RHODES, Greece – The Greek government has clandestinely evicted more than 1,000 refugees from Europe’s borders in recent months, sailing many of them to the edge of Greece’s territorial waters and then leaving them on inflatable and sometimes overloaded life rafts.
Since March, at least 1,072 asylum seekers have been released at sea by Greek officials in at least 31 separate expulsions. This comes from an analysis of the New York Times evidence from three independent watch dogs, two academic researchers, and the Turkish Coast Guard. The Times interviewed survivors from five of these episodes and reviewed photo or video evidence from all 31.
“It was very inhuman,” said Najma al-Khatib, a 50-year-old Syrian teacher, who said masked Greek officials took her and 22 others, including two babies, under cover from a detention center on the island of Rhodes, under cover of darkness on April 26 July and left them in a rudderless, motorless life raft before being rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard.
“I left Syria for fear of bombing – but when this happened I wished I had died under a bomb,” she told the Times.
Illegal under international law, expulsions are the greatest direct and sustained attempt by a European country to block sea migration with its own efforts, since the height of the migration crisis in 2015, when Greece was the main thoroughfare for migrants and refugees who wanted to enter Europe.
The Greek government denied any illegality.
“The Greek authorities have no secret activities, ”said a government spokesman, Stelios Petsas. “Greece has a proven track record of complying with international laws, conventions and protocols. This includes the treatment of refugees and migrants. “
Since 2015, European countries such as Greece and Italy have mainly relied on proxies such as the Turkish and Libyan governments to prevent sea migration. What is different now is that the Greek government is increasingly taking matters into its own hands, say monitoring groups and researchers.
For example, migrants were forced onto sometimes leaky life rafts and drifted on the border between Turkish and Greek waters, while others drifted in their own boats after Greek officials switched off their engines.
“These setbacks are completely illegal in all their aspects, in international and European law,” said Prof. François Crépeau, an expert on international law and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.
“It is a human rights and humanitarian disaster,” said Professor Crépeau added.
The Greeks once again understood the plight of migrants much better. But many have become frustrated and hostile After half a decade in which other European countries offered only modest aid to Greece, when tens of thousands of asylum seekers languished in poor camps on overcrowded Greek islands.
Since the election last year under a new Conservative government Prime Minister Kyriakos MitsotakisGreece has taken a far tougher line against the migrants – often refugees from the war in Syria – who are pushing the Turkish coasts into Europe.
The harder approach comes than Tensions with Turkey have increased, even burdened with 3.6 million refugees from the Syrian war, far more than any other nation.
Greece believes Turkey tried to arm the migrants to increase pressure on Europe for help and support in the Syrian war. But it has also put pressure on Greece when the two nations and others argue over controversial gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean.
For several days in late February and early March, the Turkish authorities have Thousands of migrants were openly brought to the Greek land border to spark a confrontation that resulted in the shooting of at least one Syrian refugee and the immediate extrajudicial evictions of hundreds of migrants who made it onto Greek territory.
For years, Greek officials have been accused of intercepting and deporting migrants sporadically and infrequently, usually before migrants manage to land their boats on Greek soil.
However, experts say Greece’s behavior was far more systematic and coordinated during the pandemic. Hundreds of migrants have been denied the right to seek asylum even after landing on Greek soil and have been banned from appealing their deportation under the legal system.
“You have seized the moment,” said Professor Crépeau of the Greeks. “The coronavirus provides an opportunity to close national borders to anyone they want.”
Encouraged by the lack of sustained criticism from the European Union, where the migration problem has messed up politics, Greece has tightened its approach to the Eastern Mediterranean in recent months.
Migrants landing in the Greek islands from Turkey were often forced onto sometimes leaky inflatable life rafts, fell on the border between Turkish and Greek waters, and had to drift until they were discovered and rescued by the Turkish coast guard.
“This practice is completely new in Greece,” said Niamh Keady-Tabbal, a PhD student at the Irish Center for Human Rights one of the first to document the phenomenon.
“The Greek authorities are now arming rescue equipment to evacuate asylum seekers illegally in a new, violent and highly visible pattern of setbacks across several Aegean islands,” said Keady-Tabbal.
Ms al-Khatib, who shared her ordeal for The Times, said she entered Turkey with her two sons 14 and 12 last November to flee the advance of the Syrian army. Her husband, who entered a few weeks earlier, soon died of cancer, Ms. al-Khatib said.
With little prospect in Turkey, the family tried three times to get to Greece by boat this summer. It failed once in May because its smuggler failed to show up and a second time in June after being intercepted in Greek waters and towed back into the Turkish border, she said.
On their third attempt, around 7 a.m. on July 23, they landed on the Greek island of Rhodes, said Ms al-Khatib, a report confirmed by four other passengers interviewed by The Times. They were arrested by Greek police officers and taken to a small temporary detention center after handing over their identity documents.
Using footage captured by two passengers at this location, a Times reporter was able to identify the location of the facility next to the main ferry port on the island and visit the camp.
A Coast Guard officer and an official from the island’s mayor’s office both said the site is under the jurisdiction of the Port Police, an arm of the Greek Coast Guard.
A Palestinian refugee who lived in a disused slaughterhouse next to the camp confirmed that Ms. al-Khatib had been there and related how he spoke to her through the fence of the camp and bought her pills to treat her high blood pressure, which Greek officials had refused to supply.
On the evening of July 26th, Ms. al-Khatib and the other inmates said that police officers had put them on a bus and told them that they would be taken to a camp on another island and then to Athens.
Instead, masked Greek officials transferred them to two ships to take them to sea before dumping them on rafts at the Turkish maritime border, she and other survivors said.
Amid choppy waves, the group, which included two babies, was forced to lower the raft with their hands when water spilled over the site, they said.
The group was rescued at 4:30 a.m., according to the Turkish coast guard a Coast Guard report that included a photo of Ms. al-Khatib when she left the liferaft.
Ms. al-Khatib tried to reach Greece for the fourth time on August 6, but said her boat was stopped off the island of Lesbos by Greek officials who removed the fuel and towed it back into Turkish waters.
Some groups of migrants were put on the life rafts before landing on Greek soil.
On May 13, Amjad Naim, a 24-year-old Palestinian law student, was among a group of 30 migrants intercepted by Greek officials as they approached the shores of Samos, a Greek island near Turkey.
The migrants were quickly put on two small life rafts that began to deflate under the weight of so many people, Naim said. Transferred to two other rafts, they were then towed back to Turkey.
Videos Mr. Naim recorded on his cell phone show the two rafts being pulled across the sea by a large white ship. Recordings Later released by the Turkish Coast Guard shows that the same two rafts were rescued by Turkish officials later in the day.
Migrants also had to float in the boats they arrived on after Greek officials disabled their engines, survivors and researchers say. At least twice, migrants have been abandoned on Ciplak, an uninhabited island in Turkish waters, instead of being housed on life rafts.
“Eventually the Turkish Coast Guard came to pick us up,” said a Palestinian survivor who was part of a group abandoned on Ciplak in early July who posted videos of their time on the island. A report from the Turkish Coast Guard confirmed his report.
In parallel, several rights organizations including Human Rights Watchhave documented how the Greek authorities rounded up migrants who were legally living in Greece and secretly deported them without legal recourse across the Evros River, which separates mainland Greece from Turkey.
Feras Fattouh, a 30-year-old Syrian X-ray technician, said he was arrested by Greek police on July 24 in Igoumenitsa, a port in western Greece. Mr Fattouh had been living legally in Greece with his wife and son since November 2019 and showed documents to the Times to prove it.
After Mr. Fattouh was arrested by police in Igoumenitsa, he was robbed and driven about 400 miles east to the Turkish border before being secretly put on a dinghy with 18 others and sent across the river to Turkey. His wife and son stay in Greece.
“Syrians are suffering in Turkey,” said Fattouh. “We are suffering in Greece. Where should we go?”
Ylva JohanssonThe authority in charge of migration policy at the European Commission, the European Union’s civil service, said it was concerned about the allegations but had no power to investigate them.
“We cannot protect our European border by violating European values and violating people’s rights, ”Ms. Johansson said in an email. “Border control can and must go hand in hand with respect for fundamental rights.”
Patrick Kingsley reported from Rhodes, Greece, and Karam Shoumali from Berlin.