Pushbacks refer to the illegal act of returning people across a border against their will and without a chance to apply for asylum. In theory, this can be done without the deliberate use of physical force. However, in most cases known to us in Greece, physical and psychological violence and even torture were used by the Greek authorities. The systematic nature of this procedure and the fact that it seems to be taking place to a similar extent in various Greek districts suggest not only that pushbacks are occuring,1 but that the systematic use of violence and humiliation is also carried out on the orders of the authorities and constitutes a strategic part of "border protection" in the Aegean.
In almost all pushbacks from Greece to Turkey, migrants are robbed of their possessions, money and papers by the Hellenic Coast Guard, Greek police or other branches of the Greek military. Once again in Turkey, almost everyone is temporarily put in detention centres by Turkish authorities, and then released without access to state support structures. We have been told that people in these detention centres are tricked or coerced into signing a "voluntary return" document, which indicates their consent to deportation to their country of origin. According to pushback survivors and local lawyers, if people are pushed back to Turkey after having lived there with a Turkish residence permit (“Kimlik”), many are then stripped of their residence permit by Turkish officials and issued with a deportation order, for reasons of having departed Turkey illegally. In these instances of ‘chain refoulment’, individuals face deportation to their countries of origin, such as Syria, despite known risks of returning to persecution or war.
Even if not subjected to chain refoulement, those who are pushed back to Turkey face extremely precarious living conditions. This includes exploitative conditions in the informal labour sector, lack of access to state structures such as health care and increasingly open racism. The threat of deportation also puts refugees under enormous pressure to leave Turkey and attempt to cross the Aegean (again). For example, one man from Cameroon reported in a 2021 interview that he had tried ten times to flee Turkey before finally reaching Lesvos on the eleventh occasion, where he then managed to walk for several days to the New Moria/Mavrovouni camp and become registered. Many of those who decide to stay in Turkey after one or more pushbacks only do so because they and/or their family members, especially their children, have experienced excessive violence at the hands of the Hellenic Coast Guard, police or military. Many suffer from the after-effects of the traumatising experience. Reports indicate that many children stop speaking after experiencing the trauma of a pushback. We have also been told that many individuals fear they will not survive another attempt to reach Greece, and therefore remain in Turkey despite the precarity they face there.
This chapter aims to provide an overview of the structural use of violence and torture towards people on the move in the Aegean.
Forced into life rafts and abandoned at sea
The daily and systematic occurrence of border violence and human rights violations at the Greek-Turkish maritime border no longer receives much news coverage. But in 2020, we started to receive reports of the Hellenic Coast Guard systematically deploying life rafts to conduct pushbacks. Since then, the Coast Guard has reportedly continued to regularly abandon individuals in life rafts on the open sea, including both individuals who are apprehended at sea and individuals who had already reached Greek soil. This practice has become part of the authorities' "modus operandi". In 2021, a reported total of almost 5,000 people were abandoned by the Hellenic Coast Guard in life rafts in Turkish waters. The routine with which authorities carry out this practice does not make the use of life rafts any less shocking. In this context, the rescue equipment is misused and turned into a weapon to endanger people on the move. Survivors have described the experience as traumatic, as they are forced into overcrowded rubber rafts, which cannot be steered, and left at the mercy of the sea's movements, usually in a state of mortal fear for many hours until they are rescued by Turkish authorities.
At the beginning of 2021, reports began to illustrate a new tactic used in pushbacks, in which Greek authorities would people push into the water near the Turkish coast.2 While most of those affected were able to swim to the Turkish shore or to small islands, at least four people died during such an operation in 2021. Throwing people into the water, regardless of whether they are wearing life jackets or can swim, shows another level of brutality that the Greek border authorities are willing to exercise.3
In 2021, the Turkish Coast Guard reported having conducted 18 rescues of small groups, between one person and eight people, who had been thrown into the sea and were able to swim to shore. They were rescued from the Turkish coast or from coastal islands, often from regions that can only be reached from the water. As always, information like this which is provided by the Turkish Coast Guard must be treated with caution, due to the risk of such information being politically instrumentalized by Turkey against Greece. However, the commonalities of these separate cases indicate a routine pattern of operations, and civil society actors were indeed able to validate some of the reports by contacting those who were affected.
The respondent describes the boat as driving very fast for a total of 15-20min and then stopped nearby a small, uninhabited island. The uniformed men then reportedly cut the zip ties off the Somalis and Palestinian and handed them each a life jacket and ordered them to put them on. Then, they reportedly threw them into the sea about 100m from the island. “None of us could swim!” proclaims the respondent. “We were crying and swimming and crying and swimming”. They eventually reached the island which was uninhabited. “There was nothing, not even trees!”. The respondent states that for three days, the four men were stranded on this small island. “We were so hungry and thirsty, we drank water from the sea and ate twigs of bushes.”
Testimony 27.01.2021 – Josoor
Forced undressing, body searches and (sexualised) violence
It is reported that Greek officials often force people to undress during pushbacks, particularly during pushbacks of those who had already reached Greek soil. These individuals, who are left partially or completely exposed, are often then forced to remain in uncomfortable poses, such as kneeling, for even hours at a time, and even outdoors in winter temperatures.
According to frequent reports, Greek authorities also repeatedly use sexualised violence during pushbacks. Women have told us about various acts of sexual assault and harassment conducted against them by Greek border guards, such as verbal assaults with explicit sexual content, the use of explicit gestures, and acts of physically sexual assault. Women reported being forced to take off their hijab in front of a group of people and also to strip naked. Men also reported that they were ordered to undress completely, and that the authorities used physical violence against them if they did not obey this demand immediately.
The act of strip-searching is another practice which reports suggested is being used more frequently by the Greek authorities during recent pushback operations. During strip-searching, the individual’s entire body is examined, including orifices such as the mouth, anus and vagina. Reports indicate that while individuals were stripped naked and strip-searched, the officials insulted and laughed at them. Reports also reveal that strip-searches of women were conducted by male officials.
“Shortly after boarding the boat, the men were forcibly undressed and their money was taken away from them. Naked, one by one, they were searched by the officers while being verbally insulted and violently beaten. The officers were also harassing women and touching their bodies. They did not force the women to undress but ordered them to stand up and then [the officers] touched their bodies. The respondent explained that some of the women were screaming while their bodies were touched and that the officers would beat them and tell them to stop screaming.”
Testimony 24.08.2021 – BVMN
“They strip-searched us naked in the forest. They first started searching the clothes, everywhere. They searched everything. Even if they found money they thought you have more money. You undress and they searched your private parts including your inners.” The same method applied to everybody, including the pregnant woman. They searched everywhere. There were only male officers present.
Testimony 18.09.2021 – Mare Liberum
„"We were picked up by the Greek authorities. [...] We were taken into custody at a station of the port authority. We were separated. [...] In another room, I was subjected to an incredibly invasive 'strip search' that I would actually describe more as a sexual harassment/sexual assault [...]. I have worked in criminal psychiatry and know what a strip search, designed to protect officers and search for illegal contraband, should look like. And that was not the case. This was pure intimidation and it was incredibly inappropriate and invasive."
Testimony - Hearing of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders with defenders of migrants' rights in Greece
“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Article 5 of the 1984 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“[...] the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.” Article 1 of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984).
On 19 September 2021, a wooden ship with about 150 people left the Turkish city of Izmir bound for Italy. On 22 September, they reached Italian waters. There, the ship's engine failed and water entered the ship.
The oil tanker Aristotanis, which was on its way to Egypt, took the people in distress on board. In the process, a pregnant woman fell into the sea and could not be rescued. The tanker then continued its journey towards Greece, where the rescued people were to disembark in Chania on Crete. Allegedly, the people refused to set foot on Greek soil and demanded to be taken to Italy. Pictures of the people on board showed a strong presence of "men in special forces uniforms, different from the regular uniforms of the Hellenic Coast Guard, with black gloves and their faces hidden behind balaclavas."4
By this time, several solidarity groups were involved and national journalists were covering the case. Many feared a pushback. The Hellenic Coast Guard had already carried out pushbacks over distances of hundreds of kilometres in the past, although this was reported in public. (See the pushback of 197 people from Crete to Turkey documented by Alarmphone5)
During the night, the people were then forcibly brought ashore and placed in a kindergarten where they were beaten, given neither food nor drink and had no access to toilets. According to testimonies, several people were tortured in the following days to find out who was steering the boat.
Testimony 19.09.2021 – Mare Liberum*
Voice messages from one of the affected persons:
“Comrade, we left Izmir by ship. We were passing near Italy. Our ship started sinking. At that point we [were saved by] another ship. This ship brought us to Greece and handed us over to the police here.”
“Now, comrade, they brought us to… it’s a kindergarten. It has got a backyard. They threw some things on the ground [for us to sleep]. We are here. Our area is closed with a tape. Our biggest problem is related to the captain, the one who operated the ship. They [the police] are saying that he is among us. [They say] “Tell us which one [of you] is it.” Because we boarded the ship during the night, we don’t know him. They put us in a place below, we didn’t meet. We didn’t stay alongside them. Yesterday a lot of pressure was made because of this. They made great psychological pressure on us. I mean, they made pressure upon all the youth. They beat them. One was detained. He was taken yesterday evening and didn’t return. They took a friend in the evening. They tight something around his neck and threw him into the water; they tortured him. Another friend, they broke his leg. They broke or trampled his foot. They trampled his hand. They put him in a terrible state. We don’t know whether we are going to stay or they will bring us to another place, they haven’t given us any information.”
A particularly brutal pushback occurred in early December 2020, when 31 people's attempt to reach Europe turned into a five-day odyssey in which they were severely beaten, taken off land, forcibly separated from their families, subjected to psychological and physical torture at a military base, shot at with guns and tear gas, attacked by dogs and abandoned at sea.
"[Then] they started shooting in the air, so they shot. I ran away, with the others we went into the water and they started [shooting at us] with tear gas. The two small trucks [with fixed] guns that were there [...] also start shooting into the water. They start hitting us, hitting us, hitting us. They beat us [and] they shot tear gas at us. They beat us, they beat us, they beat us, they beat us, they beat us and smashed our heads.
The other one, he [can't] swim [...], one of our brothers wants to save him. So he [soldier] hits my brother in the ribs [...]. He [still] tries to save him in the water [from drowning]. That's how they beat us."
One of the men only survived the violent excess because he was revived by his friends in the life raft.
"I call him, I say "Mamadou Mamadou". His name was Mamadou. He didn't wake up again. So, since he doesn't wake up, I worry about him, [...] I call him again, I call him again, "Mamadou", he doesn't answer. I also hit him, I see that he is not breathing. I open his mouth. When I open his mouth, I put my mouth in, I pump, then I pump in his mouth. I think he's breathing a little bit, he's not breathing. Then I pump a little bit for the second time. The second time I do it, he coughs a little bit. [...] Now he's breathing, now he's breathing."
Testimony 05.-08.12.2020 – Mare Liberum
The following testimony reports on a brutal pushback at the Evros border river in October 2020. Even though it is not regionally located in the Aegean, it shows how torture is structurally used at the Greek-Turkish border.
“They put all the 70 people in the car [transporter]. We couldn’t breathe for one hour. With this car they went to the river. We went out of the car while they were striking us. We were without clothes, in our underwear, without shoes. The ‚commandos‘ told us to sit down in a line and to put our heads down and to not look at them. They were asking if someone spoke English. I thought if we don’t speak English they will strike us, but if we speak English, I don’t know.
I told him: ‘Yes, I speak English.‘ He told me to stand up and put a weapon next to my eye. He screamed‚ ‘If you come again to Greece, I will kill you! The Weapon here. Tell your friend, I will kill you! I am from the private Army in Greece! If you come back to Greece I will kill you!’ The weapon was on my head and my eye and after that he struck me. Struck me, struck me and then told me: ‘Now, I don’t want to strike you, I want to strike these bad refugees.‘ I think he was a police officer but he had a mask and I could only see his eye. He was wearing black gloves and boots. He was very tall. I am 184 cm and he was taller than me. After he struck me, he told me: ‘Sit down at the other side and watch how I strike your colleges and refugees.’ Two ‘commandos‘ on each side [were] shouting at all the people. In his eye, in his leg, in his hands, in his head, they struck all the people for one or two hours. Yes, also the women. Only with me he took the weapon in my eye and did not strike me with the weapon. All the other people he struck at their legs and their hands. Another person his eye, another person he couldn’t take breath, another person screamed. He told us: ‘If you come back, another time to Greece, I will kill you! We will kill you!’ We were around 80 and there were two [officers] on each side of us. [They struck us] for 1 hour or 2 hours, I don’t remember about this.“
Testimony 13.10.2020 – Mare Liberum*
* Testimony by Mare Liberum, not published.