Dark Waters of the Aegean: 1,018 illegal pushbacks carried out by the Greek state

It has become a common practice for Greek authorities to abandon asylum seekers at sea, which has resulted in injuries and drownings. An interactive map reveals the recurring crime committed across the Aegean Sea. The Greek government must explain how abducting people in need and abandoning them in life rafts is linked to international law and European values.
Dark Waters of the Aegean: 1,018 illegal pushbacks carried out by the Greek state
It has become a common practice for Greek authorities to abandon asylum seekers at sea, which has resulted in injuries and drownings. An interactive map reveals the recurring crime committed across the Aegean Sea. The Greek government must explain how abducting people in need and abandoning them in life rafts is linked to international law and European values.
Proof read: Gigi Papoulias

The recent condemnation of Greece by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for an incident that occured near Farmakonisi in 2014, where eleven asylum seekers died at sea when the boat they were in was forced back to Turkey by a Greek coast guard vessel, brings the country face to face with a dark reality of the last decade.

People on the move making the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece have for years been subjected to unprecedented violence including forced detention, arbitrary arrest, beatings, and denial of assistance.

Although political leadership has denied any wrongdoing, illegal pushbacks and their violent practices are now increasingly documented as an operational practice of the Greek authorities, through journalistic investigations and reports by international organisations.

Since March 2020, a new illegal method of escalating violence has been added to the tactics of the Greek authorities.

Asylum seekers, including women, men, and children, are detected by the coast guard and police while at sea or even days after they arrive on Greek territory. They are arrested without being given the right (which is provided for by international law) to claim asylum. They are beaten and mistreated by officers in uniform (but without insignia), who take their money, mobile phones, and personal belongings; and then they are forced to board life rafts, which are pushed into Turkish waters to be picked up by the Turkish coast guard (examples of rescues here, here, here, and here).

In just two years, the Greek authorities carried out 1,018 pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, with at least 27,464 asylum seekers as victims; 1,018 instances of illegal action carried out by the Greek state against people in need.

This is the reality captured by the new interactive platform of Forensic Architecture, the pioneering research centre based at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Forensis, its newly founded sister organisation in Berlin, which Solomon presents today.

1,018 pushbacks in the Aegean in just two years

The platform covers the period from March 2020 to March 2022.

The majority of illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers to Turkey are recorded in the wider Lesvos region, where 386 incidents are attributed. Samos follows with 194, Chios with 126, Kos with 120, and Rhodes and the rest of the Dodecanese with 89 and 86 incidents, respectively.

Despite official denials for the past two years, Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, remains exposed, as its own operational records show it to have been directly involved in at least 122 incidents and have knowledge of another 417, which it attempts to camouflage as “entry deterrents” in official records.

In at least three cases, the process of illegal pushback appears to have been carried out with the knowledge of a German NATO ship. There are also 26 recorded cases in which asylum seekers were thrown into the sea by the coast guard –  two of the victims of these deportations were found handcuffed.

Image: View of the interactive map depicting the recorded pushbacks in the wider area of Lesvos.

 

According to the data, ten people drowned during their illegal pushback in a boat without an engine, and four remain missing.

In recent weeks, Solomon has gained access to the voluminous material and studied the evidence from the months-long investigation by Forensic Architecture and Forensis.

Today, we show how the Aegean has now become a site of human rights abuses; how an entire sea, historically linked to hospitality and movement of populations, is becoming a site of repeated criminal practices by the Greek authorities.

The geographical area in which these illegal practices are carried out no longer concerns only the eastern maritime borders of the country, but extends westwards as far as the Mani and Kalamata coasts, and southwards as far as Crete.

The investigation's four main sources

a) FRONTEX’s own JORA (Joint Operations Reporting Application) database, obtained in the form of a redacted spreadsheet by Lighthouse Reports through a FOI request, and which covers the period March 2020 – August 2021,

b) the monitoring efforts of Alarm Phone and Aegean Boat Report who receive images and location coordinates directly from asylum seekers crossing the Aegean Sea,

c) the website of the Turkish Coast Guard, who document the drifting vessels their crews come upon daily, and upload the visual material along with a brief report on their website,

d) additional material was sourced and shared by local monitors, media and activists, and from Open Source research, including from previously published investigations by Bellingcat, Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, BBC, Al Jazeera and the New York Times.

Pushed back although they were 400 km away from Turkey

On July 4, 2021, a ship arrived at Stavrotos, on the southeastern side of the island of Antikythera.

On board were 35 Kurdish asylum seekers, women, men, and children, who had sailed from the coast of Turkey the day before, and were forced to abandon the boat after it broke down.

They recorded their arrival on a rocky area of the small island, on video and images.

 

Local media also documented the arrival of the asylum seekers. The arrival of six coast guard vessels was also recorded. Despite the efforts of local journalists to find out about the fate of the 35 people, and questions from opposition MPs, the authorities maintained silence throughout the days that followed.

Two days later, the Turkish coast guard reported the recovery of 35 asylum seekers from an orange boat without an engine – exactly like the boats the Greek coast guard has used to push asylum seekers back into Turkish waters.

Investigators from Forensic Architecture and Forensis can, in the coming period, confirm the presence of asylum seekers on Antikythera by examining the audiovisual footage and conducting a site visit to the island.

They have detected life jackets close to the shore, debris (e.g. water bottles) with Turkish labels, which are considered unlikely to have been found otherwise so far from the Turkish coastline, sugar cubes from the tea they probably made while hiding from the Greek authorities and until they called for help, and blue nylon gloves presumably used by the authorities in their search.

The investigation also confirms that the people shown in the Turkish coast guard photos were among the group that had arrived in Antikythera. The group’s destination, according to a video where they are seen walking on a steep part of the island, was neither Antikythera nor any other Greek island.

Also, the 20 or so permanent residents of Antikythera, located between Kythera and Crete and 400km from the Turkish coast, are not used to such arrivals on their island. The group’s destination was Italy.

Destination Italy to avoid the pushbacks

The decision of these 35 Kurdish asylum seekers to cross practically the entire Aegean Sea, heading for Italy instead of any Greek island they came across, along a route of more than 1,000km, is not unprecedented.

According to official UNHCR figures, from 2020 to date, at least 21,346 asylum seekers have arrived in Italy starting from Turkey, namely:

  • 4,190 persons (12% of all arrivals) in 2020,
  • 12,916 persons (19% of total arrivals) in 2021,
  • and 4,240 persons (22% of total arrivals) in the first five months of 2022.

In Greece, these types of transits from Greek waters usually remain off the radar and are generally detected when technical failure of unseaworthy vessels occurs, as was the case in the recent Antikythera, Paros, and Folegandros shipwrecks last Christmas.

If one were to ask how this new sea route to Italy came about, a first answer would focus on the increased guarding of Greek waters by the Greek coast guard and Frontex, as part of Operation Poseidon, which began in March 2020 and provides for a stronger presence of the European coast guard agency in the country.

Responding to criticism of the documented and increasing pushbacks, now at the highest European level, the Greek government is also resorting to this claim, arguing that it is carrying out effective border surveillance with full respect for “international law” and “European values”.

However, the truth is that this answer is intended to distract from what is really happening not only in the Aegean Sea, but also on its islands.

And the government will have to answer whether kidnapping asylum seekers and forcing them onto life rafts without recognising their right to claim asylum is linked to border management or to international law and European values.

Pushed back despite the extremely serious injury

At dawn on February 5, 2022, a boat carrying a group of 20 asylum seekers washed up on a steep cliff, on the northeast side of Samos.

This is the area near the monastery of Zoodochos Pigi, where, during Solomon’s visit in recent months, dozens of felled logs were found. Locals claim that the trees have been cut down for visibility reasons so that asylum seekers arriving on the island cannot hide.

Picture: Trees and vegetation to the left and right of the road have been cleared to prevent asylum seekers from hiding, islanders told Solomon. Samos, Zoodochos Pigi Monastery area, February 2022. Iliana Papangeli/Solomon

 

In fear of being sent back to Turkey, the members of the group, including three pregnant women, one which had a very serious leg injury, remained hidden in the bushes.

According to official data, no new arrivals were recorded on Samos that day or in the next few days.

Early the next afternoon, the Turkish coast guard located and rescued nine people from a remote area on land in Kusadasi, who had been left by the Greek coast guard in a boat without an engine.

Two hours later, the Turkish coast guard rescued eight more people from another boat off Kusadasi. The people said they had been taken away from Samos by masked “commandos” who had weapons and forced them back to the sea. They claim that the “commandos” divided the group into two boats, which were later separated from each other.

What happened?

A comparison of the photos taken by the asylum seekers themselves as they remained hidden waiting for help on Samos, and the images of the rescue operation later published by the Turkish coast guard, shows that it is the same group of people.

Left: A snapshot of the rescue of the refugees by the Turkish coast guard. Right: A day before the same people are seen in a photo on Samos.

 

In the photos, while the group was on Samos and during the rescue, one can also identify the injured woman. Solomon’s field report from Samos reveals that the woman, despite her serious injury, had walked to the Samos hospital in order to receive medical assistance.

Picture: The woman appears to have been returned to Turkey despite her serious injury.

 

Despite her serious injury, however, she was also returned to Turkey in a boat without an engine – in what appears to be a multi-level operational practice, which has nothing to do with “preventing the entry” of a boat, which the Greek government claims to be carrying out.

They were left on a rocky islet

Stefanos Levidis, Forensic Architecture’s researcher in charge of migration and border violence issues and the coordinator of the investigation, told Solomon that such practices using lifeboats “are manifestly illegal and are a proven violation of many international protocols, including the inalienable rights to claim asylum and seek rescue at sea.”

It is noteworthy that Frontex also appears to be at least aware of the illegal practices, as it records them in its internal database, which was seen by Solomon.

In some of its entries, for example, it states that a small number of people were prevented from entering, but in the column relating to the vessels in which they were on board, the number is zero. At the same time, on the same day, the Turkish coast guard reported the rescue of the same number of people, who say they were thrown overboard by the Greek coast guard and managed to swim to shore.

Investigators conclude that this is a coded way of reporting cases of asylum seekers being thrown into the sea without a watercraft. In other cases, Frontex recorded four floating means and on the same day, the rescue of the occupants of four vessels, and the same number of people, was recorded!

In at least one case, however, the Greek coast guard appears to have transferred and abandoned the asylum seekers on a rocky islet.

Image: The Greek coast guard is shown to have transported and dropped off asylum seekers on a rocky islet.

 

Specifically, from the examination of the Turkish coast guard drone footage, it appears that initially on the evening of 6 August 2021, a ship approached the islet and some people disembarked, while the next morning, the visual footage of the Turkish coast guard shows they picked up the same people, confirming that it is the same islet.

She died in fear of being sent back

The Greek government flatly denies the substantiated journalistic investigations as Turkish propaganda. In doing so, it avoids mentioning the individual pieces of evidence they present.

In response to international criticism, Greece put the National Transparency Authority in charge of examining the documented incidents, even though there are strong indications that the independent authority has neither the expertise nor real independence to carry out this task, as presented in a report by Solomon and The Manifold.

However, despite the government’s denials, there are some points that underscore the validity of what is being claimed.

First, the fact that the director (until recently) of Frontex, Fabrice Lezzeri, resigned precisely because of revelations by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel and other media about the European agency’s involvement in the refoulement of asylum seekers in Greece.

Secondly, an unexpected direct testimony of this kind of practice was broadcast on Danish television by crew members from a Danish ship that was part of the Frontex force in Greece. As reported by the head of the Danish police unit involved in the operation, the crew had rescued 33 asylum seekers in an inflatable dinghy when they received a radio order from Operation Poseidon headquarters to return them to the dinghy and tow it out of Greek waters.

But, thirdly, a more recent event may confirm the kidnapping of asylum seekers arriving on the Greek islands and their forcible return to Turkey in violation of national and international law.

On July 8, 2022, a woman died of exhaustion in the mountains of Kardamyli on Chios. It was reported that 25-year-old Uda Hussain Ada had arrived on the island almost ten days earlier, but had been trying to hide from the authorities, fearing that if she was detected she would be returned to Turkey.

Others in her group remain missing to this day.

If the woman had not feared that being discovered would probably mean she’d end up in a lifeboat to Turkey, she would not have felt the need to hide.

And she would not have lost her life to exhaustion at the southeastern tip of Europe.

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