"We asked for help, but they only shouted: Go back, go back!"
Alarm Phone Report: One year of pushbacks and systematic violence in the Aegean region
February 24, 2020 – March 5, 2021: With this report, the Alarm Phone aims to share one year of documentation of repeated attacks against migrants and illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea and at the Evros/Meriç land border. Out of the 125 distress calls we received in this time period, 79 involved human rights violations and violence exercised by mostly Greek authorities. We also documented non-assistance by Turkish authorities, as well as the presence of vessels of Frontex and NATO in some occasions. We present, in detail, the systematic violations of rights on the basis of individual distress cases about which the Alarm Phone was informed, and analyse the pushback tactics of the state actors involved. These are not isolated incidents, but striking examples that illustrate that the violence is systematic.
Some of these pushbacks took place at the land border between Turkey and Greece, but most occurred in the Aegean Sea. In many of the sea cases, vessels of the Hellenic Coast Guard were involved and masked men coming from the direction of the Greek islands attacked the travellers. Footage received by victims of such an attack was analysed on a 2019 Bellingcat investigation where it was found that "the distinctive vessel operated by the masked men suggests that the Hellenic Coast Guard was involved in the incident".
The travellers reported life-threatening manoeuvres around their boats intending to make waves, threats at gunpoint, theft of their petrol, destruction of engines and also, the towing of boats back to Turkish waters where they were abandoned adrift. They further reported Hellenic Coast Guard vessels ramming their boats, Hellenic Coast Guards shooting with live ammunition in the water around them or up in the air, and physical violence. We collected evidence of people ending up in life rafts in Turkish waters after having been rescued by the Hellenic Coast Guard and even after having reached an Aegean island and claiming asylum. The extensive use of life rafts to abandon people at sea, especially after they had already reached Greek soil is one of the most distressing developments of the past year.
Additionally, there are two events that we want to highlight. One is the long-distance pushback of the Crete case, which we examine in chapter 2 of this report. The second is the dramatic Rhodos case in chapter 1. People that arrived on the island during a storm were pushed back to Turkey while pleading Greek authorities to launch a search and rescue operation for six people that had earlier fallen in the sea and gone missing. The operation was never launched.
The Turkish Coast Guard also refused to immediately rescue boats in distress. Instead, they simply lingered nearby for many hours, watching and documenting the actions of Greek authorities. Similarly, we have heard multiple stories from migrants who were not allowed back into Turkey on the Evros/Meriç land border after Greek Border Guards had abandoned them on one of the river's islets. They reported that the Turkish army terrorized them, trying to force them to go back to the Greek side of the border where Greek Border Guards had pushed them back from.
Regarding the role of the supranational agency for refugees UNHCR, in the past year, we have consistently informed them about ongoing cases involving human rights violations in the Aegean Sea and Evros/Meriç river border. So far, they have failed to take practical action to ensure refugees' rights in these situations although according to international media, UNHCR recently handed over evidence of more than hundred cases of suspected pushbacks to Greek authorities demanding investigation.
Although numbers serve to give perspective, they can never replace people, their stories, and their experiences! We have listened to survivors and documented their testimonies which we include in the examination of the remarkable cases below. This handful of testimonies is a drop in an ocean of stories of people who suffered at Europe's borders. We share them with the world so that nobody can one day say "we did not know".
We publish this report in remembrance of Yaseen Salih Ahmed Al-Obaidi and Muhammad Taha Abdullah Suleiman, who lost their lives at the European border on January 13, 2021. Four more people went missing near Rhodos that day. We will never forget them and the injustice done to the survivors and the families of the missing.
On January 15, 2021, relatives who were desperately searching for six men who had gone missing between Turkey and Greece call the Alarm Phone. Two days earlier, on January 13, 2021, the journey of the six men to Europe started from Bodrum in a rubber boat carrying 12 people from Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. Survivors later reported that they lost six persons in the rough sea, when waves washed them overboard. The survivors landed on Rhodos. They were desperate. When they were found by local authorities, no rescue operation for the six missing people was launched. Instead, the survivors were forced onto life rafts and pushed back to Turkish waters.
A survivor reports:
At 11pm we started from Bodrum with a rubber boat. Until 1:30am everything was okay, the weather started to turn. At 2:15am it started raining. It became more windy, we could see the island already, but the storm became more and more strong.
The nose of the boat went under water and my grandfather lost balance and fell into the sea. The second person who fell into the sea was S. (from Irak), then M. (from Palestine). The boat was full of water. We tried to get it out. In only a few minutes the next huge wave came. A. who was sitting in the back was the next to fall into the sea. I. tried to make light with his mobile phone to search for him in the waves. Then Y. fell into the sea. Finally, I. fell. He was screaming and his mobile phone still glowed.
The engine stopped then. The boat was full of water. The driver took the water out of the boat and managed to restart the engine after several tries. We turned in circles to search for the missing, but we did not find them. We managed to reach the island at around 3am. We had the waves against us and we drove very slow. No-one of us was wearing a life-vest.
We found an abandoned house. We went inside. At 9am the police came. We were 6 people left, including the driver, the driver left us there and disappeared. We stayed five of us. Two women and three men. One of us had lost his grandfather and one had lost his son in the waves. The car was olive green. A big man shouted at me to come he spoke English. He followed me into the house. He said we should wait there and he left.
We waited for 20 minutes. Another man was in the car, end of 40, grey hair already. We should come and get some food. Besides the house there was a shop to repair boats.
We told to the men what happened to us, we were crying and we begged them to help us to search for the missing. They said we should keep calm. Then they brought us to the harbour. They forced us back to the sea. They pushed us into a boat that looked like a tent and they left us adrift in the open sea. We were so much afraid about the sea. We stayed there until the Turkish Coast Guard came about an hour later and picked us up.
When talking with the survivors we could understand that they were close to Alimia, a small island in front of Rhodos when their engine stopped and six people fell into the sea. The place they arrived and where they found the abandoned house was the fisher-village Skala Kameiros in Rhodos.
One person among them spoke English and was the one to speak with the arriving persons in the olive-green car. He begged them to search for the missing, but they shouted at him and made him silence. All their mobile phones were taken away from them. They transported them with 2 cars (the 2 women in a car, the 3 men on a pick-up truck) to the harbour. They again announced to the Hellenic Coast Guard when they arrived in the harbour that they lost six people in the sea and asked to search for them. Instead they were forced onto a boat and then onto a life raft and abandoned in the open sea.
The relatives that called the Alarm Phone on January 15 had called both the Hellenic and the Turkish Coast Guards to understand if a search operation had already been launched. The Hellenic Coast Guard stated that there was no ongoing case and that they were not aware of people missing - even though they had obviously been with the survivors. The Turkish Coast Guard shared a response they got by the Hellenic Coast Guard with us, saying:
The incident mentioned in your mail is matching with the information obtained from the interview with 5 irregular migrants (4 Syria, 1 Palestine) who were pushed back by the Greek Coast Guard with a life raft and rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard on January 14, 2021.
A search was made by the Turkish Coast Guard at the borders of our territorial sea for 6 irregular migrants who were reported to be missing, no determination was made and the information obtained was forwarded to the Greek authorities. However, the Greek authorities received " we don't have any knowledge about 6 missing people and we don't have any ongoing SAR operation. The only information that we have is about 5 people we had detected in your SRR east of Symi Isl. and you rescued them successfully." in response to the incident.
Alarm Phone stayed in contact with relatives of the missing. We also established contact with local fishermen, who started to search the beaches, the weather was still too bad to go out to the sea. Refugee support Aegean (RSA) became involved on a legal level and started to put pressure in Greece to search for the missing. 2 people were found in the meantime and the remaining four are missing to this day.
Yaseen Salih Ahmed Al-Obaidi, from Iraq, born in 1983, was found drowned at a beach in Rhodos. He was buried on Rhodos.
Muhammad Taha Abdullah Suleiman, Palestinian Syrian, was found drowned a few days later, on 24 of January in Bakbakkar Bay in Mesudiye Mahallelesi Hayitbükü.
October 20, 2020: The Alarm Phone is alerted by a boat in distress near the Greek Island of Crete. It was not a usual call as the people reported being on a big boat carrying no less than 180 passengers fleeing Turkey. The precise number later turned out to be 197. The boat was a 22-meter-long sailing boat. Worsening weather conditions in the area posed a threat and did not allow them to continue their journey. At 13:12 CET, we alert the Hellenic Coast Guard in Piraeus. They say that they are already aware of the boat, which is 12 nautical miles off the Cretan coast. Shortly after, the people on the boat decide to change course and sail towards the island. They report to the Alarm Phone that the Hellenic Coast Guard called them and advised to stop their boat as it is too dangerous to land by themselves. In the same call, the Hellenic Coast Guard announced that they will come and rescue them.
At 15:17 CET, the passengers call again and report that two big vessels have arrived and told them to follow their instructions. The person on the phone says that the situation is critical and that they were told that they should wait where they are until they are picked up by the Hellenic Coast Guard at 21:00 CET. When the people try to land on Crete themselves, two vessels of the Hellenic Coast Guard prevent them from doing so and are circling the boat making waves.
At 20:03 CET, we receive a video where someone is clearly heard speaking Greek shortly before a masked man boards the boat and shouts in English to the people to stand back. This video is the last contact we have with the people. None of the numbers we were communicating before worked again. From this point on it takes nearly 48 hours before we receive any news.
Finally, on October 22, relatives inform us that the people have been pushed back to Turkey: 197 people were forcibly brought back roughly 200 nautical miles into Turkish waters where they were forced into inflatable life rafts. According to information we received through relatives, the people themselves, and as reported above, they were picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard in two different spots off the coast of Muğla: one group in the Marmaris district, another group near Datça.
The following testimony tells the story from the perspective of one of the passengers, a refugee from Syria.
They waited until 9pm. It was very dark already when they entered our boat. There was a Greek boat coming. First we thought to assist us. It was a big grey ship and it looked like made for war. First they stormed the boat with men wearing black masks. They entered in a very violent way and started beating everybody around. They broke some people’s arms and fingers. They took phones away and also other sorts of belongings, even clothes or trousers of some people. When they found the captain of the boat, they beat him up with very heavy violence. We all feared that he will die. He was severely injured, and had one arm broken 5 times. Also the other hand was broken and he suffered from a brain-shook. Possibly also organs have been damaged, as he was heavily beaten in the stomach. They literally beat him everywhere. He was pushed back with us – back to Turkey.
They transferred all people on two different boats. I think both boats belonging to the Greek Coast Guard or Military. At this point, the first commando of masked men who entered our boat had left. However, also these next group of officers all wear masks. I was lucky because they put me on the boat with the families, which was better because they did not beat us anymore after the transfer. On the boat where they put most men they continued beating them during the whole journey.
All of us had to sit down on the deck. They shouted: “Sit down. Look down.” We had to sit on the floor and were not allowed to take up the head. They treated us like dangerous terrorists. They did not really speak with us. Only in the beginning one of them said they will bring us to the camp now. It was impossible to realize where they brought us, but they went with a lot of speed. The journey lasted 10 hours. Due to the rain and the wind, we all became wet – also the women and children who were with us on the top of the ship. The Greek officers did not give us any food or water and we weren’t allowed to pee. Some said they want to go to toilet, but they only shouted at us.
When it was morning again they forced us into life-rafts. They pushed us down and some people just fell from the boat into the rubber islands. When we were all on the life-rafts they drove away, but stayed in a distance and observed us. In the beginning we were very afraid because we thought they will shoot us, as they were watching at us while holding guns. It was horrible. Some of the second group later told us that they were put on bigger swimming islands – similar to demobilized boats. During their journey, they suffered more violence. Many of them were injured. They were placed on a different location on these bigger life-rafts without a roof. We only met them in Turkey.
When the Turkish coastguard picked us up, we suffered another 2 days. We had to sleep outside in a yard, they only gave us some UN-blankets. After two days we had to pay for a bus ride, which finally brought us to a supportive organization. We could choose then if we want to go to Izmir or to Istanbul. In total, we spent 4 days in the forest, then 3 days at sea, then 2 days outside in the yard of the police station, then 1 night outside at the bus-stop. So 10 days in total under really horrible conditions.
On November 9, 2020, Alarm Phone is alerted to a distress case near the Greek island of Milos. A big sailing boat of about 22m is carrying approximately 60 people fleeing from Turkey with destination Italy. The last known position, from 09:00 CET, is off the coast of the small Greek island of Antimilos (position: 36.825730, 24.231551). When we call the Greek Coast Guard at 10:15 CET, they inform us that they already know about the boat and that they have been trying to help. At 11:26 CET, we receive and publish a video showing a small boat of the Hellenic Coast Guard towing the sailing boat along the coast of the island. An expert from Forensic Architecture that sees the video confirms that the island in the background is Antimilos by matching it with maps available online. We ask the Hellenic Coast Guard where they are taking the travellers, but they refuse to give any information and simply repeat "everything ok". After that we were not able to re-establish contact with the people from this boat. On November 13, however, the Turkish Coast Guard published news about the rescue of 70 people from a sailing boat off the coast from the province of Izmir (Seferihisar district). According to the information on the website the rescue was conducted on November 12 at 21:30 local time. An additional picture published on the website shows details that match those in the video the Alarm Phone had received: a white mast, a blue roof tarp, yellow life jackets, and the clothing of the people on the sailing boat. It nevertheless beggars belief that the Hellenic Coast Guard would perform a highly dangerous tow-back of the sailing boat all the way to Turkish waters. To this day, we have not been able to verify what happened to the people.
On August 31, 2020, Alarm Phone is contacted by a boat with 41 travellers, 2 pregnant women and three children among them, all from Africa. They have already been attacked two times at the border line between Turkey and Simi, and Turkey and Rhodos. In the second attack, heavy violence is used, also against a pregnant woman according to a survivor:
It was the night from Sunday to Monday. We tried to reach the island of Simi. On our boat we were 41 people, all from Africa. I cannot say exactly the number of women and of men, but two of the women were pregnant. There were also 3 kids with us. We were driving between 1 and 2 hours and when we reached the borderline there was a huge ship of the Coast Guard. They were armed and they told us to stop. Our engine stopped then and could not be restarted. We asked them for help but they only shouted "go back, go back!". They started to create big waves to make our boat return backwards by itself. The engine was anyway stopped and so they left us there and watched from a distance. We could then manage to restart the engine and we went backwards, towards Turkey.
Then we made a second try to reach Greece, we went towards Rhodos. Not far from Rhodos we were stopped again. This time there was a bigger boat. It stopped in a distance, so I could not see it clearly. It was still dark. They sent a smaller boat towards us. On this boat there were men with masks and arms. They looked like ninjas, all black. They attacked us. Shouting all the time on us. They had a stick and on this stick a knife. They sabotaged the engine. They held a light on us all the time, that's why on the videos I made it is difficult to see something. Another friend also made video, but they saw that he made it and they slapped him and took the phone and broke it and threw it in the sea. They don't want us to prove their violence and to show it to the world. But another friend noted down the number they had on their boat : ΛΣ 070
The masked men attacked us also with violence. They shouted all the time in English on us: "F*** your babies", "F*** your mothers", "Shut up", "F*** you". One of the pregnant women stood up, she wanted to show them that she is pregnant. She hoped for mercy. She was shouting louder than all the men to be seen and because she was in panic. But they just pushed her hard and she fell down. We were all afraid she will lose the baby. Fortunately__,_ _when she went to hospital later in Turkey we found out that the baby in her belly is still alive.
In this attack our boat also got pierced. They again made waves and everyone was crying and panicking. They left us in the open sea for several hours. Finally, I managed to call 112 and we reached the Turkish side. This was at 6:40h local time. After this it did not take too long and they rescued us back to Turkey.
Life in Turkey is not easy. We cannot survive here and we face also discrimination. The Greeks treated us worse than animals. This has to be stopped. We need to find ways to show to the world what happens to us. Maybe this won't help ourselves, but maybe this can help one day to stop this inhuman situation at the sea between Turkey and Greece.
Last year, we documented another testimony from survivors of similar violence in an Alarm Phone report. This was the case of May 10, 2020 when an overcrowded dinghy carrying 24 persons from Afghanistan, Iran, Congo, the Central African Republic, and Mali, among them one woman and ten minors, departed from the Ayvacık district of Çanakkale province, Turkey around 04:00 CET. At 08:16 CET, Alarm Phone was alerted by people in the boat, which was adrift in the middle of the sea between Lesvos and Turkey. The passengers stated that they had been attacked by a vessel of the Hellenic Coast Guard in Turkish waters and that their fuel had been taken away. A testimony of the survivors of this attack can be found here: https://alarmphone.org/en/2020/05/14/push-backs-the-new-old-routine-in-the-aegean-sea/
According to the people on the boat, the Hellenic Coast Guard had entered Turkish waters not to rescue but with the purpose of preventing their boat from reaching Greek territorial waters. The Turkish media later wrote about this case, among others, pointing to the fact that the Turkish Coast Guard had rescued these people and other boats which the Hellenic Coast Guard had forced into life-threatening situations. People on board later reported to Alarm Phone that they had been brought in distress by the Greek Coast Guard. In addition, they wanted to emphasise that while Turkish mainstream media was celebrating each rescue and presenting the Turkish authorities as the "good guys", the Turkish authorities had, in this case, robbed them of their money and returned them to where they had tried to escape from.
On December 9, 2020, the Alarm Phone receives an alert about two boats that left the region of Izmir, Turkey on December 6, 2020. According to the information received by relatives, the group was picked up by the Hellenic Coast Guard but separated. While 12 women and 4 children were pushed back immediately to Turkey, a group of 11 men were reportedly detained in Greece. At 12:35 CET, we send an email to the Hellenic Coast Guard, UNHCR, Frontex, and NATO to ask for assistance. Shortly after, we call the Hellenic Coast Guard and inform the officer on duty about the missing men. They state to know nothing about the case and promise to inform the Alarm Phone once they have news regarding our request. We additionally call UNHCR Athens and Thessaloniki and inform them once more via phone about the situation. They confirm they would call and email authorities themselves. Unfortunately, we are unable to establish direct communication with the people on the boats - their phones are switched off.
Later in the day, Alarm Phone receives several videos from the part of the group that has been pushed back to Turkey. They show the group of women and men on land on a Greek island, most likely Kalymnos. Another video shows women in inflatable life rafts with an unidentified ship being displayed in the back of the scene. We again call the Hellenic Coast Guard in Piraeus to ask for additional information. They just hang up the phone. On the next day, December 10, at 08:40 CET the Turkish Coast Guard informs us via phone that the 11 men were pushed back on December 9. They were heavily beaten by the Hellenic Coast Guard - some of the people found by the Turkish Coast Guard had broken bones. According to information received, the people were brought to Didim in Turkey.
One of the women on the boats told us:
We arrived around 10am at the island of Kalymnos. Then the police found us in the forest. They brutalized us and took everything we had - clothes, phones, money. Around 7 pm, they pushed us back to the sea and put us in inflatable life rafts. There they separated us from our husbands who were 11 in number. When they [husbands] realized this, they started shouting, saying, 'do not separate us from our women. Why do you want to kill our families?' Then the police started to hit them and left with them. We were alone in the middle of the sea. Luckily, a Turkish fishing boat saw us and called the Turkish Coast Guard. We were brought to jail in Turkey, where we stayed for two days before we were released.
We got an even clearer picture of what happened in that case through a testimony we received from the group of men that were separated from the women. They stated that they could identify two Hellenic Coast Guard vessels, ΛΣ105 and ΛΣ1055 near the coast of the island on which they had arrived. The captain of one of the ships fired gunshots when they refused to cooperate in the pushback. When separated from the women and children, they were brought to another Greek island, most likely to Farmakonisi.
After being held for several nights in a sheep shed by what the people identified as Greek Military officers, they were forced into two vessels, one of which they identified as ΛΣ613. Two other vessels were also on scene. Reportedly, the above-mentioned officers were armed with guns and wore black uniforms bearing a badge with two swords crossing each other and a gladiator helmet. The men were promised to be brought to a hospital on Leros. However, when they resisted the embarkation due to fear of being pushed back, they reported being attacked and heavily beaten by the officers. Again, gunshots were fired into the water. Then, seriously injured, the group was split into a group of 5 men and a group of 6 men, driven to the sea and forced into life rafts. This is where they were found by the Turkish Coast Guard and returned to Turkey where they received medical treatment.
This tactic is particularly violent as the travellers report forceful searches, beatings, theft of their belongings and life-endangering situations while the people are being thrown into life rafts in the sea. Another such case was on December 22, when the Alarm Phone was alerted to a group of people that had been pushed back into Turkish waters close to Samos island. When we managed to establish contact with the people later on they reported the following:
When we arrived on the island we started walking. When we entered a forest the soldiers came. They put us in a small van and took us to the harbour. We arrived on the island around 10:00 am in the morning and we stayed until 20:00 pm in the night. We were around 20 people in total. On the harbour there were soldiers dressed in grey colour with a white number on the back and a covered face, they searched us and took all our belongings, our passports, identity cards, money and phones. They were violent with the children and touched the women. At night they transferred us to a ship, they were beating the women and children. The ship we entered had a European Union flag, it is a blue flag with stars. And this ship looked like an army ship. It took around 1-1,5 hours until they put us on a boat. We started shouting that they put us there at night and that it is dark but they did not listen to us. When they threw us in the boat, they put a 7 month year old infant in a plastic bag and threw it to the people already in the boat. We had one phone left and we called the Turkish Coast Guard and they came to rescue us. When we arrived to the Turkish border land we stayed five days in the jail. Now we do not have any paper.
In the morning of June 13, 2020, the Alarm Phone is alerted to a boat in distress carrying 32 people in the North of Lesvos. The people on board tell us that there have been two attacks on their boat and that a vessel they assumed to belong to the Hellenic Coast Guard was close by. We receive their GPS position and inform the Hellenic Coast Guard at 06:34 CET. They copy the information and request that the boat in distress contacts the Coast Guard directly. Meanwhile, the people on the boat report more attacks and tell us that their calls to the Hellenic Coast Guard remain unanswered. During the three attacks they report in total, the engine and petrol is stolen, one person gets physically abused during the first attack, more men and women during the second, and even children during the third. They also report that their attackers threatened to kill everyone on board. The people in distress then report a Turkish Coast Guard vessel is nearby taking videos but not intervening.
At 07:26 CET, Alarm Phone contacts the Hellenic Coast Guard again to forward an updated GPS position. The responding officer refuses to provide any information on this case and neither do authorities in Mytilene, Lesvos confirm that a rescue is being coordinated.
At 08:13 CET, the people in distress report that upon calling the Greek police at 112, they receive death threats from the responding officer.
At 08:54 CET, we receive an updated position and forward to authorities via email and to the Hellenic Coast Guard over the phone. When we mention that the people in distress could see a vessel with the number Alpha-Sigma 080 (ΛΣ080), the operator abruptly ends the call. Attempts to also call authorities in Mytilene, Lesvos remain unanswered. An hour later, the people in distress report that the Coast Guard vessel is still on site making waves and endangering people on board, and that a pregnant woman is in a lot of pain and close to giving birth.
At 09:56 CET, we forward an updated GPS position to the Hellenic Coast Guard over the phone. The responding officer declares the position to be in Turkish waters and refuses that any responsibility to rescue lays with Greece.
Between 10:00 and 14:00 CET, we remain in contact with the people on the boat and call the Hellenic Coast Guard several times with updated positions.In the next hour, the situation on board worsens and the pregnant woman faints several times. From what the people report, it was unsure whether she had passed away. Food and water had run out. We update authorities about the situation. The Turkish Coast Guard confirms the reception of our mail and repeats that they are not able to act as, according to them, the boat is in Greek waters. Upon calling the Greek Coast Guard, we receive the same response. Upon having received an updated position we again called Greek authorities, who refused to copy the location. When informed of the woman in labour and possibly at risk of life the officer abruptly ended the call. We forwarded information provided by a midwife to the people in distress.
At 19:51 CET, the people on the boat inform us that they believe the Hellenic Coast Guard might be approaching to rescue. When we call the Hellenic Coast Guard to confirm this, the responding officer immediately hangs up and subsequent calls are not answered thereafter. An hour later, the boat is still not rescued after 15 hours in distress and the people are urgently asking for a doctor to attend to the pregnant woman. At 22:18 CET, Der Spiegel journalist Giorgios Christides writes on Twitter: "HCG rescued them!". At 22:38 CET, the Hellenic Coast Guard confirms the rescue of 35 people including a pregnant woman to Petra on Lesvos over the phone.
On June 14th, NGO's on Lesvos confirmed that the pregnant woman was in hospital and doing well, while the rest of the people were in quarantine.
Another example of long-lasting non-assistance that we documented during the past year was a case on March 1, 2020: people were abandoned adrift for 12 hours near the island of Lesvos with vessels of the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex in the vicinity, but not engaging in rescue.
In the night of September 9 to September 10, 2020 we receive a call from a relative of a person in a boat in distress in the Aegean Sea, reportedly in the area near Chios island. We are not able to establish direct contact with the group on the boat during the night and cannot verify the distress.
At 8:00 CET, when we finally manage to speak with one of the travelers, he explains that the group has been pushed back by the Hellenic Coast Guard and is now detained in Izmir. They have lost everything in the pushback including their phones.
Days later he gives us the following testimony:
The crazy thing was that when you heard from us on 9 September we had spent already 4 days at sea. It was 4 days before that the Greeks attacked us.
We were 8 boys and one girl most of us from Congo and Somalia, all Africans.
They took everything away from us, money, phones and everything.
They took us to their big boat and we slept 4 days on that big Greek ship. We were brought inside the ship and they kept us inside the whole time. They did not give us any food only water from time to time and they locked us inside. We stayed all together in one room inside the ship.
On the fourth day they put us onto a life raft and left us at the sea. I don't know why they kept us for so long before they did this.
I am stuck in Turkey since 2 years. It was not my first try to get out of Turkey, but all the many times before it was already the Turkish police on land or the Turkish Coast Guard at sea who stopped us. It was the first time that I managed to go till Greek waters. And this time it was Greek people to take us and to send us again. We are going to be crazy, the life as a black person here is too hard. We have to work for many hours and for money that we cannot survive with. We are stuck because we come too late, now that every way is closed for us.
If my testimony can help that maybe one day justice can come, then I will be very excited.
We do not know of other cases of detention on Coast Guard vessels. This testimony was a striking example of how far the Hellenic Coast Guard can go in order to push people back to Turkey.
On September 29, 2020, we receive an emergency call from a relative who informs us about a group of 159 people including 60 children who are stranded on an islet (N41.7015142, E 26.3753424) in the middle of the Evros/Meriç river and need immediate help. He reports that the people have been pushed back to this islet by what they interpreted earlier as Greek Military, and that the group had already tried to call what they refer to as the Turkish police but they would not come to their rescue. After several attempts we are finally able to establish contact with the travellers on the islet, who once more confirm that they were pushed back by the Greek Militaryand that they cannot move from the islet as they have many children and infants with them. They clarify that they are exhausted and that the children and infants need food.
At 10:25 CET, we inform authorities including the Hellenic Police, Frontex and the UNHCR vial email about the situation of the people on the island and ask them for an immediate rescue. We also call UNHCR in Greece but the responding agent asks our shift team what he could do. During the day of September 29, we reach out to several state actors in the border region to ask them to rescue the people. During a call with Ipsala Border Gate in Turkey, we get forwarded to different officers: the call ends with one officer wishing us good luck and offering no assistance.
At 12:03 CET, we call the Turkish Coast Guard Command whose operative confirms to relay the information to the local police authorities. We also try calling the UNHCR in Turkey several times with no answer.
Only at 21:33 CET are we able to reach an officer in the Military Station in Edirne in Turkey, who confirms the rescue of a group of people who are reportedly being brought to the Immigration Office.
Later, one of the travellers states the following about the events that took place after the group had arrived on the Greek side of the Evros river:
We started walking, but after 15 Minutes we found the Greek army. They spoke to us in Greek and English. There were three masked men among them who were responsible for searching us. The masked men were Syrian, [I understood that] from the Arabic that they spoke with us. They beat us. Then they transported us in narrow closed cars and took us to the river. The masked men ordered us to prepare the inflatable boats so that we could return to the Turkish side. One of them crossed with us to the island in the river, but then he stayed on the boat. A person from our group tried to forcefully take the young man from the boat towards land with us, but his masked colleagues started shooting in the air and in the water. We were subjected to a lot of physical violence at the hands of these masked men. They transported the entire group to a small island in the middle of the river and left us there.
Shortly after the sounds of bullets, the Turkish army appeared on the Turkish side of the river. They told us that we will die of starvation on this island and refused to transfer us to the Turkish side. We were stuck on the island from 7am to 7pm. […] In the evening, the Turkish army sent milk to the island, but only for the children. Finally, they said that they would allow us to cross and sent a rubber boat to our island. They took the children and women on board and told us [the men] to swim to the Turkish side. After we arrived there, they took us by bus to the police station and offered food and drinks to the women and children. They did not allow us to change our wet clothes and started taking our personal data. Then they took us to a UN camp, but it was under the control of the Turkish army. They did not allow us to sleep. They took our fingerprints in the morning. We spent two days in the camp until we received 'deportation papers' from Istanbul towards the East of Turkey.
This is by far not the only land border case where the Alarm Phone has witnessed and documented violent pushbacks by Greek Border Guards. On November 12, our hotline was called by a group of 50 people that shared a location matching the Greek Tychero Border Guard Station. When we called the station however, the officer on duty stated that he does not know about a group of 50 people. Later that same day, we were informed by relatives that this group was pushed back to Turkey. A detailed report can be found here: https://alarmphone.org/en/2020/11/19/ongoing-violent-pushbacks-both-at-sea-and-on-land
"We asked for help but they only shouted: go back, go back!"
Aside from closing legal pathways for people to find safety and to seek asylum in Europe, Greek, Turkish and other European authorities fail in their obligation to rescue people in distress. To make things worse, they endanger people by creating life-threatening situations to prevent them from reaching Europe. The involvement of Frontex in these practices has recently been exposed - thanks to human rights activists and critical journalists. It is clear that Europe is waging a shameful war against migrants not only on its external border with Turkey but all across the Mediterranean Sea. Such policies of deterrence are, above all, a direct consequence of structural racism within the EU and its (member states') institutions. The Alarm Phone regularly encounters operatives working in first-response agencies that openly express prejudice towards the people on the move and refuse to do their duty to rescue them. The policy of pushbacks thus manifests itself at various levels.
The Alarm Phone stands with people on the move and is determined to continue the documentation of crimes against humanity in the Aegean region and in the rest of the Mediterranean Sea. We call on those in solidarity to raise awareness of and to protest against these crimes. Every refugee that is pushed back, every person that is left in an unseaworthy boat, every child that is not rescued in distress is reason enough to stand up and raise one's voice. We will not stop until freedom of movement becomes a right for everyone!
Publications for the Aegean Region in 2021