During the night, Ahmed, a 17-year-old refugee from Eritrea, alleges that Greek agents detained the group, confiscating their property and denying them access to toilets and drinking water. In the morning, they were sent on a life raft in Turkish waters. He was too small, and videos taken by Ahmed, who hid his phone, show some people were forced to swim. The Turkish Coast Guard confirmed that they intercepted the raft at 1:20 p.m.The event described by Ahmed, who fled the conflict in Eritrea after his father’s death, is one of seven times he says he was repulsed by the Hellenic Coast Guard. The use of such “pushbacks” has increased since March, according to a Guardian investigation, and experts say it has become open policy of the right-wing Greek New Democracy government, which came to power last year.
Interviews with five victims of refoulements, 10 NGOs working across the Aegean Sea, including Human Rights Watch, Josoor and the Aegean Boat Report, and a slice of videos reviewed by the Guardian reveal an organized and systemic practice of denial of entry to asylum seekers.
Next week, a coalition of charities including Human Rights Watch and the Border Violence Monitoring Network will issue an open letter condemning the practice of push-backs and calling on the Greek government and the European Commission to take action against those involved. A draft letter seen by the Guardian calls for “disciplinary and criminal sanctions” to be taken against those “who have engaged in such unlawful acts”.
Experts in international law claim that these activities violate international law, including the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights. “What you are seeing is the illegal collective expulsion of refugees from Greek territory,” said Satvinder Juss, professor of human rights and international refugee law at King’s College London. “It is a disaster for human rights.”
Pushbacks often involve teams of unidentified men in black uniforms intercepting refugee boats that have arrived in Greek waters and forcibly returning them to Turkish waters, leaving them to drift after the engines are destroyed or in separate life rafts . In some cases, the victims arrived on Greek land before being sent back by authorities to the high seas, after actively threatening them with beatings, gunshots and creating big waves with fast boats. In one case, refugees were left on a small island between Greece and Turkey for two days without food before being rescued.
AlarmPhone, an NGO that operates a hotline and social media network for refugees in distress, said it had observed a substantial increase in refoulement reports since the pandemic, recording 55 cases between March and August. The Greek Helsinki Monitor said it submitted a report to Greece’s Supreme Court, Naval Court and Military Appeal Court, claiming that around 1,400 people were pushed back between March and July, although the actual number is estimated much higher.
Minos Mouzourakis, Legal Officer at Refugee Support Aegean, is currently working on landmark legal cases at the European Court of Human Rights that date back to 2014, when eight Afghan children and three women died after their ship sank near the Farmakonisi island during a push back. “It’s a regrettable revival of these old tactics,” said Mouzourakis.
In December 2019, Greece announced that it expected up to 100,000 asylum seekers to arrive on its islands from Turkey in 2020. But as of August 31, there have been 8,860 arrivals by sea, according to the UNHCR. Stella Nanou, the Greek representative of the agency, acknowledged the “credible accounts” of the refoulements and called on Greece to “guarantee and safeguard the rights of those who seek international protection”.
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek Prime Minister, has taken several official steps to ensure that fewer refugees arrive, temporarily suspending the right to asylum, shortening the appeal period in asylum cases, extending fences along the land border with Turkey and plans to install floating barriers at sea. But the government has called the charges of illegal refoulements “false news” from unreliable sources.
“Pushbacks are inherently violent, not only physically but mentally,” said Amelia Cooper, advocacy and communications officer for The Lesbos Legal Center, which documents pushbacks and provides legal support to survivors. “The survivors are aware that these expulsions, and the abuses they entail, are constitutive both of the European border and of the EU’s political context with Turkey.”
When contacted, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Island Policy said its operations were in accordance with international law and the agency had been subject to “systematic targeting by part of the mainstream media, NGOs and other social media platforms, which tend to promote relevant actions in a one-dimensional and fragmentary way ”.
But documents seen by the Guardian reveal that a German navy supply ship called Berlin, which leads NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 in the Aegean region, observed a boat with refugees forced into it. Turkish maritime territory by the Greek authorities on June 19 and August 15. The results came in response to parliamentary questions from left-wing MP Andrej Hunko.
After being detained in Turkey, Ahmed was released and has since slept in a park in Izmir city. “I don’t care if I die,” he said. “I have no choice but to go back. But I am losing hope.