Violent pushbacks are systematically carried out at European land and sea borders and constitute a fundamental part of the inhumane border regime of the EU. This article summarises eight testimonies of pushback survivors in Greece and contextualises them with public data on pushbacks and migration in the Aegean Sea, to reveal patterns of brutal pushback practices on Greek coasts.

Greece and the EU are trying, by all means, to prevent people from crossing Europe's external border. In cases where people on the move do manage to reach the border, Greece pushes migrants back across to Turkey. This happens at both the land and sea borders. Such pushbacks, i.e. pushing people seeking protection across a border, violate international law and deprive people of their right to asylum. Nevertheless, pushbacks are an established practice at the borders of Greece.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarakis call this fact a "tough but fair" border policy. In reality, it is a murderous practice.

Calling it pushbacks does not describe at all what people who experienced these human rights violations are reporting - abandoning people in unseaworthy vessels or on life rafts, some of them handcuffed, throwing them in the sea to drown or drift back to Turkish waters must be seen as attempted murder. Through pushbacks, those seeking protection are not only deprived of their right to asylum but are frequently killed or severely injured. Since 2020, there has been a massive escalation of border violence in Greece. Especially on the scale of these incidents. Many people on the move on the island of Lesvos have reported experiencing at least one, often several pushbacks.

The Hellenic Coast Guard stops the boats in Greek waters and forces them to return to Turkey. The officers destroy the engines and let the boats drift back into Turkish waters. People who manage to arrive on the Greek islands are hunted down, stripped of all their belongings, and abandoned on damaged boats or life rafts at sea. All this happens with the use of humiliation, violence, and torture. People are beaten, strip-searched, handcuffed, even at sea, chased by police dogs, insulted, harassed and their lives are put in extreme danger. While the authorities still deny that pushbacks take place, the practice has been proven over and over again by the survivors themselves and journalists. Yet those responsible do nothing to stop these systematic human crimes and murders.

At the beginning of this year, seven bodies were washed on shore in the upper port of Mytilene. No official investigation has taken place. In June, two more bodies washed up on the beach of Lesvos. A few days earlier, three people had been reported missing - they had gone overboard. Again - no one from the official side was investigating. The Greek government points to the responsibility of the EU for the situation in the Aegean, while the EU Commission holds the Greek government responsible.

The Greek government makes its voters happy by keeping the number of arrivals low. There is no reason for them to change this as long as the EU does not intervene. The southern European countries are guarding Fortress Europe, even after being left alone with this situation for many years. This way of pushing people back may be a Greek tactic, but it is clearly driven by European policies that put border control above people's lives.

The next section sets out and analyzes these practices, by summarizing eight testimonies of pushback survivors on the island of Lesvos and contextualizing them with public data on pushbacks and migration in the Aegean Sea, to reveal patterns of brutal pushback practices on Greek coasts and waters.

About the officers involved: From the testimonies of people who experienced or observed pushbacks, it appears that illegal human rights violations are not carried out by only one unit alone. Officers in OPKE police unit uniforms, Hellenic Coast Guard uniforms, civilian clothes, or black uniforms without insignia, with and without masks were described. Sometimes female officers are on the scene and perform the body search of the female migrants.

It can be implied that Hellenic Coast Guard and Greek police officers are involved in these operations. There is also a special unit for pushbacks on land and at sea, under which command is not yet known. Most of the witnesses testified that the officers speak Greek among each other, while they address the migrants in English or with body language. However, it cannot be assumed that they were only officers of the Hellenic Coast Guard and that foreign officers, such as from Frontex or mercenaries, are not involved in pushbacks. Some people also reported that they could not identify the language spoken because they did not speak Greek, were not used to European languages or did not pay attention to the language because they were too afraid. The involvement of Frontex officers cannot be ruled out onbased on these statements. Frontex may not be directly involved but is aware or present when a pushback takes place. This has been proven several times.It is impossible to sail in the Aegean Sea, be in constant radio contact with the Hellenic Coast Guard, and not notice an operation that pushbacks several people at sea.

What can be confirmed from the interviews is the use of so-called pushback helpers. In one testimony, the interviewee describes an interpreter who was called and arrived in a civilian car, wearing civilian clothes. He was speaking Farsi (no accent was mentioned) and told the group that they would be taken to a quarantine facility while they were pushed back at the end. Whether this person was a paid interpreter or whether he was forced or bribed to do so is not known.

About the used cars: Various vehicles are described that were used at pushbacks. Typical Greek police cars, the pickups used by OPKE (the Immediate Action and the Crime Prevention Prevention Team), blue buses used by the Greek police, and Hellenic Coast Guard for transporting people. There are also descriptions of small civilian vans without seats. In the testimonies, a small grey van and a white car which are used by civilian units that hunt people in the forests.

Car similar to those used in pushbacks. © Adobe Stock

About the used vessels: The witnesses describe the vessels used in the pushbacks as those of the Hellenic Coast Guard, which are visible to everyone in the port of Mytilene. The larger vessels, their RHIBS as well as the Lambro vessels and black RHIBS without signs or flags. On the ships, there were officers in uniform as well as in civilian clothes. On the small black RHIBS, there are usually officers dressed in black without insignia, always wearing face masks.

Hellenic Coast Guard vessel similar to those used in pushbacks. © Adobe Stock
Hellenic Coast Guard vessel similar to those used in pushbacks. © Adobe Stock

On the place: During pushbacks from the island of Lesvos, several people described a small beach to which they were taken. One case described a wooden dock of about ten to 15 meters long on the beach. There are no houses or people nearby. It is not clear from the descriptions where exactly this area is. Lesvos is a large island with many hidden places and small beaches. From this place, people are forced to get back on their own boat or to get on a ship of the Hellenic Coast Guard.

About the practice/torture: Almost all interviewees were survivors of severe violence. During pushbacks on the water, the boats and the people on them are attacked. The HCG circles the boats at high speed to create waves and force the boats to stop. This is extremely dangerous because the high waves could capsize the boats. Sometimes the HCG officers shoot into the air or water, pierce the bumper of dinghies with a harpoon-like stick and disrupt the engine. In one case, this stick was also used to beat the driver to force him to stop. When he did not stop, they pointed a gun at him.

Furthermore, it was described how Hellenic Coast Guard tows the dinghies with ropes, which is dangerous because the fragile rubber could break under the pressure and cause the entire bumper to deflate. A witness describes that the people were tied up with rope hoops and brought onto the ship still fixed. It is life-threatening to transport people in handcuffs on the deck of a ship, as they cannot help themselves in case of an incident.

On land as well as on board the Hellenic Coast Guard ships, methods such as violence and torture are used, often just for the fun of the officers involved. People are almost always robbed of all their belongings like phones, luggage, and money. If they refuse to hand over their phones or are caught hiding them, they are beaten and harassed. Some have been forced to kneel with their heads down and are beaten if they dare to look up.

Women described being forced to undress in front of male officers and other travellers being searched by male officials including all their orifices. One woman described being forced to lie on the floor inside a carcass of a dead animal and asked if she enjoyed the smell.

About the Turkish authorities: The interactions with the Turkish Coast Guard and the police are generally described as neutral. Usually, the Turkish Coast Guard picks people up from their drifting rubber dinghies or life rafts, takes them on board, and brings them to the Turkish coast. There they are taken to a police station and questioned. Some report that they were provided with food and water. The time they spend in Turkish custody can vary from a few hours to several months. At this point, it seems to be common for them to be released immediately after interrogation.

About the consequences: In addition to the violence and torture people are exposed to, there are also strong psychological effects. Many people are severely traumatised by fear and physical violence. Many of them said they expected to be killed or drown after being abandoned on a lifeboat in open waters at night. Getting help is not possible because people's mobile phones have been taken away. Many people get seasick, which can lead to excessive vomiting and dehydration. This is especially dangerous for babies and children.

All together, these experiences often lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. People describe that, even if they finally arrive in Europe, they cannot believe it and it takes a long time to sense some sort of safety. Some cannot sleep at all, others have nightmares, or find themselves sweating, shaking, and freezing after being exposed to a trigger, like a sound, or a smell. There is often a certain picture of Europe and especially Greece, as a democratic country, where human rights are respected. To learn in thisbrutal way that it is not the case makes some people lose all their hope for a better future, for a life in peace and for protection from violence and torture. During the testimonies, people broke down crying while talking about their expectations and the reality they faced.

The murderous practice of pushbacks must stop

This murderous practice must stop! Even if people make it to the coast and are not caught, the constant conduct of pushbacks has led to many people risking their lives by hiding in the forests, with no water, no phone reception, and no knowledge of the area. On Chios, it has already happened that people on the move have been found dead after hiding for days.

It is unacceptable that such crimes can be committed without any consequences. It is intolerable that the Greek government continues to deny this and pretend it is Turkish propaganda, while whole villages are witnessing the pushbacks and there are numerous reports, testimonies, and hard evidence. There must be an independent investigation and those responsible for their crimes must be brought to justice so that the practice of pushbacks finally stops.

Border policies urgently need to change, not only in Greece but in the whole EU. There needs to be safe passage and a fair system where people are not trapped in southern European countries but are free to travel to other European countries. If the pushbacks and violence do not stop, many more people will lose their lives and a society based on murder and cruelty will continue to be created.

Mare Liberum i. A.

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