Human rights violations reached a new level in the Aegean Sea and at the Greek-Turkish land border from the beginning of March. The escalation went along with acts of repression against NGOs and solidarity structures for refugees and migrants. Most recently, Greek authorities published a press release about a criminal investigation into 33 people from four different NGOs. Even though the press statement does not name the Alarm Phone nor as yet has there been an official statement including us, several media reports claim that Alarm Phone is among the groups targeted. Our position is still as our statement of 1 Oct 2020 and we refrain from commenting on the investigation or the rumours which surround it. Instead we want to focus on the real crimes that are ongoing in the Aegean: the push backs and human rights violations by the Greek government. In line with other actors, such as the Greek Council of Refugees, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Alarm Phone has witnessed and documented push backs and serious human rights violations in numerous cases both on the land border and at sea. This volumous and growing evidence led to 29 human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations recently penning an open letter to the Greek Parliament calling for immediate investigations into border abuses.
In addition, the outbreak of Covid-19 added another dimension of horror to the situation for people on the move. First and foremost, people on the move have a high risk of being infected due to their precarious travelling conditions, but also the ever changing Covid-19 regulations have further isolated people and made access to solidary structures in Turkey and Greece especially difficult. Covid-19 was used as an excuse to completely close the borders and – in Greece – to suspend the right of asylum for a short period. During the last few months, Covid-19 has also brought about a deterioration in the situation for the few people who did manage to reach the Greek Islands and for the thousands already trapped there.
This analysis focuses on the latest shocking developments in the Aegean region and reports on push backs in the Aegean Sea and at the land border that the Alarm Phone was alerted to from February to September 2020. It is primarily based on testimonials from activists and migrants on both sides of the border. Together, they draw an image of systematic violence against people on the move in Greece, Turkey and at the border zone in between. They also show the absence of any services which might allow people to meet their basic human needs. On either side of the border migrants are used by the states involved as chips in their political power games on both a national and regional level.
- Escalation and further militarization of the border region
- Summary of Alarm Phone cases from February until September
- Push back cases
- Fleeing again: Fire in Moria camp on Lesvos
- The situation in Turkey and its consequences for people on the move
- Solidarity networks to fight against the increasing violence
Escalation and further militarization of the border region
The situation at the border in the sea and on land deteriorated after Turkish president Erdoğan announced the opening of the borders to Europe and ordered his border guards to step back. In the following days, several thousand people travelled towards the border hoping to find a way into EU-territory. Even though only a few thousand people started moving, the images and stories were just what Erdoğan had been hoping for. Security forces clashed with people on the move and scenes of violence and chaos from the Greek-Turkish border dominated the media. This allowed EU politicians to ramp up their hostile rhetoric against migrants and repaint their image of a threatening mass of people on the move towards Europe. The reality on the ground was very different.
Video footage published by the media outlet MONITOR showed violent practices on the Turkish side of the border. Turkish actors used buses, reportedly provided by the Turkish government, to transport people to the border region and then forced them out. The video footage also showed the involvement of fascist forces, such as the Grey Wolves. Once there, migrants found themselves trapped in the border zone between Greece and Turkey, surrounded by armed forces and barbed wire. The ones who reached Greece were often picked up by Greek security forces. Then, after being beaten and humiliated, their phones and clothes were taken away before they were pushed back to Turkey. On the Turkish side, security forces burned down tents, abandoned people in the middle of nowhere and violently pushed people from one place to another.
Sources such as Amnesty International reported that people were killed during the attempt to cross the land border into Greek territory. An investigation by Forensic Architecture in partnership with Bellincat and Lighthouse Reports puts a spotlight on the Kastanies/Pazarkule border crossing in the Evros/Meriç region. The investigation shows a high probability that shots fired from the Greek side of the border on March 4 killed Muhammad Gulzar, a former City-Plaza resident. At least six others were severely injured in this incident. An investigation by the media outlet Der Spiegel draws the same conclusion. The investigation by Der Spiegel also highlights the March 2 shooting and killing of Mohammad al-Arab from Syria. In reaction to this, Members of the European Parliament called on the European Commission for an immediate investigation on the shootings. As far as we know no further step has been taken. Recently, the media outlet The New Humanitarian reported the push back of a man who had been in Greece for several months and applied for asylum. Greek police forced him and 10 other asylum seekers to enter an inflatable boat on the Evros river and pushed them back to Turkish territory.
The Alarm Phone has repeatedly reported on the escalation of violence in the Aegean region. Most of the calls coming from the Aegean Sea since March 2020 document push backs. Migrants are left adrift near the sea border. It is clear that Greek and Turkish authorities have denied assistance for many hours in cases of distress at sea. The acute distress in these cases has largely been a consequence of violent maneuvers during push backs by the Greek Coast Guard. The frequent publication of videos shot by people in distress at sea and broadcast in real time, as well as photos, sound recordings and interviews in social media have all been ignored by the authorities.
Even though this documentation of gross violations of human rights has made its way into mass circulation media, there have been no internal investigations by the authorities of these abuses. Despite various investigative reports proving the involvement of Greek authorities in violent attacks and push backs, they continue to deny any responsibility. Even in the light of irrefutable evidence, European institutions remain inactive, thereby tacitly approving the criminal practices of the Greek Coast Guards.
During the last few months, the Alarm Phone repeatedly contacted NATO forces and Frontex representatives when alerted to distress situations in the Aegean Sea. There was no case in which we received a reply or observed any of their vessels acting on our request to carry out a rescue. Instead, the EU has intensified surveillance and further militarized the border during the past 6 months: Among others initiatives, more border guards were employed and Frontex operations were extended. The result was more violence within a politics aimed at sealing Europe’s external borders by any possible means. Once again the cost of this policy was borne by the people on the move. It is beholden on all of us to create awareness of what is going on at the Greek-Turkish border and to demand an end to this violence.
If we cannot stop the war against migrants at the European borders, more people will die. According to IOM figures, 91 people have died in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in 2020 (last updated Sep 27, 2020), the actual numbers are very likely to be higher. As was widely reported, in July up to 60 people are feared to have drowned in their attempt to cross lake Van in Southeastern Turkey and only a few weeks ago, at least three people died after a boat foundered off Crete. These are only the few deaths we learnt of. Many more have most likely passed away in silence. Increased patrols in the Aegean Sea and at the land border, floating fences, armed soldiers, coast guards, police and border guards kill. We demand an end to this murderous migration regime.
Summary of Alarm Phone cases from February until September
Between February 28 and September 30, 2020 the Alarm Phone was alerted to 80 situations of distress in the Aegean region. While most of the calls were linked to distress situations in the sea, some people also reached out to the Alarm Phone while being in difficulties on the land border or at the Evros river. In over 55 of these Aegean cases we were told of violent attacks and/or push backs. Even though a majority of the attacked boats have been pushed back, those people who finally reached the Greek islands were also exposed to violent attacks. In several cases, boats have been trapped at the borderline. Coast Guard vessels standing nearby sometimes attacked them. Boats were left adrift for hours, despite authorities being informed about the alarming conditions on board. For example, on June 13 we witnessed a boat left to drift for over 15 hours.
Figures based only on Alarm Phone distress calls in the region since February 2020 count over 1,000 people that have been intercepted by the Turkish Coast Guard during their attempt to reach Greece by boat. More than 50% of the cases we handled involve interceptions or pushbacks. Compared to previous years, the number of people arriving is significantly down, but there is little evidence of a drop off in the numbers attempting to cross. UNHCR figures show just 9,115 sea arrivals in Greece this year (last updated September 27, 2020), compared to 59,726 in 2019. The number of people who were intercepted and pushed back is likely to be much higher than the number of arrivals.
More than half of the boats which called the Alarm Phone experienced an attack – often before they had called the hotline – either by masked men coming from Greece or by the Greek Coast Guard, and were then pushed back into Turkish waters. Several people told the Alarm Phone that they feared violence from the Greek Coast Guard even before they set out. They knew what they had to expect, but they saw no other way out than to expose themselves to this danger.
At the beginning of March the Alarm Phone was alerted to many distress situations and witnessed horrendous attacks on people and boats by both the Greek and the Turkish Coast Guard. We reported on these incidents in detail in our previous report:
“Between 1-3 March 2020, the Alarm Phone was alerted to 14 distress cases in the Aegean Sea. Only three boats managed to arrive in Greece. In many of the distress cases we documented grave human rights violations, including shootings and other attacks of boats by masked men who would remove engines and leave people behind in acute distress, as well as many push and pull back operations, some clearly intentioned to sink migrant boats. Repeatedly, Frontex and Greek coastguard forces were simply observing boats in distress, refusing to intervene for several hours. We also saw how Greek military forces and fascist groups attacked migrants when they reached the shore. On Monday we learned that a child had drowned off Lesvos on Sunday.”
Even after the number of attempted crossings decreased again, the systematic violence remained. Push backs and violence have become the new old routine in the Aegean. We continue to witness systematic, violent attacks against boats entering Greek territorial waters, as well as non-assistance by both the Greek and the Turkish authorities in cases of distress at sea. Nato and Frontex vessels are still regularly spotted on scene as inactive witnesses, as exemplified by the behaviour described in this report by Mare Liberum. They are, at the very least, complicit in the attacks against migrants in the Aegean.
Push back cases
It is particularly important to emphasize the horrific situation migrants face both during these sudden attacks on their boats, and afterwards when they are left for many hours, unaided, in the open sea. In an earlier report this year, based on testimonials from the people on the move, the Alarm Phone illustrated this phenomenon.
The Alarm Phone in the period between February 28 and September 30 was informed of about 55 cases of push backs or attacks. These are some examples:
On April 29, a boat with the Greek flag and officers on board, launched a smaller vessel with 6 masked men. They attacked the travellers’ boat, took away their petrol, broke the engine, fixed a rope to the boat and pulled it back to Turkish waters. 2 more boats of the Greek Coast Guard then arrived and created big waves to push the boat back towards Turkey. Finally the boat was picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard.
On May 10, a vessel with a Greek flag, which, we were informed, carried 2 masked officers, threatened a migrant boat, took away their petrol, broke their engine and pushed the boat with a stick. Two more boats appeared from Lesvos but did not act. The boat in distress was finally rescued by Turkish Coast Guard, who then took away their money and brought them back to a Turkish camp.
On June 2, the Alarm Phone was alerted by two boats in distress, both carrying about 40 people, who had been in the sea for several hours, drifting in Greek waters North of Lesvos. They told us that their engine had been cut and their petrol stolen. Photo footage showed a Greek Coast Guard vessel near the boat in distress. According to the Turkish Coast Guard, who eventually rescued the people, the Greek Coast Guard had pushed the boats back into Turkish waters.
On June 4, we were alerted by three boats in distress, carrying a total of approximately 105 people. In the early morning, we received a call from a boat with around 19 people. The travelers told us that they were attacked by a small dinghy coming from Greece, which was accompanied by a bigger ship that stayed in close vicinity. The personnel of the smaller boat attacked them, inflicting serious wounds to the head of one man, and stabbing holes in the fabric of their boat. Shortly after, we learned that the people were picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard. At the same day, we received a video from another boat in distress, showing them being attacked by masked men. In many other cases, such as on June 8, 13 and 17 for example, the travelers told us of violent attacks by masked men on Greek Coast Guard vessels.
On August 9, the Alarm Phone received a distress call from a group of approximately 80 people who were forcibly pushed back to Turkey by being placed in life rafts. Video and photo footage showed them adrift in the Aegean Sea. Shortly after our first call, we learned that the people in distress had been picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard and brought back to Turkey against their will.
More recently on September 6, we were alerted to a group of people in distress that had been pushed back by the Bulgarian police across the border to Greece. After two days on the move, the people reported that they were dehydrated, hungry and exhausted. It took us another two days to reestablish a connection again and we were informed of a further push back from Greece to Turkey. They had been illegally expelled from the EU. They told of being beaten up by the border police, who also stole their phones and money. At least one person died during this brutal chain push back.
MARE LIBERUM documented a push back of a group who had landed on a Greek Island. On the morning of April 30, 2020, a boat carrying 14 people arrived on Chios. Shortly afterwards, the Greek Coast Guard was on scene. An eyewitnesses’ report, as well as the videos shared by the Turkish Coast Guard, suggest that the Greek Coast Guard gathered the travelers in an abandoned building before forcing them onto one of their vessels. They then took the group to the small island of Boğaz. There are also 3 other reports of incidents where the same thing happened: One on Simi, March 23, one on Samos, April 28 and one on Chios, April 30.
Several other organizations had previously reported such actions. Legal Center Lesvos provides a detailed case study. In addition to this practice, increasing number of people have been pushed back by being placed in so-called life rafts and left adrift by the Greek Coast Guard. Just Security, an online forum connected to New York University’s law school, published a report in which they document at least 11 alleged push back incidents involving life rafts between March 23 and May 22. Extensive and detailed reports by Der Spiegel, The New Humanitarian and leftvision confirm practices of push backs involving life rafts even of people who have safely made it to one of the Greek islands. Bellingcat proved that masked men who harassed and attacked boats in the Aegean were using a Greek Coast Guard ship.
According to Aegean Boat Report, 356 boats have been stopped by the Turkish Coast Guard between February 28 – September 30 this year, whereas only 124 arrived. In many of these cases it was reported by the people on board that the Greek Coast Guard actively worked to stop them in Greek territorial waters before violently pushing them back. After many hours of non-assistance, the people on the move were finally rescued by Turkish authorities and returned to Turkey.
Fleeing again: Fire in Moria camp on Lesvos
The Greek government prolonged the lockdown in Moria hotspot from the beginning of March until the date of the fire, the night between September 8 and 9. While people all over Greece were told to keep a social distance of at least 1.5 meters, 12,000 people who, despite their desire to move on, resided in limbo in Moria. They were forced to live in an overcrowded camp. Most had no access to any sanitary infrastructure, running water, electricity, proper shelter or medical services and thus could not meet their own basic needs, let also adopt strict hygiene measures. On September 2 the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed inside the camp. This was shortly after the only Covid-19 isolation clinic by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was shut down and the NGO was fined €35,000 for lacking a building permit. The reaction of local authorities to the then rapidly rising numbers of new infections was not to increase medical staff or to reopen the isolation clinic, but rather to send more police and to put a €350,000 contract for a fence around Moria out to tender. Many refugees have claimed that Covid-19 was being used as an excuse to lock them up. It is worth highlighting that the only real measures taken to prevent an outbreak of the virus in Moria were the autonomous, self-organised efforts of the residents, initiatives such as the Moria Corona Awareness Team. They were remarkably effective given the appalling conditions the inhabitants were forced to endure.
In the night between September 8th and 9th several large fires broke out in the infamous Moria camp on Lesvos. At the time more than 12,000 refugees had been forced into living there. Strong winds caused the fire to spread rapidly, jumping from tent to tent in the severely overcrowded site. It completely destroyed the original camp, a former military base, and the vast majority of the surrounding, informal part of the camp – the so called jungle.
The world could watch live on social media as the Greek police pushed back Moria residents as they tried to flee from the burning camp and shot tear gas into the crowd – among which were many children.
Instead of providing shelter and the bare essentials for the traumatized and re-displaced people, the police used violence and tear gas. The authorities ordered more riot police units from the Greek mainland. People were met with state aggression at every turn, but the violence was beyond excessive for those protesting against yet another camp and demanding freedom of movement. Meanwhile police and right wing locals blocked NGOs and activists from reaching the exhausted refugees to distribute food and water.
The acuteness of the situation might have been exceptional, but it was neither new nor an isolated incidence. It is symptomatic of a consistent pattern of behavior by Greek authorities, who treat refugees as an unwanted mass that needs to be controlled and suppressed rather than protected.
Moria has always been a major part of the European policy of deterrence. It was never a lack of money or organisational capability that brought about the catastrophic, inhumane living conditions in Moria. Behind it was the political desire to make the EU seem as unattractive as possible for people in search of safety.
While nobody has ever been held accountable for the many deaths that the catastrophic conditions in Moria have caused, the (show) trial against the six teenagers accused of arson began only two weeks after the fire as high-ranking ministers immediately proclaimed that the perpetrators had been found.
The situation in Turkey and its consequences for people on the move
In 2016 the EU-Turkey deal was signed. Until today it remains the bedrock for the permanent condition of lockdown in which people are kept. While we often focus on the precarious situation for people after they have reached EU-territory, we tend to forget how the European migration regime affects people’s lives long before they reach the EU. This is especially true in Turkey, where Erdoğan uses people on the move as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with Europe. He needs support from Europe and elsewhere for his wars within Turkey, North-East Syria and further afield. He also needs to present himself to his domestic audience as a strong leader in order to remain in power. Erdoğan has proved willing to change the situation for migrants at the borders and within Turkey, if he can gain anything out of it. This led to the escalation in the Aegean at the beginning of March 2020. Erdoğan tried to gain support for his war against the autonomous regions in North-East Syria. His goal is to resettle millions of Syrians who are currently stranded in Turkey in the area. The European Union reacted by reinforcing their border regime, making it even harsher. They increased security and surveillance measures and unleased leathal violence against people trying to reach its territory, whether by sea or over land. This has resulted in many people being trapped in a unrighteous limbo and, due to Covid-19, also in a space that lacks support structures. Thousands of people are without access to a way to meet their basic needs or any health infrastructure.
However, as always, during these difficult times, activists and people on the move joined forces in an attempt to resist the inhumane border regime of Europe and Turkey by building solidarity on the ground. The developments in Turkey in the last few weeks are worrying. It seems that the EU-Turkey deal has been re-established and again violence is used to prevent people from exercising their right to move where they wish. As far a back as March 7, Mülteci Der, a solidarity initiative from Izmir, recognised that this was likely to happen:
“The Government of Turkey has not declared an official statement saying that its western border is open. It is just relaxing border controls by saying ‘Our refugee policy is the same, but there is such a situation that we are not in a position to hold refugees anymore’. There is no explanation for how long this situation will last. In other words, there is the possibility of this decision being given up at any time.”
What does this actually mean for people on the move who are stuck in Turkey? What is the situation on the ground for people trying to reach EU-territory and how did the Covid-19 pandemic change those conditions?
Since summer 2019, and especially since the occupation of parts of North-East Syria in November 2019, there has been a massive increase in forced deportations and resettlement of Syrians into parts of Syria – be this to occupied Afrin or to the newly occupied territories in North-East Syria. Turkey’s war in Syria was also crucial for the escalation at the Greek-Turkish border in early March 2020. Erdoğan was under heavy international pressure because of Turkey’s offensive and the massive destruction in Idlib. His erstwhile partners withdrew more and more support from him. To counteract this and to placate his domestic critics, he took a drastic step in February 2020. On 29 February the Turkish government declared that they would stop hindering people from moving towards Europe and that they will open their borders. After that, thousands started to move towards the land border, especially to Pazarkule. The available information was contradictory. The chaos which Erdoğan had hoped for quickly materialized. Migrants in Istanbul and other cities were forced onto buses and driven to the border region. Video and photo-footage prove that members of the fascist grey wolves were involved and forced people on and off the busses.
At the Greek-Turkish border, Greek border guards and Frontex personnel from all over Europe reacted with heavy force. They used teargas, but also small arms. The ones who did find a spot to cross the Evros river into Greece were, by and large, found and violently pushed back, as the following testimonial from the newspaper Almodon shows:
“After we crossed the river, we started walking in the woods and we believed that we had reached the end of the difficult road of crossing the borders. But the Greek border guards quickly surrounded us, pointing their weapons towards us. They robbed everything from us, telephones, money, watches, and even a belt from someone’s pants. Not only that, but they also destroyed our clothes, despite the harsh weather.”
Erdoğan quickly got what he wanted. After a short time it became clear that Europe was giving in to his demands. They would ignore international law and allow the war of aggression against Northern Syria and the crimes in Afrin to continue. In return, Erdoğan reversed his decision and forced the migrants back onto busses. Turkish soldiers destroyed the make-shift infrastructure which had been created, burned tents and dispersed people from the border region. As this was about the time when Covid-19 was spreading, migrants in Turkey became especially vulnerable and were fully exposed to the threat of the virus. They were forced into quarantine and after that left on the streets with nothing, as activists from the Izmir region reported:
“After they announced the opening of the borders it got very chaotic. Many people started changing all their money. At some point we could not find any foreign currency in the region for several days. It was right after Turkish soldiers died in Idlib. The police but also the society were a lot more aggressive towards migrants, especially against Syrians. I was out with a Syrian friend that day when the police stopped us. They looked very angry. When at 8pm I told them [police] that I felt like I was going to get beaten up, one of them responded seriously: ‘We have pain, we are mourning our loss’. They looked like [they were] searching for someone to pay back their loss.”
After that, the situation for people on the move has constantly worsened, especially for those who are pushed back by Greek authorities or arrested by the Turkish Coast Guard or the police while trying to cross the border, whether by land or sea. On April 13 a group arrived at the Izmir bus station. They were left in the streets without food, without money and with no information. They had lived through months of struggles and traumatizing events at the border. They were forced to leave their camp, but had nowhere to go. Such situations happened again and again. Not only in Izmir, but also in Niğde. With Corona and after the developments in March, things started to change. People at the border or the ones who were still planning to go to the border started giving up one by one. Some were saying: “We’re leaving the border and going back, as long as we still have the chance.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, it became nearly impossible for refugees to access services in Turkey. For example, it became increasingly difficult for lawyers and registered translators to visit their clients in detention centers. In addition, NGO’s and most other services/organisations were closed. They can theoretically be reached via phone or by email, but the things they can help with were highly restricted, as human rights activist on the ground reported: “We had a follow-up case and needed to visit a client in a detention center. However, we were waiting to find a lawyer able to go there for over a week and when we eventually found one, she was told that the client wasn’t there.” The Covid-19 pandemic worsened an already bad situation, as employees of organizations such as the Turkish Red Crescent could not leave their houses and were not allowed to work on the ground. They ignored everything, even emergency calls and left people abandoned on the street.
Solidarity work was done almost entirely by people from activist networks. However, their options were also limited because of the Covid-19 restrictions and the expanded presence of security forces. Despite these restrictions, they provided migrants with food, brought people to bus stations or arranged for cars which brought them to bigger cities.
Solidarity networks to fight against the increasing violence
Push backs are not only deliberate and violent actions conducted by the Greek Coast Guard, but they also implicate the various European authorities who silently witness, and thereby tacitly condone, the daily violations which occur at the Greek-Turkish border. The way each individual officer acts and obeys his/her orders and the state of the public debate on this ongoing development is embedded in racist European border politics. It is part of an overall shift to the right in European parliments and in Athens. The inhumane and hostile rhetoric against migrants in the light of the fire that destroyed the infamous Moria camp shows that deterrence and violence are the guiding principles of European migration policy, even for those parties on the centre-left of the political spectrum.
We are very concerned about the well-documented increase in cases of severe violence against migrants at the Turkish-Greek border and specifically push backs and non-assistance during distress at sea. European authorities have the duty to rescue people to a safe place. This report is by far from being the only one which shows that Turkey is not a safe place for many refugees. However, authorities not only fail to fulfil their duty, they also actively criminalize people on the move as well as the solidarity projects which are working on the ground against the deteriorating conditions. Within this environment however, it is exactly these initiatives, migrant self-organisation, and new collective approaches to struggle and win space for people on the move in the Aegean that become more important than ever.