Brussels, Belgium – Greece’s inhumane refugee pushback atrocities are costing people their lives in Aegean. All these inhumane events are taking place under the supervision of Frontex mission. In the name of the security of the EU’s external borders, the EU condones all kinds of Greek barbarism in harsh blue waters of Aegean. One wonders if the EU still has conscientious crumbs of humanity left after all?
A German politician wants federal police withdrawn from Aegean maritime patrols if EU border agency Frontex fails to halt migrant “pushbacks.” Six forced returns since April have been attributed to the Greek coast guard.
Frank Schwabe, the human rights spokesman for Germany’s center-left Social Democrats (SPD), has said German federal police assigned to EU Frontex patrols should be withdrawn if implicated in so-called migrant “pushbacks.”
The demand follows revelations that since April, six migrant boats have been forced by Greek coast guard ships to return to Turkey, with allegations of risky maneuvers and outboard motors being damaged in an attempt to illegally block access to asylum.
“Germans must on no account be involved in pushbacks, not even indirectly,” Schwabe told newsmagazine Der Spiegel and ARD public television’s investigative Mainz Report on Saturday.
If Frontex, the EU’s external border agency, did not stop the involvement of German federal police units in such pushbacks, then “the German contingent must be withdrawn,” insisted Schwabe.
Involvement in pushbacks at sea could even leave German police open to charges of complicity in offenses, international law expert Nora Markard told Der Spiegel.
Blocked inflatable, didn’t rescue
Citing an internal Frontex letter to the European Commission on Saturday, the magazine said federal police on board the German patrol boat BP62 reached an overloaded inflatable boat inside Greek waters on the morning of 10 August 2020.
Instead of immediately rescuing some 40 persons on board, the patrol boat blocked the occupants’ route to the adjacent Greek island of Samos and waited half an hour until the Greek coast guard “took over” the incident.
A photo taken two hours later showed Turkish coast guard ships rescuing the 40 occupants, suggesting their Greek counterparts had towed their inflatable back into Turkish waters.
Der Spiegel said that Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri, in an internal report to Brussels, had written that the migrant boat turned back to Turkey upon the arrival of the Greek coast guard, which later documented the occurrence as an “obstructed entry.”
German police assigned to Frontex did not even file a “serious incident report,” claimed the magazine.
Frontex carrying out ‘illegal pushbacks’
“Frontex must in the meantime assume that the Greek coast guard is carrying out illegal pushbacks,” said Constantin Hruschka of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy based in Munich. “In such a case, Frontex must ensure that this does not happen and that the refugees are given access to an asylum procedure.”
Last week, the 47-nation human rights body the Council of Europe (CoE) slammed what it called “credible” allegations that Greece had carried out pushbacks across its border with Turkey, including forcing migrants on land to re-cross the Evros River.
In a report compiled by its anti-torture committee , the CoE raised concerns “over acts by the Greek Coast Guard to prevent boats carrying migrants from reaching any Greek island,” questioning the “role and engagement” of Frontrex in such operations.”
Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas, replying to multiple CoE accusations, said that detention camp conditions had “signiﬁcantly improved recently” and noted that fewer migrants were arriving.
Greece experienced a 90% drop in arrivals from May to October 2020, compared to the same period last year, the Greek Migration Ministry said last week. Arriving during those months in 2020 had been 4,345 people, compared to 44,348 from May to October in 2019.
European refugee policy: Are pushbacks at sea legal?
Greece is accused of pushing back asylum-seekers’ boats to prevent them from reaching EU waters. To what degree does that contravene international law?
Why are “pushbacks” controversial?
“Pushback” is not a legal term, but a political one. The concept of “pushing back” refugee boats is, in legal terms, highly contentious: “Pushbacks can be a violation of the legal obligation to rescue a person in distress at sea,” says international law scholar Nele Matz-Lück of the University of Kiel. For example, “if one maroons people in distress, towing them to another sea zone only to abandon them there in an emergency.” It is also illegal to bring or return refugees to places where they face “immediate torture, inhuman treatment or other serious rights violations.” Any such action is a breach of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights, the international law professor underlined.
Are EU countries legally allowed to turn away refugees at sea?
Within European Union territory no, but outside those waters yes. “The moment a person reaches the territory of an EU member state, the person concerned is entitled to apply for asylum, which must then be examined,” explains international law scholar Alexander Proelss. But “in principle, there is no such claim beyond the European territory” — thus not outside a country’s coastal waters, which can extend up to 12 nautical miles (22.2 km; 13.8 mi) from the coast. “In the past there have also been various incidents in the Mediterranean in which state-owned vessels positioned themselves exactly outside these 12 miles and then pushed the refugee boats back so that they could not enter the country,” says Proelss, who is a professor at Hamburg University specializing in the law of nations and international law of the sea. He underlines that this is a practice that contravenes basic human rights.
Is there an international legal obligation to help people in distress?
Every captain is obliged to provide help to people in distress, no matter who it is and for what reason a vessel is in distress, unless it would endanger the captain’s own ship or crew. This is spelled out in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and in the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.
As for what the international law of the sea says about the question of what happens to the rescued, Proelss says: “There is no obligation under international law of the sea that a country into which asylum-seekers are entering, such as Italy or Greece, has to tolerate the fact that they can go ashore there.” The current law of the sea is incomplete on this point. In other words: the decades-old norms under the law of the sea are only applicable to a limited extent to the current migration situation.
Can refugees take legal action against pushbacks?
It’s complicated. First of all, the applicable national law is that of the state in whose waters a castaway was caught. Each country must ensure that its state officials comply with applicable laws and in particular with binding human rights when it comes to sea rescue. If they do not — as in the case of pushbacks, in which the Greek coast guard is alleged to have been involved — the victims can take legal action against this unlawful treatment before the Greek courts. If the national legal process has been exhausted, the European Court of Human Rights can be appealed to. But: “The refugees who were dragged back into Turkish waters have other concerns and, in case of doubt, have neither the knowledge nor the means to initiate appropriate procedures,” says legal scholar Matz-Lück. There are currently no other opportunities to take legal action against pushbacks.
How does Greece assess the legal situation?
Greece denies using illegal methods against boat refugees. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the country is faced with “massive and organized migration flows” from Turkey. The Coast Guard also stated that Greece protects the European maritime borders in accordance with national and international law.
Torture by Rescue: Asylum-Seeker Pushbacks in the Aegean
How Summary Expulsions from Greece Have Continued with Impunity
Images of migrants in bright orange tent-like structures, adrift on the Aegean, began to circulate online in March. In a new pattern of covert expulsions, spanning several Aegean islands, Greek authorities had begun weaponizing rescue equipment to violently expel asylum seekers.
Relying on migrants’ testimonies, video and photographic evidence, we documented 11 incidents, between March and May 22, 2020, in which asylum seekers arriving on Greek islands and into territorial waters were dragged out to sea by the country’s Hellenic Coast Guard. Authorities left them adrift in inflatable, motorless rafts. In August, the New York Times documented 31 expulsions, 27 of which involved this novel and dangerous tactic. According to the Times, more than 1,000 people were subject to such treatment.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on Greece to “refrain from such practices” and to “seriously investigate these reports.” Yet, as dedicated aid-workers and volunteers – some of whom are refugees themselves – have documented, the summary expulsions of asylum seekers from Greek islands and territorial waters have continued with impunity.
As the new pushbacks have become systematic, the surreal images of these fluorescent, tent-shaped rafts have quickly become an icon of Greece’s doctrine of border enforcement. In light of recent investigation revealing the extent of European Union (EU) complicity in this systematic practice, it’s high time to re-examine what, as a matter of law, is at stake in this pattern.
Most refugee lawyers tend to think of such “pushbacks” first and foremost as risking violations of the rule of non-refoulement: the prohibition of returning an asylum seeker to a place where they may be exposed to persecution or ill treatment. But this may not be the clearest violation in the life raft pushbacks. Regardless of their possible outcome when the asylum seekers reach Turkey, these acts constitute egregious violations of international human rights law in and of themselves. Even before refoulement may be concluded, they constitute acts of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.
The Principle of Non-Refoulement
Whether the migrants were intercepted at sea or apprehended after arriving on land, these pushbacks violate fundamental rules of international law. The international standard of non-refoulement is enshrined in Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Notwithstanding its seeming erosion in the practice of some States, it is at the center of international refugee protection. Simply put, the rule prohibits the return of refugees and asylum seekers to any place where they may suffer persecution, torture, or inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.
European regional human rights law sets out specific guarantees and procedures to safeguard against refoulement. EU Member States are obliged to provide asylum seekers with access to procedures for the determination of refugee status and other forms of international protection. Deportations, or ‘returns’ as they are referred to in EU legislation, must be preceded by individualized assessments, to ensure the person deported will not be exposed to the risk of direct or indirect refoulement.
The same applies at sea. Under EU law, where asylum seekers are intercepted in the territorial waters of a Member State, the responsibility of that State is engaged and there is an obligation to provide access to asylum procedures. In such cases, the Asylum Procedures Directive (Recital 26) envisages that asylum seekers ‘should be disembarked on land and have their applications examined’ in accordance with EU law.
Nevertheless, direct accounts from asylum seekers who have travelled to Greece, an EU member State and signatory to its asylum procedure regulations, reveal that the country is currently refusing to meet these obligations. Asylum seekers are routinely denied the opportunity to apply for asylum. In pushback incidents we have documented, the Greek authorities failed to even register the asylum seekers’ arrivals. Instead, they detained the new arrivals in unofficial sites (in some cases for a number of days). According to the migrants, Greek authorities deprived them of food and other material reception conditions (a widely-documented practice). The asylum seekers were then expelled. These accounts describe tactics consistent with testimonies from pushback victims on Greece’s land border with Turkey, where, as Forensic Architecture recently documented, the practice of pushbacks is “methodical and widespread.”
One incident documented (further documented by Der Spiegel and Legal Centre Lesvos) illustrates these practices. On May 13, 2020, Amjad Naim, a Palestinian law student from Gaza, with approximately 30 other asylum seekers, crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Samos in a rubber dinghy. He intended to declare himself a refugee and apply under the Dublin Regulation for family reunification with his wife, who has refugee status in the Netherlands.
Before reaching Samos, the Hellenic Coast Guard intercepted the asylum seekers’ dinghy and ordered them to return to Turkey. According to testimony, the Coast Guard shot live ammunition into the water around the boat and aimed guns at the asylum seekers’ faces. They proceeded to disable the motor of the dinghy with an iron pole, a practice that has been widely documented as far back as 2007. The asylum seekers were transferred onto the Hellenic Coast Guard vessel, where their personal belongings were confiscated. They were beaten and then forced into two life rafts – both of which were damaged – and left to drift in the open sea. The group was eventually brought back to Turkey by the Turkish Coast Guard.
Turkey as a Safe Country
As they continue to deny allegations of violations of international law, one excuse offered by Greek government officials is that asylum seekers arriving via Turkey do not need international protection in Europe because Turkey is a ‘safe’ country. The status was designated under the terms of the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement.
By concluding this deal, the EU has attempted to circumvent its obligations under international refugee law. Such circumvention is characteristic of a global pattern Daniel Ghezelbash has recently described as tactics of “hyper-legalism and obfuscation.” However, such tactics do not make the recent pushbacks legal. Even within the framework of the much-contested political agreement, the EU guarantees asylum seekers individualized assessments to ensure that their return would not expose them to torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.
As the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights further affirms, the failure to sufficiently “examine each individual’s particular case” may also amount to a collective expulsion, in violation of Article 4, Protocol 4 of the ECHR (Khlaifia and Others v. Italy [GC], § 237).
Turkey has ratified the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, but with important reservations to its ratification. Although it has become de facto home to over 3.6 million Syrian refugees, it still maintains a “geographical limitation” to the Convention. This means that only those fleeing as a result of “events occurring in Europe” can be granted formal refugee status under the Convention. A Hellenic Council of State decision in September 2017 found that the requirement of “protection in accordance with the Geneva Convention [on Refugees]” as stipulated in Article 38 (1) of the recast Asylum Procedures Directive does not explicitly require the third country to have ratified the Refugee Convention or to have adopted it without geographical limitations.
The Greek decision arguably contradicts case law from other countries, including the relatively restrictionist Australia, where courts have required “third countries” to be full signatories to the Refugee Convention. Nevertheless, under this decision, Greece maintains that Turkey affords asylum seekers “protection in accordance with the Geneva Convention [on Refugees],” and therefore constitutes a safe third country in which refugees must register their claims and to which they can be returned if they attempt to travel onward to Europe. This is the premise with which asylum seekers on Greek islands are rendered ‘inadmissible’ and thus, deportable.
Beyond Non-Refoulement: Acts of Violence
The maritime expulsions – using life rafts to convey migrants into life-threatening conditions – are more than simply a means of pushing asylum seekers back from the border of Europe. As our previous post emphasized, the rafts have a symbolic aspect – a cruel metaphor for the refugee’s condition.
But even as a matter of law, analysis needs to go further. The practice of abandoning people at sea in inflatable life rafts is itself a form of violence that violates the prohibition on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment. Rather than viewing this practice only through the lens of its effects (i.e. whether or not it results in refoulement), one must view it for what it is: an independent act of violence. This act is consonant with a larger “deterrence” paradigm directed at asylum seekers nearly everywhere on the fault lines of conflict, poverty, and climate change.
In 2016, the remarkable report “Death by Rescue” revealed how the Italian government’s abandonment of rescue operations, to be replaced by ill-trained private vessels, has caused a large-scale pattern of drownings in the mid-Mediterranean. Four years later, humanity is able to show how Greek officials use rescue equipment systematically in the perpetration of torture against migrants.
Indeed, the Italian “Death by Rescue,” and the Greek “Torture by Rescue” are fundamentally analogous. Such practices likewise recall the involuntary use of painkillers and psychotropic drugs on migrant children constitute torture.
In all of these examples, objects designed to assist humans in distress have been used to subject them to further pain and suffering. In the Greek and Italian cases, this is arguably what has been done not only with equipment but also with the very legal obligation to rescue vessels in distress. Echoing the insights of a large body of scholarship on the “weaponization” of international law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention have both been put to deadly use.
In short, the Hellenic Coast Guard’s use of rafts to carry out pushbacks from Greek waters directly endangers the lives of the asylum seekers, and subjects them to “severe mental and physical suffering,” in violation of the prohibition on torture and inhuman and degrading treatment in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In several of the documented cases, the life rafts used were so damaged that they were not seaworthy. In Naim’s case, the group of approximately 30 asylum seekers was placed on two life-rafts, each with a maximum capacity of 12 people; the rafts immediately began to fill up with water, as seen in video footage published by Der Spiegel. The rafts continued to fill with water as the Hellenic Coast Guard recklessly towed the migrants towards Turkey before cutting the rope and sailing away, leaving passengers to float without means of propulsion or navigation, at grave risk of drowning.
While the actions of the Hellenic Coast Guard are undoubtedly violations of international and European regional human rights laws, it would be misleading to describe Greece as the only government responsible for this form of torture and threat to life. Greece and the EU have previously been accused of crimes against humanity due to border violence resulting in systematic violations of fundamental rules of international law, including in an article co-authored by one of us.
These violations have not, thus far, triggered an international criminal investigation against Greek or European authorities, by the International Criminal Court or otherwise; nor has Greece been the only country where such allegations could be made. In the past six months, however, it has seen illegal forced returns and torture on the Aegean that have become “systematic or widespread” (under the chapeau of Article 7 of the Rome Statute), in an unprecedented way. The system of pushbacks using life rafts may be the clearest example yet of a crime against humanity perpetrated against asylum seekers and committed by agents of a Rome Statute member State.
Despite the clear and mounting evidence of systematic pushbacks and violations of fundamental rights on the Greek border, Frontex, the EU’s border and coast guard agency, continues its mission in Greece. A joint investigation by Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, ARD and TV Asahi revealed that the agency is not only turning a blind eye to these abuses. Revealing the depth of Frontex’s complicity in violations of refugee law, the investigation documented six incidents in which the agency was either directly involved, or in close proximity to a pushback. The investigation also revealed efforts to undermine the agency’s monitoring and accountability mechanisms—such as censoring transcripts of debriefing interviews with asylum seekers who reported pushbacks by Greek authorities.
Indeed, the lack of consequences for Greece’s systematic violation of international law is telling. Emergent patterns of border violence are not an aberration; the violent exclusion and abandonment of migrants is in many ways rooted in the structure of the EU’s agencies, asylum system, and its policies for migration management based around externalisation and deterrence. When the EU first directly intervened in Greece’s border enforcement, via Frontex, a decade ago, the logic was to gently discipline the violations of that time: European presence would presumably show that it is possible to enforce the border humanely. This did not prove immediately possible, but the Agency explained to Human Rights Watch that it tried. With the passing of time, we observe that the opposite has happened. That Frontex as an organization is gradually embracing the harsh reality of Greek violations reveals the structural dynamics at play.
As long as the overarching policy objective is to keep people out, borders will continue to produce violence, and purported commitments to the prohibition of torture – made in Brussels and throughout Europe – will ring hollow. Within such conditions, even lifesaving equipment, ‘humanitarian’ objects, can become weapons of violence against unwanted populations.
Refugees attacked and pushed back in the Aegean
Are Greek coast guard forces deliberately sabotaging refugees’ and migrants’ boats on the high seas as part of a strategy to push them back to Turkey, away from the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos?
“Mama, Mama, we’re going to die!” A child wails in panic as masked men clamber about on the little refugee boat in the middle of the open sea. The video was posted on Twitter on June 4 by the emergency refugee hotline AlarmPhone. The incident took place in the strait between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos. According to the Frontex border protection agency, the Eastern Mediterranean is currently the most active route for refugees trying to enter the European Union.
‘Completely illegal’ attacks of ‘outrageous force’
AlarmPhone, a private initiative, is a hotline for refugees and migrants who get into trouble on the high seas. It forwards emergency calls to the nearest coast guard agency and tries to pressure authorities into acting swiftly to rescue the refugees.
Lorenz, a Swiss volunteer for AlarmPhone, was on duty on 4 June 2020. The people on the boat were extremely distressed, he says; the masked men had destroyed the engine, disabling the boat, then left it to its fate. According to the coordinates Lorenz was given, all this took place in Greek waters. “These attacks are completely illegal by any legislative standard, and clearly demonstrate the outrageous force currently being used against refugees along the Greek border,” he says.
The AlarmPhone volunteers are hearing about attacks of this nature more and more often. The following morning, on June 5, another boat got into distress with 19 refugees on board. One of them was 16-year-old Farhad (Ed. note: name changed) from Afghanistan. He told us he had fled with his mother and sister, but had lost them both on the way to Turkey. Now he is alone, and trying to get to Europe. He worked in a Turkish factory for four months to earn the money to pay the smugglers.
Farhad described how a rigid inflatable boat approached from the Greek side of the strait and stopped their dinghy. “There were five masked men,” he said. “One was steering, two hit us with sticks, one destroyed our boat and our engine with a knife. The fifth just watched.” He didn’t dare film the attack itself, but he documented the immediate aftermath on his cellphone.
Masked men were ‘Greek forces,’ says eyewitness
The recorded evidence videos were analyzed and verified. They show the hole in the boat, an engine that has been destroyed, and desperate people, who eventually jump into the water to try to swim toward the shore of Lesbos while pushing the boat. A woman shakes her fist and screams, “They sent their friends to wreck our boat — now they’re watching us!”
Indeed, a Greek coast guard vessel is clearly visible in the video, with a small inflatable alongside. Farhad marks it for us on a screenshot. He says he is absolutely certain that the masked men were “Greek forces.” After all, he says, they came from the big coast guard ship, and were communicating with the mother ship the whole time.
But the involvement of the Greek coast guard is hard to prove. There are scarcely any photos or videos of the attacks, the masked men do not wear uniforms, and their boats are unmarked. That is why the other video, from 4 June 2020, is so important.
Through painstaking analysis of the superstructure and distinguishing features of the boats, the investigative online platforms Bellingcat and Lighthouse Reports were able to unequivocally match the rigid inflatable to a Hellenic coast guard ship. The inflatable belongs to the Greek coast guard vessel ΛΣ 080, and this ship has been proven to have been deployed off Lesbos that day.
Greece denies all accusations
Greece, however, continues to reject any assertion that it is using illegal methods against refugees arriving in its waters. In response to a request to comment on the reports of illegal pushbacks, the Greek coast guard said that amidst the coronavirus pandemic the country is confronted with “massive” and “organized migration flows” from Turkey. The coast guard further stated that it protects its European maritime border in accordance with national and international law and that any published accounts to the contrary stood in connection with “fake news” and from “intentional misinformation against this institution.”
The European border protection agency Frontex, which works closely with the Greek coast guard in the Aegean, also refrained from a direct response to a specific inquiry about the events of 4 June 2020. The agency’s headquarters in Warsaw simply replied with a general statement that “Frontex is fully committed to uphold [sic] the highest standards of border control within our operations, and pushbacks are illegal under international law.”
However, the video documentation and witness statements collated over several weeks suggest that these attacks and pushbacks are no longer isolated incidents. Rather, they are intensifying into a brutal pattern of intimidation that violates both national and international law.
UNHCR demands an investigation
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also concerned. The refugee agency in Greece, confirmed that, since March, it had documented dozens of incidents like these. The UNHCR has called on the Greek government to investigate them, and has made clear that while “Greece has the legitimate right to control its borders and manage irregular migration,” it must only do so “while respecting international human rights and refugee protection standards.”
The Turkish coast guard regularly publishes photos of these “rescues.” However, all observers in the region state that Greece is the only party reportedly violating the law.
Inhumane Greek Pushbacks: Migrants accuse Greece of sending them back out to Aegean sea
In the early hours of a Sunday in late November 2020, 16-year-old Jeancy Kimbenga tried to reach Europe for a third time. He was on one of three dinghies that landed on the Greek island of Lesbos that day from Turkey.
On that occasion, as with his two previous attempts, Jeancy claims he was forcibly returned to Turkish waters.
The pushbacks, without consideration of a migrant’s individual circumstances and without any possibility of applying for asylum, are illegal under international human rights law.
Greece has denied it uses such methods, insisting it is complying with European and international law and protecting the borders of the European Union.
During this third attempt to get to the EU, Jeancy, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, documented part of his journey in the hope that the evidence of him being on Greek soil would prevent him being sent back to Turkey.
It was still dark when the three boats landed on the southeast tip of Lesbos, known as Kratigos, on 29 November 2020.
The new arrivals gathered in a forest nearby and waited for dawn, sending photos and their GPS location to Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian NGO that monitors migrant flows in the area.
Hours later, local academic Kostas Theodorou was cycling with his wife in the area when they ran into two women who claimed they were migrants who had just arrived on the island a few hours earlier.
The women said they were both Christians, pregnant and had not eaten for three days.
“They said they wanted to go to hospital or the migrant camp. My wife left to get some cash so that we can put them in a taxi,” said Mr Theodorou, an assistant professor at the University of the Aegean. But when he suggested calling the police, the women feared their passage to Europe would come to an abrupt end.
The migrant groups then left the forest and headed north, taking further photos of the places they passed. Aegean Boat Report published their whereabouts on Facebook and contacted Greek authorities.
The BBC has independently verified the migrants’ material and several locations where they were walking in south Lesbos.
Several spots captured by the new arrivals have been verified using satellite images on Google Street View.
Jeancy Kimbenga and the others were met by a team of Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) officers and put on a bus. They were told they would be taken to a special camp for quarantine because of the Covid-19 pandemic. At least two coast guard number plates and one officer are visible in the footage the BBC has acquired from the scene.
Jeancy says what followed deeply traumatized him. The bus drove for a couple of hours to the north of the island and stopped at a small port where men in balaclavas were waiting. The teenager recorded a video on his mobile inside the bus.
“They dressed up like ninja[s], they want to make us get on a boat and send us back to Turkey,” he is heard saying.
The boy alleges that the Greek officers then took everyone’s phone, beat them heavily and forced them on “a big coast guard boat with something like a cannon in the front side” that took them out to sea.
There they were forced into life rafts and were left to drift towards Turkish territorial waters, he said. It is not clear why, but only two of the three groups that arrived in Lesbos that Sunday morning were sent back.
Hours later, at 02:40 on 30 November 2020, the Turkish Coast Guard picked up 13 migrants from a life raft, off Cape Kadirga to the north of Lesbos.
The woman in the red sweater, who met Kostas Theodorou and his wife, can be seen getting off the boat, in a photo released by the Turkish coast guard. Jeancy says he too was on that boat.
Less than three hours later, a second raft with 18 migrants was rescued in the same area. A man with a fluorescent print on his sweater, who was pictured in the forest in Lesbos the previous morning, is seen leaving the Turkish Coast Guard boat.
The Turkish coast guard rescued two rafts in the early hours of 30 November 2020.
Dozens of similar incidents have been reported in recent months and NGO Aegean Boat Report alleges that since the start of the year Greek authorities have carried out close to 300 pushbacks. Turkey accuses its neighbour of adopting the practice too.
Greece, however, insists it “does not participate in so called pushbacks”, and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has condemned the allegations as “an insult to the Hellenic Coast Guard”. Instead the country blames Turkey.
Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi told the BBC it was Turkey’s responsibility to eliminate smuggling routes and “protect human life at sea by preventing unseaworthy boats to leave Turkish soil”.
Before they left Lesbos the migrants took pictures of the Hellenic Coast Guard cars.
Turkey signed a deal with the EU in 2016 to stop migrants and refugees crossing into Greece, but said this year it could no longer enforce it.
It is not just Greece in the eye of the storm but also the EU’s Border Agency, Frontex, which assists Greece in guarding the bloc’s maritime borders.
It has now been accused of helping, or turning a blind eye to, pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, and the latest allegations have sparked one of the biggest crises since its creation.
Only last month, at a Frontex meeting on pushbacks, the Swedish representative presented evidence of Swedish officers witnessing one off the island of Chios.
An internal Frontex report, seen by the BBC, describes several Serious Incident Reports (SIR), listing suspected irregularities or rights violations. One of the most detailed accounts – labelled SIR 11095/2020 – tells of an incident that took place in the night of 18-19 April 2020; it says a Frontex plane witnessed a pushback, and that Greek authorities urged Frontex to fly elsewhere.
Excerpts from April Frontex report*
23:05 Frontex Surveillance Aircraft spots a rubber boat with about 20-30 [people on board], stops, and one Greek patrol vessel is very close
23:22 Frontex Team Leader sends Early Warning report to competent Greek Authorities (incident inside Greek territorial waters) – Two [Greek coast guard] patrol boats and [Turkish coast guard] are in the vicinity of the target
00:03 Frontex Surveillance Aircraft observes and sends to [Frontex HQ] the picture of the Greek patrol boat towing an empty rubber boat. The migrants are on board the patrol boat
00:06 Greek Sea Border Experts ask Frontex Surveillance Aircraft to fly south, contrary to the flight schedule to fly south-east
02:37 Migrants are transferred on board the rubber boat previously towed from the patrol boat; the second patrol boat awaits in the vicinity
02:46 Frontex Surveillance Aircraft takes a picture of a Greek patrol vessel towing the rubber boat with migrants on board towards Turkish Territorial Waters. [Greek coast guard] Sea Border Expert requests to fly north
*Some of the details have been edited for brevity and some of the abbreviations spelt out
Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri, grilled by Members of the EU Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee at the end of November, said no evidence had been found of “active, direct or indirect” Frontex involvement in pushbacks. Only the host member state (Greece) could decide what had to be done, he added.
Some MEPs supported the work of Frontex, but one group, the Socialists and Democrats, called for Mr Leggeri’s resignation. Dutch Green Left MEP Tineke Strik told the BBC “Leggeri is not credible any more”. She wants an inquiry committee to investigate “human rights violations at the external border”.
The European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has also accused Greece of carrying out pushbacks at its land border with Turkey. In an October 2020 report it cited incidents on the Evros River in 2018, as well as allegations of physical ill treatment by police, border guards or paramilitary groups.
The Greek government, meanwhile, has praised the work of its coast guard and highlighted the 80% reduction of migrant arrivals this year. It has struggled to cope with the thousands of migrants and refugees who have made it to Lesbos.
Jeancy Kimbenga, now 17, is for the moment in Istanbul and trying to find a place to stay for the winter. “But I’ll try to go to Europe again, when I feel better and if God permits it.”
Inhumane pushbacks in Greek waters put refugee lives at risk at Greek borders. EU’s Frontex border patrol agency has a duty to protect Human Rights.
As Frontex omits its responsibility to observe human rights violations at Greek borders, mounting evidence suggests the Greek government has been secretly expelling thousands of migrants trying to reach its shores in Aegean. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) is aware of this practice. The Hellenic Coast Guard gave orders in March 2020 to a Danish patrol boat taking part in the Frontex-run Operation Poseidon to push people back into Turkish waters.
The Danish police chief in charge of the patrol boat stated that the crew had rescued 33 people “when they received a radio order from Operation Poseidon’s headquarters to put the migrants back into to their dinghy and tow it out of Greek waters.” The Danish crew refused and took the migrants group to the island of Kos.
In response to a request for information about the incident, Frontex told Human Rights Watch the Danish crew had been given “incorrect instructions” and the “misunderstanding” was later clarified.
On 23 October 2020, a detailed investigative report was published by a group of media outlets, alleging Frontex involvement in pushback operations at the Greek-Turkish maritime border, in the Aegean Sea. The report said asylum seekers and migrants were prevented from reaching EU soil or forced out of EU waters.
Frontex’s mandate obliges all officers participating in its missions to respect fundamental rights. It also tasks the agency’s director to withdraw financing, suspend, or terminate activities if serious violations of fundamental rights are committed by officers of the country hosting the operations.
Allegations like these deepen concerns about the agency’s involvement in – or turning a blind eye to – abuses against people arriving at EU borders. On 10 November 2020, Frontex’s management board called for investigations into allegations of the agency’s involvement in abuses and questioned its reactions to violations committed by officers.
Meanwhile, Greece’s national authorities, including parliament, should step up now and do all what they can to investigate why and how any illegal acts are occurring and if they are part of a de facto government policy and put an end to these life-threatening practices at Greek borders.
Indeed, Frontex has a legal responsibility to do everything possible to prevent unlawful Greek pushbacks in Aegean. Humanity cannot continue to tolerate failure to address the serious allegations of pushbacks and violence against refugee people at Greek borders.
Greece: Investigate Pushbacks, Violence at Borders
Members of Greece’s parliament should urgently establish an inquiry into all allegations of unlawful returns of migrants to Turkey by law enforcement officers and others, 29 human rights and humanitarian aid organizations said in an open letter released today. These returns are carried out mainly through pushbacks and collective expulsions and are often accompanied by violence.
Parliament should exercise its oversight authority to investigate the allegations of these illegal acts by state agents and proxies on Greece’s sea and land borders with Turkey. The parliament’s inquiry should examine whether any illegal acts identified are part of a de facto government policy at odds with international, European, and Greek law.
Over the years, nongovernmental groups and media outlets have consistently reported the unlawful return, including through pushbacks, of groups and individuals from Greece to Turkey by Greek law enforcement officers or unidentified masked men, who appear to be working in tandem with border enforcement officials.
Reports from 2020 recorded multiple incidents in which Greek Coast Guard personnel, sometimes accompanied by armed masked men in dark clothing, unlawfully abandoned migrants – including those who had reached Greek territory. They abandoned the migrants at sea, on inflatable vessels without motors; towed migrant boats to Turkish waters; or intercepted, attacked, and disabled boats carrying migrants.
Nongovernmental organizations and the media have also reported persistent allegations that Greek border guards have engaged in collective expulsions and pushbacks of asylum seekers through the Evros land border with Turkey.
On 10 June 2020, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it was “closely monitoring” the situation at the Greek border and reported receiving “persistent reports” of migrants being arbitrarily arrested in Greece and pushed back to Turkey. The IOM said that Greece should investigate.
On 21 August 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was “deeply concerned by an increasing number of credible reports indicating that men, women, and children may have been informally returned to Turkey immediately after reaching Greek soil or territorial waters in recent months,” and urged Greece to refrain from such practices and to seriously investigate these reports. The agency had released a statement making similar calls on 12 June 2020.
On 6 July 2020, during a debate at the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on fundamental rights at the Greek border, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said those incidents should be investigated. In its new Pact on Migration and Asylum, presented on September 23, the European Commission recommended to member states to set up an independent monitoring mechanism, amid increased allegations of abuse at the EU’s external borders. But no such system has been instituted.
Confronted during a CNN interview with an 14 August 2020 New York Times article documenting pushbacks, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: “It has not happened. We’ve been the victims of a significant misinformation campaign,” suggesting instead that Turkey was responsible.
Greek lawmakers should conduct a prompt, effective, transparent, and impartial investigation into allegations that Greek Coast Guard, Greek police, and Greek army personnel, sometimes in close coordination with uniformed masked men, have been involved in acts that not only violate the law but put the lives and safety of displaced people at risk.
Any officer found to have engaged in such illegal acts, as well as their commanding officers and officials who have command responsibility over such forces, should be subject to disciplinary and criminal sanctions, as applicable. The investigation should seek to establish the identity and relationship of the masked men and other unidentified officers to law enforcement and take steps to hold them to account. The investigation should cover events surfaced in 2019 and 2020, the groups said.
The following quotes may be attributed to members of the groups involved:
“Despite government denials, over the years many witnesses and victims have told us about pushbacks from land and sea that put migrants’ lives at risk,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament should step up now and do all it can to put an end to this life-threatening practice.”
“The continued failure to address the serious allegations of pushbacks and violence against people on the move at Greece’s borders can no longer be tolerated,” said Adriana Tidona, migration researcher at Amnesty International. “We call on the Greek parliament to exercise its powers in the interest of all those who have been harmed by these actions and to ensure that there is no repetition.”
“Over the years, we have filed a score of complaints about or related to pushbacks at Greece’s borders, including deaths, that Greek prosecutors seem to ignore,” said Panayote Dimitras, spokesperson for the Greek Helsinki Monitor. “Greece needs to act quickly to set up an independent border monitoring mechanism to investigate violations, as proposed by the European Commission, and end these abuses once and for all.”
“The right to seek asylum must be upheld at all times,” said Josie Naughton, chief executive officer of Help Refugees. “The Greek parliament should urgently conduct an inquiry to examine the well-documented and illegal practices of pushbacks and mass expulsion, which endanger the lives of men, women, and children seeking asylum in Greece.”
“We have documented the pushback of more than 1,150 asylum seekers from Greek territory in the past three months alone,” said Natalie Gruber, spokesperson for Josoor. “These are not isolated incidents but systematic violations of national, EU, and international law that the parliament cannot shrug off as fake news anymore.”
“Greek authorities are systematically expelling migrants, including those who have reached Greek territory, and abandoning them in open water,” said Amelia Cooper from Legal Centre Lesvos. “The Greek parliament should not only open an investigation of these events, but must also decree and enforce – immediately – the cessation of illegal collective expulsions at all Greek borders.”
“In order to break with the current failures to hold member states like Greece accountable for their pushbacks and rights violations at borders, the European Commission must step up its efforts and quickly put in place an appropriate monitoring mechanism,” said Marta Welander, executive director at Refugee Rights Europe. “Such efforts must also involve civil society, NGOs, and national human rights institutions to ensure that available evidence is taken seriously and leads to timely investigation and redress.”
“The protection of the borders, of vital importance in itself, can be in compliance with international law and human rights standards,” said Antigone Lyberaki, SolidarityNow’s general manager. “The Greek parliament has both the means and a constitutional obligation to oversee and investigate the alleged infringement of international human rights obligations by the Greek state.”
“As a child protection organization, Tdh Hellas is particularly worried about the fact that among those reported to have been violently expelled across EU borders are children, including babies,” said Melina Spathari of Terre des hommes Hellas. “The Greek government should stop such acts and try instead to address the chronic gaps in the reception and protection system for families and unaccompanied children.”
Human Rights Watch
ARSIS – Association for the Social Support of Youth
Danish Refugee Council
Equal Rights Beyond Borders
Fenix – Humanitarian Legal Aid
Greek Council for Refugees
Greek Forum of Refugees
Greek Helsinki Monitor
Hellenic League for Human Rights
International Rescue Committee
Legal Centre Lesvos
Medecins Du Monde – Greece
Mobile Info Team
Network for Children’s Rights
Refugee Legal Support
Refugee Rights Europe
Refugee Support Aegean
Terre des hommes Hellas
More detailed documents and videos can be viewed at: