seekers, who reached Samos in January 2023 believing Greece would provide them shelter only to be subjected to the violent and unlawful treatment Athens vehemently denies engaging with.
One of the survivors, 32-year-old Samah from Palestine, has since returned to Samos. She is determined to seek justice and see her tormentors punished.
“I came back to get justice”
It is a cold but bright February morning when Solomon meets Samah.
She is sitting in a lawyer’s office in the island’s capital, Vathy, her hands folded in her lap as she calmly recounts the harrowing events that unfolded on January 22, when their dinghy landed on a tree-lined part of Samos’s northeastern coast, at the location “Galazio” (means azure in Greek), and on the 23rd, the day of their pushback.
“I came back to get justice,” Samah says in a somber voice.
Originally from the Gaza Strip, Samah is a divorced mother of six. She had spent ten days in Turkey before she landed on the island, paying around $2,000 to a smuggler for the short but dangerous crossing from the west Anatolian coast.
She reached the island at night after a five-hour crossing in an inflatable dinghy with a group of nine other asylum seekers from Palestine, Syria, and Africa. Early the next morning, on January 23, the group sent a text message to a legal NGO on the island, asking for assistance.
The group provided the lawyers with their exact location and health concerns.
They also sent a short video from the spot. “Help me please, please help me,” says the man filming the 15-second video that Solomon has seen. The clip clearly shows Samah, and eight other asylum seekers lying in the bushes. According to later testimony, they were all exhausted, cold, dehydrated, and fearful.
Solomon went to the spot indicated by the refugees. The location, in a steep hillside of squat thickly branched trees, matched the group’s description and the video they had sent. Solomon also found several items on the ground – a comb, a pair of shoes, painkillers- that belonged to the group.
Robbed by men with balaclavas
The lawyers informed authorities of the arrival. Around noon, the group heard people calling out on a loudspeaker and thought help had arrived. Instead, the men who approached them -in black t-shirts, camouflage trousers, and balaclavas- searched them thoroughly and robbed them of their phones, money, and all valuables.
“We were tied with cables and put into the back of a van,” Samah says. The masked men drove the group to another location. The drive lasted roughly half an hour.
Samah gave a detailed description of their destination. After a months-long search across the island, Solomon was able to identify it: it was the beautiful cove of Klima, with its waterfront taverna, wood-beamed canopy, and T-shaped dock that Samah had described.
A number of cut cable ties were found and collected by the group’s lawyers at the scene. Security sources told Solomon that cable ties are used by Greek law enforcement as cheaper and readily available alternatives to handcuffs when authorities want to immobilise groups of people.
The violence escalated when the masked men found a hidden phone inside the socks of one of the members of the group, a 16-year-old boy from Syria. They took a knife and cut the boy’s trousers drawing blood, Samah recalls, subsequently hitting the minor with their batons.
One by one, the people were forced to strip down to their underwear. A woman who was found with a phone on her person was stripped fully naked by the men, who beat her in front of everyone. “She was crying and said she was pregnant,” says Samah. Only then did the men stop the beatings, according to court documents seen by Solomon.
The masked officials were all men as far as Samah could tell, apart from one tall, thin woman who watched the events unfold. The woman took off her mask briefly, Samah says, revealing her dark brown hair. Samah estimates she was in her early twenties.
The woman quickly put her mask on again when she noticed people were looking at her. Samah is confident she would recognise her if she saw her again. She also saw masked men taking photographs of the process on a phone.
Abandoned in a life raft with no motor
The group was then loaded from the wooden deck onto a boat, which, according to Samah’s descriptions, matched the Hellenic Coast Guard vessels seen in the harbour of Vathy. Half a dozen black-clad masked officers were manning the vessel.
The refugees were made to lie down on top of each other “like sardines”, in rows of three. At no point, according to their testimonies, were they offered food, water, or medical assistance or asked if they wanted to request international protection.
After cruising towards the Turkish coast for about half an hour, the masked men stopped the vessel. They cast an engineless life raft to the sea and threw Samah and the others onto it. The Coast Guard vessel left the scene minutes later, after creating waves to make the raft drift into Turkish waters.
The refugees were abandoned without life jackets or even a phone to call for help. According to their testimonies, they were scared and cold, with no boat in sight promising a quick rescue. “We feared the night would fall upon us while drifting,” Samah says. The group would be picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard at around 3 PM – after spending more than two agonising hours adrift.
According to a source with direct knowledge of the incident, the Greek Coast Guard notified the coordinates of the liferaft to their Turkish counterparts, asking them to conduct a rescue. Solomon has seen photos and videos of the rescue operation that ensued on January 23.
In the video, Samah is clearly visible, as is the life raft which matches the type used in other documented cases of pushbacks.
Solomon has also seen official documents and communications recording the exact location where the group was picked up by the TCG – 5,5 miles off the coastal town of Kuşadasi.
From the group’s registration records by the Turkish authorities that were reviewed by Solomon, ten names are noted: No 5 on the list is Samah.The group were offered first aid and then taken to a detention facility in Turkey from where they were released three days later.
Samah made it back to Samos on January 28, risking another journey in a dinghy. This time she made it to the island’s refugee camp. She has now tasked attorneys to seek justice on her behalf. Lawyers from the Human Rights Legal Project are filing a lawsuit to the local prosecutor asserting torture and endangerment of life among a long list of criminal offences.
“It is very disappointing that for two years we hear the same stories with an escalation of violence,” Ioanna Begiazi, a lawyer with the Human Rights Legal Project, told Solomon.
In a written response, the Hellenic Coast Guard said its officers’ actions are carried out “with respect for everyone’s life and human rights. As for the tendentious allegations of supposed illegal actions”, the reply stated, “we must emphasize that the operation practices of the Greek authorities have never included such actions”.
The response concludes that “no such incident, as described in your request, took place”.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told Solomon that between January 2020 and June 2022, they recorded some “690 reported incidents of summary forced returns, which present credible elements” at Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey.
UNHCR said it has submitted a number of these reports to the Greek authorities asking for the incidents to be formally investigated.
“Human rights used to be important in the EU”
These flat-out denials “have lost all credibility”, according to Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld. A member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, in ‘t Veld chaired a delegation on a mission to Greece in March to evaluate the state of the rule of law and fundamental rights in the country.
In their draft report, the MEPs call the treatment of migrants in Greece “highly unsettling” referring extensively to the practice of pushback.
“Human rights used to be important in the EU. Apparently not anymore. Pushbacks are a gross violation of these rights and values, and are regrettably systematic in Greece and other EU member states,” in ‘t Veld told Solomon.
“As the enforcer of EU law, the Commission should launch an infringement procedure against Greece.”
In Klima, on the spot where Samah was violently brought to after being abducted just months previously, locals and tourists will soon be swimming in the bay’s glassy waters in blissful ignorance.
Meanwhile, Samah is recovering from her ordeal. “I’m still in a big shock about what happened,” she says, explaining that she came to Europe to help her six children who are still in Palestine.
“I had no idea this sort of thing happened to people. When I arrived here, I thought I would be safe.”