The border crimes continue - two years of systematic violence in the Aegean region!

Attacks and human rights violations against people on the move from March 2020 until April 2022

In memory of Alaa Muhammad Al-Bakri who died on the 2nd of September 2021 on an islet in the Evros/Meric river after a pushback and denial of medical assistance – and in memory of all the people who have lost their lives as a consequence of the never-ending border crimes carried out by European authorities.

We will never forget.

A year ago, we published an extensive report on the escalating violence against people on the move in the Aegean region. It covered 79 human rights violations and cases of violence, perpetrated mainly by Greek authorities. Today, we publish the stories of another 62 cases to which the Alarm Phone was alerted. All of these cases took place between March 2021 and March 2022. They once again document brutal attacks and pushbacks against people on their way to Europe.

Tensions between Turkey and Greece are, again, on the rise, and people on the move are being used and portrayed as a threat to state security. We witness it along all of the different migration routes. In response to people moving, there has been an ever-increasing militarisation of the border, alongside further criminalisation of migration. This goes hand-in-hand with attempts to silence those who speak out against the manifold human rights violations which are a consequence of this militarisation. The ongoing criminalisation of people on the move is extreme. In Greece, draconic sentences of several hundred years in prison are handed out just for steering a boat. Unfortunately, though, this is not a new phenomenon; people on the move who have been criminalised under the rubric of the facilitation of illegal migration are the second largest group within the Greek prison population. What is new is the public condemnation of these practices. In recent months, people have spoken out about those imprisoned simply because they had to flee or wished to exercise their freedom of movement. Through public campaigning, some people have been acquitted and had their charges dropped.

At the same time as this criminalisation of people on the move, there are several publicly announced investigations against NGOs, journalists and people who acted in solidarity. Alongside this, we see how people are portrayed as enemies of the state or are suspected of espionage and revelation of state secrets: for example, when they document the involvement of the Greek Coast Guard in pushbacks. Our solidarity is with all those standing against state repression. This includes Iasonas Apostolopoulos, who has a great deal of experience in sea rescue, not only in the Aegean but also with Mediterranea Saving Humans in the Central Mediterranean Sea. After his repeated public speeches denouncing the human rights violations carried out by the Greek Coast Guard, he is currently publicly described as an enemy of the state by the Greek government and receives death threats in Greece.

Countless investigations and witness statements have shed light on the structural dimension of these violent practices. By working together, Greek and European authorities, such as Frontex, try to deter people from moving through pushback practices, criminalisation, arbitrary detention and control of migration through extensive surveillance and violence.

This update documents pushbacks with the involvement of Frontex, pushbacks from land after arrival and criminalisation of boat drivers. We shed light on the systematic violations of rights on the basis of individual distress calls to the Alarm Phone. To us it is clear: migration is a reality. The attempt to violently suppress and control it forces people to become invisible and to choose more dangerous routes. It led, among others, to the revival of the so-called Ionian route where people sail from Turkey directly to Italy. Dozens of people died around Christmas on this route in three different shipwrecks. Many of the survivors explained that they had made a number of previous crossing attempts via other routes, but that during those attempts, they faced pushbacks and other human rights violations. This is why they decided to try to reach Europe via this long and dangerous journey.

In the spirit of last years’ report, this collection of cases and testimonies is a message to the world, so that nobody can one day say, "we did not know".

In the following sections, we wish to highlight the many and varied situations of extreme violence, indignity, and humiliation that people on the move have to endure when they try to find their way to a place where they can live in safety.

Pushbacks in the Aegean Sea

Since March 2020, we are witnessing massive pushbacks in the Aegean Sea; nearly all distress calls from boats between Turkey and the Aegean islands involve a pushback. To alert the Hellenic Coast Guard today means to put people’s lives at risk. It often leads to attacks and boats being towed back into Turkish waters, or to people rescued onto boats of the Hellenic Coast Guard, but then driven into the Turkish waters and forced onto life-rafts or back onto their own, now immobilised, boats. Presumably, in the latter cases the Hellenic Coast Guard hopes that their victims will drift back to Turkey, rather than drown.

We crossed from Turkey. We went in a closed boat. We sailed for 2 days in the centre of the sea, then we finished the fuel and we are sailing. We were 120 persons. There were children and women among us, very young children. We asked for rescue from Greece. We called them and we asked for fuel and some food. They answered us that they will provide us with fuel and food. We trusted them and we said we will reach a safe place. We told them we don't want to go to Greece; we want to reach Italy, we don't want Greece. They said, okay, we don't want you also here. Then the Greeks came with a big boat and did transhipments from our boat to it. They lay us down on the deck. It was so cold and rainy. We were 10 hours under water and with this cold. They took our phones and they were violent. When they were near the Turkey beach before 50 m they threw us into the water.

I'm now in a Turkish town. I don't want to stay here. I want to go anywhere in Europe, but not to Greece: They are so cruel.

This testimony was given by the survivor of a pushback on the 28th of December 2021.

Similar reports have been made by people who made it to the Aegean islands. When they are found, if nobody intervenes quickly enough in order to secure their right to apply for asylum, people are by default forced back to sea and pushed back, even though they had already reached Greek soil.

As demonstrated on the 2021 release of the Aegean Border Crimes Report, pushbacks are also perpetrated when boats are deep into Greek waters. A distinctive example was the Crete case, the large pushback of the 197 people on a boat on the way to Italy, which only made it as far as Crete. In this case, the ECHR is investigating, after the Legal Center Lesvos helped the survivors to bring legal proceedings.

Evros / Meriç Region – land border between Turkey and Greece

Pushbacks at the Turkish-Greek land border, along the 200 km long Evros/ Meriç river have long been a well-known phenomenon. However, the level of violence has reached a new high. In recent years, people risk being pushed back even if they are already deep inside Greek territory. Affected people report violent attacks, the theft of all their belongings, having dogs set on them, and many different forms of physical abuse. Numerous people have also reported being stripped of their clothes before being pushed back. Several of these pushbacks ended in deaths.

On the 30th of August 2021, Alarm Phone was informed about a group of people who were near Arianna in Greece. Among them was Alaa Muhammad Al-Bakri. He later lost his life after being pushed back by Greek officers.

Alaa Muhammad Al-Bakri was a Syrian living in Lebanon. He came through Iraq and Iran to Turkey to go to Greece. In Turkey, he had symptoms of a cold, but because it was not too bad, he still left for Greece. After four to five days in the forest, it became worse. At some point, the group he was traveling with left him behind. He was found in the forest by another group of three travellers, also Syrians, who tried to help him and made emergency calls for him to different organisations. One of them reached out to Alarm Phone. When no help arrived, the group surrendered themselves to the police to get help for Alaa Muhammad Al-Bakri. Instead, they were put into detention and then pushed back to the islet with another group. Alaa Muhammad Al-Bakri died there on September 2, 2021.

One person from the group reported the following:

I carried him on my back and took him for a long distance. I surrendered myself to the police and they put us in prison. Then we were disgustedly put in a car and thrown on an island in the middle of the Evros river. The young man died when we arrived on the island.

His death was not an accident. He did not die because of a severe illness that could not be treated. Alaa Muhammad Al-Bakri’s death was another lethal consequence of the European border regime. In the same region, in February 2022, 19 people froze to death at the Greek-Turkish border. This happened after they had been pushed back without shoes in winter time. Based on interviews with four survivors, the New York Times reported that the group had been detained inside Greece by uniformed Greek police officers and held in makeshift camps for up to a day. Greek officers confiscated their belongings, stripped them of their clothes and drove them to the edge of the Evros river.

In recent months, several pushbacks were prevented in the Evros/ Meriç region by a successful application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for interim measures according to Rule 39 of the Rules of Court. One such case involved a group of 34 people who were stranded on a small islet of the river on the 31st of March 2022. However, in several other cases, groups were pushed back by Greek Authorities either whilst interim measures were pending or in direct opposition to a ruling of the court.

The revival of the Ionian route

Boat trips on this long route (at least 7 days) from Turkey or Lebanon towards Italy are increasing. In 2021, more than 200 boats landed on the Ionian coast of Italy, which includes the eastern coast of Calabria and Sicily and the west coast of Puglia. The 9.687 people who landed in Calabria represent 15% of the total number of arrivals in Italy alone (UNHCR data). The main departure point for boats reaching the Ionian coast of Italy is Turkey. Since the beginning of June 2021, Alarm Phone was alerted to over 30 boats in distress heading from Turkey to Italy. Luckily, several boats made it to Italy, but there were also many boats taken to Greece after distress situations. Unfortunately, pushbacks and shipwrecks happen along this route as well.

Imprisonment after arrival

On September 23rd 2021, the Alarm Phone was informed about 154 people on a boat in distress in the Ionian Sea. The boat was heading to Italy. The GPS position we received showed the group to be in international waters in the Greek Search and Rescue (SAR) zone. The Alarm Phone immediately alerted the responsible authorities. The Hellenic Coast Guard ordered an oil tanker to rescue the people, who then were brought to Paleochora in Crete. The survivors report that one woman died during the transhipment and that three people were arrested for boat driving. The survivors of the incident first had to stay 14 days in quarantine in Chania, and were afterwards moved to mainland Greece where they were imprisoned in the notorious Amygdaleza center near Athens. There were other cases in which people were brought to Amygdaleza after traumatising journeys and incidents, including the death of fellow passengers. This happened to a group of 70 people in November 2021. Again, the survivors did not receive any appropriate support and were instead transferred to the Amygdaleza prison.

Dozens of people lost their lives on the Aegean at the end of 2021

In the days leading up to Christmas 2021, four shipwrecks took the lives of dozens at sea. We stayed in contact with many survivors who were, again, imprisoned in Amygdaleza. Instead of getting help to deal with their traumatic experience, most of the people were detained. Among them many had lost their loved ones, often children. While in prison, one cannot search for, or identify, loved ones.

Dozens of people have died on the Aegean route despite being close to the shore. Such tragedies are the direct result of the violent pushback regime put into practice by the Greek government and in the name of the EU. What is striking is that while the Hellenic Coast Guard is always quick to arrive at the scene to violently push people back, they are much slower in case of distress. The combination of brutal pushbacks and inhumane camps in Greece leads to many people choosing the longer route from Turkey to Italy. Survivors draw a direct line between the pushbacks and their choice to board a boat towards Italy.

Criminalisation of boat drivers

The reason why people take this route, despite it being known to be a dangerous and long one, lies in the brutal practices of the Greek border guards. The story of Ibrahim illustrates this. Ibrahim is one among the 184 passengers who reached out to Alarm Phone in May 2021 as their motor had stopped working. They were stranded in Greek SAR zone on their way to Italy and had run out of water and food. Initially, the people refused help from the Hellenic Coast Guard as they were afraid of what would await them in Greece. They reported the following – (full report here):  

The Greek Coast Guard – You will be shocked about the story you will hear about their aggression and inhumanity. Some people from our group were caught by them earlier, about two weeks ago. They tied them up with cable ties and threw them in the water, just like that. You might not believe this, but there are people with me here who can tell you the same story. We refuse any help from Greece, because they will torture us, they always play games on us.

Several among the group had previously been pushed back and brutalised by the Hellenic Coast Guard, and several passengers said they would prefer to die at sea rather than enter into the hands of the Hellenic Coast Guard again.

Eventually, the group was rescued by he Hellenic Coast Guard but once they arrived in Kalamata, some among them were accused of smuggling and imprisoned. Luckily, two of the accused were acquitted in May 2022, one of which was Ibrahim. However, they were imprisoned for over a year and the two young children of one of the two were given to a foster family in Greece. The kids had to spend a year of their life without their father, due to his unjustified imprisonment, and to this day, they have not been united with their father. The two imprisoned were robbed of their freedom by the Greek state for over a year for no reason. They will suffer from the traumatising consequences for much longer. Three other passengers from the same boat were sentenced, in their absence, to over 361 years each. 

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Greek authorities systematically criminalise people on the move. For most boats that arrive in Greece, several people are arrested and afterwards prosecuted for steering the boat or for helping in other ways during the journey. Without sufficient evidence, they are kept in pre-trial detention for months The trials usually end very quickly, with decisions reached in a short time, yet result in draconian sentences. When their case finally comes to court, their trials average only 38 minutes in length and lead to an average sentence of 44 years and fines of over 370.000 Euro.

To us it is clear: boat-driving and crossing borders can never be a crime. It is a fundamental right, and it is one we will continue to uphold and support. The real crime is the border regime put in place by the EU and its partners along the different migration routes. 

Systematic violence from Athens to Brussels

The role of Frontex in pushbacks has been thoroughly investigated and reported in the media. This reporting led to the resignation of the Frontex Director, Fabrice Leggeri in April 2022. The recent investigations showed the crucial role of Frontex as the backbone of the pushback regime. They are often the ones who inform Greek border guards at sea and on land about groups that cross the borders. Without information from the Frontex surveillance network, it is unlikely that Greek authorities would be able to execute their pushback regime on such an extensive scale. The investigation confirmed what people on the move and networks such as Alarm Phone have been saying for years: Frontex and the EU are complicit in these human rights violations.

However, their complicity goes far beyond information-sharing. In October 2021, there was Frontex involvement reported in two pushbacks in the Aegean. A passenger of one of the boats described the events as such:

On the 8th of October, we were on a boat trying to go from Greece to Turkey. We are refugees from Palestine and the Gaza Strip. We are trying to flee from hunger, siege and Israeli occupation and no one helps us. With us on the boat there were also refugees from Syria. All together 25 people, among us nine women and four children. We were on our way to the island of Lesvos, to try to find a place of safety in Europe. We saw a white boat in front of us. It was an Italian ship, I think. [...] This white ship did not help us. They were standing in a distance from us and stayed there without helping us. We called the Greek Coast Guard by ourselves. When the Greek Coast Guard came this white ship went away from us in the direction of Greece. The Greek Coast Guard approached us with a grey rubber boat. There were three men with masks on the rubber boat and others we did not see. They were armed. They asked us to remain silent. They cut off the ship’s motor and ordered us again to shut up, and then they came to pull the boat. We were dragged with a rope towards Turkey. Then they left us there. [...] My friends were beaten and had their luggage and phones stolen in the past – you want changes, but nothing changes these days.

The struggle continues

Despite these practices being uncovered, the ones responsible for these border crimes are still able to act with impunity. It is important that the Frontex Director had to step back, but the violence continues. The human rights violations still happen on a daily basis.

We can only repeat: We will never be silent. The criminals are those who in the name of border security incarcerate, violate, insult, beat, rob, torture, traumatise and kill.

We will never stop having friends on both sides of the Mediterranean and in different communities. We will defend our right to communicate freely. We will continue to build bridges across these borders.

In memory of all those who lost their lives at these borders, we promise that we will not stop until the murderous border regime is history, and every person can move freely.