With testimonies of survivors, video footage from people in the group and official information of the Turkish Coast Guard we have reconstructed an exceptionally brutal pushback.
The attempt of 31 people to reach Europe turned into a 5-day odyssey, in which they were severely beaten, abducted from land, their families violently separated, exposed to psychological terror and torture-like methods, shot at with guns and tear gas, and abandoned at sea. One of the men only survived because he was resuscitated by his friends in the life raft. The story of this pushback sheds light on the excessive violence and de-humanization refugees are facing at Europe's external borders on a daily basis. It also shows the well-functioning cooperation between Greek police, coast guard and military in carrying out illegal and shockingly brutal pushbacks.
5th December – “We arrived well in Kalymnos”
In the morning of 5th December, a rubber boat with approximately 31 people from Cameroon and Congo had come close to the Greek island of Kalymnos but were unable to reach it due to engine problems . They eventually reached the shore autonomously. As the group didn’t know where to go, they called UNHCR, who just told them to go to the Greek police. The group then started to work their way up a steep mountain across difficult terrain in order to contact Greek authorities so they could apply for asylum.
“And in the meantime, the Greek coast [guards] knew that we were already there. Because they came several times [...] where we had landed, turned in front of us, 3 times.”
A few people then returned to the shore and were taken by the Hellenic Coast Guard. According to Aegean Boat Report 3 people were registered on the island the next day.
“So that's how the police, the Greek Güvenlik [Coast Guard], arrested them. We were still far behind.”
The rest of the group had to spend the night outside.
6th December – “We start to cry, our women are going to die, our children are going to die”
The next day a total of 7 police officers intercepted the group with a car.
“They made us understand that […] afterwards the car is coming to pick us up to take us to the NGO [UNHCR] camp. All of us were happy, we were in joy. [Later] he tells us that the car cannot come anymore, that's how we are going to leave by boat.”Jean
One of the women remembered:
“The police came to pick us up in the bush and take us somewhere but still in the forest, they brutalized us, and took everything we had (clothes, phones, and money.) Around 7 p.m., they brought us back to the sea [...]”Adama
“We are separated from the women and children, the men are on one side and the women and children are on the other side. They take the women first.“Jean
Both ships drove towards Turkey. The women were the first to be pushed back :
“On the high seas […] put us in an inflatable basket [life raft]. We were separated with our husbands who were 11 in number. The men who saw this started shouting saying do not separate us from our women. Why you want to kill our families? That's how the police hit them and leave with them so we don't know where they are. We were alone in the middle of the sea and a Turkish fishing boat saw us and called the Turkish police who came to us search and take us to jail [detention center]. We stayed 2 days before being released.”Adama
“We saw already that all the women were in the sea, they threw the women in the water with the small houses to pump [life rafts]. […] The captain of this boat took his gun out, fired it, fired in the air, [and shouted] ‘go down, go down, go down, go down’ with force. So that's how we told them ‘how you want to put us in this little, in this little pumped-up house, you want to kill us, not even rescue nothing, you want to kill us only. I prefer that you shoot us, and we only die, that we only die, than you throw us in the water again’. That's how we rebelled.“Jean
Deeply upset by seeing their families in distress, the men protested. One considered to jump overboard but could be stopped. They started threatening the captain in the hope that he would rescue their loved ones, who then called the other coast guard ship as reinforcement. In the meantime, the Captain lied to the group to convince them to give up the:
“He said, ‘Everybody calm down, we're going to go and save the women’. He played on our psychology the captain.”Jean
The men were then taken to the uninhabited island of Farmakonisi, which is used as a military base. Here the coast guard crew was joined by soldiers. The “Captain of the military” informed the men that the women and children had been pushed back to Turkey and that they needed to follow them to be reunited. “After, they want to take us by force to put us in the boat to deport us to Turkey.” But the men – terrified and suspicious of the coast guards’ intentions – jumped into the waist-deep water. The coast guards and soldiers didn't follow the refugees, but instead waited for them to break down from the cold. They even poured more water on the men from a tap to speed the process of hypothermia. “From 5:00 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. we were always in the water.” After 8,5 hours of holding out, being verbally insulted by the soldiers (“malaka”) and 4 of the refugees being forced out of the water and put in a container, the rest gave up. Back on land they were left alone to seek shelter in a sheep shed, where they had to sleep in their wet clothes.
“The container there was so dirty, the goats were sleeping there, the goats pissed, the goats shatted. That's how we slept, on goat poop.”Jean
7th December - “they wet us again, wet our clothes”
“That's how in the morning with the cold we lit a big fire in the camp. We found a big wheel of car, we lit the fire to warm ourselves. They came with cars, small fire engines, they extinguished the fire, they wet us again, wet our clothes that we had put under the sun.”Jean
The refugees were hold captive on the island one more day, as the next ship to transport them was supposed to arrive on 8th December. Later that day, the soldiers asked who of the group had medical issues, which some had, giving the impression to be concerned about the refugee's health. The men were told, they would be brought to a hospital in Leros the next day – which did not happen.
8th December- “I see that he’s not breathing”
On 8th December, three boats arrived, two military, one from the Hellenic Coast Guard. The men were searched again and then surrounded by approximately 15 members of a Greek military unit in black uniforms and badges, that showed an antique Greek helmet and two crossed swords. They started to take the men onto the HCG ship, where they were forced to lie face down, while soldiers with dogs (German Shepherds) were guarding the shore. The men asked why this was necessary since they were about to be taken to the hospital. The officers answered by starting to handcuff them. Terrified of the expected violence and the soldier’s intentions (which obviously weren’t to take them to a hospital), some of the men jumped off the boat and tried to flee. The soldiers reacted with brutal violence: Shots were fired at the men in the water, the ones that remained on shore were viciously beaten by the officers.
“They begin to hit, to hit us, to hit us. They hit us, they send tear gas on us. They hit us, they hit us, they hit us, they hit us, and crush our heads.”
Teargas was used against all men, some of which were in danger of drowning. One man, who couldn’t swim was thrown into the water and when one of the refugees tried to rescue the drowning men, he himself was beaten.
The refugees suffered lacerations, broken bones and crushed ribs. Unable to resist any further, they were handcuffed, taken onto two coast guard ships, transported to the Turkish border and abandoned in two life rafts:
“When they violated the Turkish territory, they turned off the light now, they pumped the little house to pump [life raft]. That's how they put us inside. […] ‘Go back. Go back’ like that.”
One man was so severely injured, he passed out on the water and had to be resuscitated by the others.
“He didn't wake up. That's how, since he doesn't wake up, I'm worried for him, I go, I call him again […], he doesn't answer, I hit him too, I see that he's not breathing […] When I open his mouth, I put my mouth, I pump […] Now he is breathing, he is breathing.”Jean
At about 9 pm the Turkish Coast Guard arrived and recued the 11 men, who were then taken to the detention center in Aydin and were medically treated . Their case received wide attention in Turkey since the TCG published footage of the severely injured men after their rescue, which was then shared by Süleyman Soylu, the Turkish minister of interior . This can be seen as a strategic move in a geopolitical conflict to morally discredit the Greek government. Usually Greek minister are quick to react to the accusations by calling them fake news. This is why information and material from both coast guards about pushbacks must always be viewed with caution with regard to this ‘propaganda-war’.
The men were released after 9 days on 17th December and reunited with their families.
This was the story of just one pushback. Since March 2020 we have counted 402 unlawful returns to Turkey, which means over 12.100 refugees have been illegally pushed back and therefor been denied their right to seek asylum. Although there have been reports of pushbacks in the Aegean for years, they have become the ‘modus operandi’ of collective expulsion within European foreclosure policy. The events from 5th-8th December show that pushbacks must be ordered on the highest level within the Greek government in order to be carried out as a joint operation including different units of military and law enforcement units. According to the testimonies the Greek police in Kalymnos, several Hellenic Coast Guard crews, soldiers stationed on Farmakonisi, crews of several military ships and a (supposedly) special military unit were involved in this pushback.
As can be seen by this exemplary pushback, the methods have equally grown more violent: The use of firearms, tear gas and physical violence against people on the move show how disregarding the officers are towards the lives of refugees. Potential deaths seem to be approvingly accepted.
Additionally, psychological terror, manipulation and degradation were strategically used against the group, which shows that methods which can be assessed as torture are used during pushbacks.
The full force of the military and border protection system is being used against civilians, who are trying to flee to Europe and the methods adopted to the ones caught would be illegal even if they were considered prisoners of war as the 1949 Geneva convention defines .
This is the status quo in the Aegean - a situation that has led to the suspension of human rights and the rule of law for people on the move. The European Union must take responsibility for the effects of its migration policy of deterrence and foreclosure and end the system of pushbacks at its external borders. All involved in those illegal operations need to be held responsible. Protect people, not borders!
“And let Greece no longer do what it has done, which is to torture immigrants and put immigrants in the water. […] Whether we are black or white, we are all human beings. If the EU can fight this [then] immigrants don't die in the water anymore.”Jean