An overview of illegal and inhumane pushbacks in the Aegean Sea
Greece and the EU try to prevent migrants from crossing Europe’s external border by all means. In cases where migrants do manage to arrive, Greece does not appear to consider itself bound by morality or law, and instead forces migrants back over the border to Turkey. This occurs at both the land and sea borders. And the practice is not new, as reports of pushbacks in the Aegean Sea have been made for years. What is new, however, is the extent of these incidents. Over recent months, we have heard about pushbacks taking place almost daily while there are evermore video and photo evidence, media reports and investigations. In early July, the European Union also finally began to address the subject. Greece’s minister for migration and asylum, Notis Mitarachi, was obliged to answer questions about illegal pushbacks, but denied the allegations.1 The EU’s supposed outrage about human rights violations by Greece at its external border is beyond hypocritical. With Frontex on the ground, EU officials should know as well as the Greek and Turkish authorities about these pushbacks.
In most cases, pushbacks see migrants forcibly returned over a border they have just crossed.2 Pushbacks are not deportations, since migrants have no opportunity to apply for asylum and thus are denied access to national and European legal structures. This practice is illegal for several reasons. According to the Geneva Refugee Convention, everybody has the right to request international protection. Likewise, according to the non-refoulement principle, states must not turn away anyone who enters their borders with the intention of seeking asylum. These principles are encoded in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights and thus binding for all EU states. At the same time, pushbacks at sea almost always affect a group of people who cross the border together in a boat, despite the fact that collective deportations are also prohibited under the EU charter.3 The law of the sea also decrees that boats in distress must be rescued, irrespective of who is in distress and who is rescuing.4
Yet the illegality of pushbacks is only part of the problem. Typically, pushback practices are extremely violent, putting at risk the lives of people on the run. Not only do pushbacks deprive refugees of the opportunity to seek protection, they also expose them to even greater danger. Not saving boats in distress is a crime, but actively putting them in distress gives this crime a whole new and inhumane dimension. If human lives are valued less than the protection of European borders, then there is not much left of 'European values' to speak of.
In discussions with migrants on the Greek island of Lesvos, almost everyone nowadays reports at least one pushback involving themselves, family members or friends. We have heard of over 150 cases since January 2020, as documented by various NGOs and the Turkish Coast Guard. Over 5,000 people have been denied the right to seek asylum in the Aegean Sea and subjected to violence by the European, Greek and Turkish authorities. Most often, the Hellenic Coast Guard is the perpetrator, while Frontex and NATO look on and the Turkish Coast Guard postures as the savior of the migrants in distress.
We have documented a variety of different pushback methods in recent months, all of them part of a strategy by authorities to prevent migrants reaching Europe.
Pushbacks via life rafts or life boats
"They took everything from us: money, bags, phones," he says. They removed the Greek flag from the naval boat, led them to the middle seas and transferred them into four life rafts. They were forced to board twenty people per raft, with -according to specifications- a capacity of 12 people.Testimony of a pushback.5
The Greek coast guard forces migrants onto life rafts or boats, drags them into Turkish waters and sets them adrift. The life rafts and boats are actually intended for rescuing those in distress at sea - they have no motor, cannot be steered and are intended to be used for a short time only in emergency situations. The use of rescue equipment during pushbacks is not only cynical, but also extremely dangerous and degrading. Since March 2020, 893 people have been abandoned at sea by the Hellenic Coast Guard in life rafts or boats and left to their fate.
Pushbacks onto small, mostly uninhabited islets
“We were 25 in the boat. We arrived on Samos at 4 a.m. We stayed on Samos for 4 hours. The Greeks on Samos came to search for us. The police brought us back to the beach and threw us into their boat. Then they brought us to a small hill, a small island. Also they called the Turks to come and search for us. They threw our bags in the water, our devices in the water and everything.“Migrant about his pushback experience in March 2020 to Mare Liberum.
The Hellenic Coast Guard takes migrants on board one of their vessels, drives to a small islet in Turkish waters and leaves them there. Often, the islands are uninhabited or have only minimal infrastructure. In 2020, we heard of four different cases of refugees being abandoned on the islands of Başak, Boğaz and Bayrak.
Pushbacks by masked men
“A […] small [Hellenic Coast Guard] boat then approached, with five men on board. All of them were wearing black masks, grey shirts and camouflage pants. Two of them carried long sticks. They were used to keep everyone in check by beating them, rendering them unable to prevent a third man with a knife from cutting a hole into their dinghy and the fuel hose. The fourth man on that Greek boat was driving whilst the fifth kept a lookout for the Turkish Coast Guard.“Migrant about his pushback experience to Josoor.6
Masked men in speedboats attack migrants. They are usually armed with long sticks or carry other weapons. They use them to sabotage the dinghy and beat people on board. It is reported that shots are fired into the water or into the boats' hoses. There are many indications that these masked men are not militias, but members of the Hellenic Coast Guard.7 We know of seven similar cases in 2020, though the actual number is probably much higher.
Pushbacks and sabotaging dinghy
“One of them shot bullets in the air and everything and then hit our boat. He was banging and banging and banging, and he asked the skipper to stop the engine. Now everybody started begging and pleading and begging for forgiveness. And at the same time, they were shooting at the sea. We were shouting, we were begging. Then one of them got into our boat, he stopped the engine, he took off the engine and then he threw it into the water.”Migrant about his pushback experience in March 2020 to Mare Liberum.
During almost all pushbacks, the Hellenic Coast Guard sabotages migrant dinghies to ensure the boats cannot return to Greek waters after the pushback. Engines, fuel or the whole fuel tank are destroyed or removed. The hoses are slit or shot through. In short, the inflatable boats are normally sabotaged to the verge of sinking, before being pulled into Turkish waters and left adrift.
Pushbacks through dangerous manoeuvres creating waves
“[W]e saw a Greek Coast Guard boat. It was big and had the Greek flag on it… They started pushing back our boat by creating waves in the water, making it hard for us to continue… It was like a battle – like living in Syria, we thought we were going to die.”Migrant on his pushback experience to Human Rights Watch.8
Ships of the Hellenic Coast Guard pass intentionally close to the inflatable boats. The waves they generate make the boat drift into Turkish waters, putting those on board in great danger of sinking.
Pushbacks from land
"He didn’t want to come with us when we crossed, but when he heard that most of us succeeded, he tried to reach Samos. They arrived on land and were put in a bus, but they weren’t brought to a camp. Instead they were brought to the shoreline again, put in a tiny, tiny dinghy, like a children’s toy, and then they [the Hellenic Coast Guard] brought them to sea and left them there. After that the boat capsized and he drowned.”Two migrants about the death of their friend after a pushback to Mare Liberum.
It is not only refugees still at sea who the Hellenic Coast Guard pushes back into Turkish waters and leaves to drift, but also those who have already survived the dangerous crossing and landed on the Aegean islands. We know of seven different cases in 2020 in which migrants who had already reached Samos, Simi or Chios were not registered there, but instead returned to the sea and abandoned in Turkish waters.
Standoffs at sea
Many pushbacks lead to stand-off situations at sea. Often, the Hellenic and Turkish Coast Guards, Frontex and NATO are present. The ships of the various authorities stay close to the dinghy in distress and push it back and forth. All parties refuse to rescue the migrants. These standoffs can last several hours and result in some of the inflatable boats being on the water for over a day.
© Header picture: Lisa Gross / Mare Liberum