The refugees cast adrift in the Mediterranean

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Naima*, 50, first came to Istanbul with her two sons in November 2019, to join her husband, who was weakening with cancer. He died 10 days after the family arrived. Before the civil war in Syria, Naima had worked as a hairdresser and an Arabic teacher in Idlib. She does not go into detail about what happened to the family there but mentions the bombing and war as reasons for finally leaving.

After losing her husband, she struggled to find work in Turkey. She decided to risk the dangerous passage to Europe to seek political asylum, thinking that she would have a better chance to make a living wage so that her sons could get an education.

Namia asked around and months later found some smugglers who said they would take her to Greece for $7,000, all the family’s savings. What she did not know then was that masked men would detain her illegally and violently throw her into a flimsy life dingy that was set adrift in the sea, back to Turkey.

The ordeal began when Naima and her sons, Hussein*, now 14, and Abbud*, now 16, went to the city of Marmaris in southwest Turkey to meet the smugglers. As soon as they encountered them, the family left on a small dinghy at midnight on July 24, 2020, with 25 other people on board. Most were Palestinians and Syrians, including 15 babies and children.

The group arrived at the Greek island of Rhodes when the sun began to rise. Naima says they were met by authorities in blue uniforms. They spoke in English and Greek, and another asylum seeker translated into Arabic for her. The uniformed men told them that they were going to take them to Athens, adding, “We’re going to save you and protect you.”

Instead, the men took the group to a camp facility consisting of tents surrounded by barbed wire on Rhodes. They stayed there for four days until more uniformed men took the group to a port and escorted them onto two boats. One man who joined them on the vessels stands out in Naima’s memory. He was wearing a black bandana over his face and wielded a rifle. The other men onboard wore blue uniforms and carried small weapons. After a two-hour journey, they arrived at the Greek island of Kos.

Throwing people into orange life rafts

Naima recalls that Hussein, who was 12 at the time, had a bad feeling. “My son said, ‘Mum, I feel like we’re going back to Turkey.’”

That’s exactly what happened. The group was split onto two boats and taken out to sea to what she believed were Turkish waters. Naima says the armed men threw people from the boat into two semi-inflated orange life rafts in the water. Her son lost his eyeglasses after being pushed, and the men threw her on top of him.

Water slowly began seeping into the boats, rising over several hours. “After so many hours, we were like, ‘Okay, we’re going to die here’,” she says. “Children were standing … because there was (so much) water in the boat.”

Turkish authorities eventually rescued them and took them to what they said was a COVID quarantine facility for refugees and migrants in Turkey. After staying there for nearly two weeks, she said the authorities told her, “The only solution for you is to go back to Syria.’” Instead, with the little money she had left, Naima and her sons returned by bus to Istanbul which is where they remain.

The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has frequently denied that authorities push back asylum seekers, saying Greece has a “tough but fair” migration policy.

But the Greek islands, which have hosted hundreds of thousands of foreigners fleeing war and unrest since the mass migration began in 2015, are at the centre of stories of asylum seekers arriving and then “disappearing” from beaches, only to be picked up later by the Turkish Coast Guard bobbing in orange life rafts. For more than two years, reports by media and NGOs of pushbacks have mounted featuring Frontex, the European Union’s border and coast guard agency, and Hellenic coastguard vessels casting people adrift or forcing vessels back into Turkish waters.

NGOs and international organisations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Human Rights Watch have collected hundreds of testimonies from asylum seekers who said that they have been brutally pushed back from Greek territory. Media reporting has shown extensive photographic and open-source evidence of masked men performing pushbacks.

The European Union home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, has called the pushbacks “violations of our fundamental European values”. Johansson said in a speech in October 2021 to the European Parliament that she expected a “swift and thorough” investigation into allegations of the practice.

In April this year, Fabrice Leggeri, the executive director of Frontex, resigned after the EU anti-fraud agency recommended disciplinary action against him and two other unnamed Frontex officials for covering up human rights violations such as pushbacks. The resignation came just days after reports by a consortium of media groups showed how Frontex officials had been concealing pushbacks of asylum seekers in the organisation’s internal incident recording database.

In an internal email to Frontex staff, Leggeri said that it seemed to him that the mandate at Frontex had changed from being a border protection agency into a “fundamental rights” monitoring body.

Frontex and Greek authorities continue to deny pushbacks occur.

Asked by Al Jazeera to comment, Frontex said in a statement, “Fundamental rights are at the core of all the agency’s activities. Frontex takes any allegation of fundamental rights violations very seriously.”

This is despite mounting evidence gathered by lawyers and aid workers on the ground, in the form of videos from survivors of pushbacks and testimonies – such as Naima’s.

The refugee camp “Kara Tepe” on the island of Lesbos in Greece in November 2020 during an official press visit. Greek islands, while hosting refugees, have also been at the centre of stories of pushbacks [Julian Busch/Al Jazeera]

Pushbacks

Amelia Cooper is an advocacy officer at Legal Centre Lesvos, which provides free advice to asylum seekers. She tells Al Jazeera that her organisation started hearing about pushbacks involving life rafts in March 2020, from the Greek island of Symi.

Since then, similar reports started coming in “thick and fast” from across the Aegean, Cooper says. The typical pattern is as follows: Those who arrive at the islands are intercepted by what they believe are Coast Guard, police, and unidentified men working with them. Arrivals are stripped of their belongings such as mobile phones, money, identity documentation and medical documentation that might serve as proof to claim asylum.

Cooper says people claim to have been detained in unofficial facilities, such as port forecourts, for up to two days before being sent back to Turkey across the sea. Then there are “sea pushbacks”, whereby a Hellenic Coast Guard boat seems to deliberately damage a dinghy that arrives in Greek waters, and then tows it back towards Turkish waters.

Another tactic involves putting refugees and migrants on a Hellenic Coast Guard boat, which returns to the maritime border and casts them off in a life raft. “[Reports described] the authorities on board always being masked, usually in uniform, dark blue or black, but often without any identifying insignia,” she says.

Once on board the Coast Guard vessels, the refugees are made to jump or are thrown into life rafts, typically from a height of two to three metres. “We had reports of family members jumping ahead of the point at which they would have been pushed, because they were scared of their kids being thrown into the water and missing the rafts,” Cooper says.

Cooper says these forced deportations break myriad laws that EU member states are party to. They include the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the Geneva Convention, the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.

“You can pick a legal framework and they are prohibited within it,” she says.

In December 2021, following submissions from her centre and other legal organisations in Greece, the European Court of Human Rights announced that it would examine eight pushback incidents involving 32 people. The court could rule on these cases as early this summer.

Two woman crouch and cook in front of an open fire near tents in a refugee camp
NGOs and international organisations such as UNHCR have collected hundreds of testimonies from asylum seekers who said that they have been brutally pushed back from Greek territory [Julian Busch/Al Jazeera]

Armed men

The Turkish coast is clearly visible from many shorelines around the Greek island of Samos. At its shortest distance, it is less than 2km (1.2 miles) from Turkey.

It was within sight of the island on May 13, 2020, that Ali*, a 23-year-old Palestinian, says he was pushed back from Greek waters on a motor-powered dinghy that had departed from Izmir at about 4am carrying a large group, including many women and children. Ali was hoping to get to Europe to reunite with his wife in the Netherlands and because he could not obtain any kind of legal residency in Turkey.

“We were about to arrive in Samos and a helicopter took videos of us,” he says. Then he saw a boat arrive with men dressed in black and armed with guns. Ali believes they were police but cannot be sure.

Ali says that the men seized him and some other people from their dinghy, took their money and some of their mobile phones and beat them up. Ali managed to hide his mobile phone in his underwear. They then tried to tow Ali’s boat back into Turkish waters, he says. “We started telling the people [on the other boat] that we were immigrants, we were coming in peace and we need help,” he recalls. In response, he says, the people dressed in black made throat-cutting gestures with their hands.

Ali says that the men destroyed the boat’s engine by hitting it with “some kind of pole” and forced the group onto two orange lifeboats. They towed them into the middle of the sea and cut the ropes. Ali showed Al Jazeera a video of the ordeal, which clearly shows a Greek Coast Guard ship.

Ali says a standoff then ensued between Greek and Turkish coast guard boats which had appeared close to his life raft. It seemed like each set of coastguards was waiting for the other to rescue them. “People were waving with their hands – ‘save us or help us’ – and they didn’t do anything,” he says. “People were throwing up and after about six hours being in the water and going in circles, [a coastguard boat] from Turkey came to rescue us.”

In Turkey, Ali says he was taken to a holding centre. He left after 18 days, having given a fake name and signed a deportation order agreeing to leave Turkey.

Ali’s case was one of those investigated by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel and other media and published in April 2022. They showed how Frontex spotted Ali’s dinghy and then covered up the pushback by recording the incident incorrectly in the organisation’s database.

Map of Greece and Greek islands close to Turkey

‘What did we hear, ghosts?’

Dimitris Choulis, an immigration lawyer from the island of Samos, says that pushbacks had been going on for some time but grew more frequent in April 2020, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his government would no longer prevent refugees and migrants from leaving Turkey for Europe.

“We will not close the gates to refugees,” Erdogan said in a speech on February 29, 2020. “The European Union has to keep its promises,” he added, referring to a 2016 deal with the EU. In the deal, Turkey, which hosts millions of refugees, agreed to stop those already in the country from heading to Europe in exchange for financial aid. But Turkey says the EU failed to honour the deal.

The first pushback Choulis became aware of on Samos happened at the beginning of April 2020 when a local reporter found an abandoned boat on Mourtia beach in the east of the island and could not locate the people who had been on board. The incident was reported on a blog site, along with photos of the abandoned boat but no news of the people who had arrived. “What did we hear, ghosts?” a commentator on the site quoted a local as saying of the missing people.

Criminalising solidarity

Documenting pushbacks has become increasingly challenging. Media reporting on pushbacks has invariably been called inaccurate or labelled “fake news”.

Natalie Gruber works with Josoor, an NGO that provides support to survivors of pushbacks and refugees and migrants in Turkey, including short-term accommodation and access to food, first aid and medical treatment. The organisation has also been documenting pushbacks and is one of a number of NGOs which are the subject of a criminal case in Greece for “facilitating illegal entry” into the country.

Gruber says although the group is aware of the criminal proceedings, they have yet to receive any formal notification from Greek authorities. They have only seen the press release and a letter from Lesbos authorities to the Athens police department, which mentions Josoor specifically. But Gruber imagines they will have to present themselves at some point on Lesbos.

“We are very much aware that this is a political campaign,” Gruber says.

There have been several attempts by NGOs to bring evidence before Greek courts but it is extremely difficult because the victims are often isolated in refugee camps in Turkey, says Pavlos Eleftheriadis, a professor of public law at Oxford University. “Unfortunately, as far as I know all of these cases have been dismissed by Greek prosecutors and have never reached the stage of a court hearing,” he says.

He is “extremely alarmed” by the courts’ reasoning. He cites one case where NGO complainants submitted WhatsApp messages where refugees had shared their geolocation through Google Maps. The coordinates suggested that the refugees’ boat had been within Greek territorial waters at the relevant times, which contradicted the official account offered by the Greek Coast Guard. This was material evidence.

Yet the prosecutor dismissed the geolocation evidence without commenting on it. He did not ask to speak to the refugees involved in the case, even though they had eventually been rescued and were available to give evidence at a Lesbos refugee camp. The prosecutor accepted the Coast Guard’s verbal assurances and even imposed a fine on the NGO that raised the complaint.

Eleftheriadis added that the prosecutor defended his decision on the grounds that Greece was facing a foreign conspiracy to bring thousands of people into the country from Turkey, and that the coast guard had a right to protect its borders from human trafficking and “violent” movements of people.

“Even if it were true, it would not have justified the endangering of human lives at sea,” Eleftheriadis added. “[This] is wholly irrelevant to the law of search and rescue and to the criminal law. It exhibits almost complete ignorance of Greek refugee and asylum law. “

When asked by Al Jazeera to comment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an emailed statement, “We are informing you that the Greek political authorities do not have the power to comment and contest decisions of the Greek courts, therefore Greek justice is independent.”

Ilva Johansson leaves the site after an official press conference with Greek migration minister Mitarakis on the island of Lesbos on March 29, 2021
Ylva Johansson (in orange), European Commissioner for Home Affairs, has called for a “swift and thorough” investigation into allegations of pushbacks [Julian Busch/Al Jazeera]

A response from the authorities

Greece’s National Transparency Authority (NTA) published a press release on March 29, 2022 absolving Greek authorities of responsibility in the pushbacks cited in media reports. It noted that its investigation in collaboration with police found “no evidence to corroborate the allegations”. Twenty-five NGOs in Greece published an open letter expressing “deep concern” at the Authority’s lack of findings. The organisations said that the NTA did not meet the criteria to conduct an independent investigation.

UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, said in February that at least three asylum seekers had drowned in the Aegean after being thrown into the sea or left adrift in life rafts. “Violence, ill-treatment and pushbacks continue to be regularly reported at multiple entry points at land and sea borders, within and beyond the European Union,” said a statement by Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He cited 540 reported incidents of informal returns at Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey and called on Greek authorities to investigate and take preventive action.

The Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, dismissed Grandi’s statement. “It is deeply troubling that Turkish-driven propaganda and fake news about illegal migration is so often mistakenly taken as fact,” he said in a statement online.

Regarding Naima and Ali, a statement from the Ministry of Shipping and Maritime Affairs said that the information provided by Al Jazeera regarding the dates of their allegations could not be correlated with the data available through the reporting system of the Hellenic Coast Guard.

“The alleged practices do not correspond to the standard operational procedures of the Hellenic Coast Guard regarding the prevention of unauthorized border crossing and the management of migration flows within the areas of its jurisdiction,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, Naima and Ali continue to struggle in Turkey.

The limbo that Naima’s family and Ali live in causes great anguish. Memories of the trauma at sea haunt them. Regardless of whether they would have eventually gained asylum, they were denied the legal right to have their claims heard. Instead, they were beaten and expelled illegally from Greek territory. Naima could not pay rent on her salary as a live-in nanny, the only job she could find. In order to help her out, her young sons sought work in a factory rather than going to school.

Ali is unable to get permanent legal status in Turkey and has expressed suicidal thoughts to Al Jazeera on numerous occasions. He can barely make ends meet with his casual work at a hotel in Istanbul. Naima is concerned about her sons’ present, and future. She is considering returning to Syria.

*Name has been changed to protect the interviewee’s identity

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