197 People Pushed Back 200 Nautical Miles from Crete to Turkey

On October 20, the Alarm Phone was alerted by the passengers of a sailing boat in distress near the Greek Island of Crete. There were 197 people on board on the route from Turkey to Italy. Most of the passengers were refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine. Due to worsening weather conditions, they were calling for help. As they were only a few miles off the coast of Crete, they told the Alarm Phone they want to try to change course for the island to save their lives. What could have been a quick rescue, turned to one of the biggest pushbacks the Alarm Phone has witnessed in the Aegean region.

The Alarm Phone informed the Hellenic Coast Guard by calling the JRCC in Piraeus at 13:12 CET. The officers said that they were aware of the boat. According to the passengers, the Hellenic Coast Guard contacted them directly to announce that they would be rescued by two ships, and that the operation was estimated to take place around 21:00 EET. Shortly after 20:00 CET, the Alarm Phone received a video from the people, showing an unknown vessel that had accosted the sailing boat. A man is heard saying in Greek “Hey, guys” (“Ε, παιδιά”) seconds before a masked man is seen boarding the sailing boat shouting to the people in English “Back everyb…”. Right after we received the videos, we lost all contact to the passengers.

Approximately 48 hours later, we finally received confirmation by the travelers: the Hellenic Coast Guard had entered the boat, heavily beaten several people, separated the 197 passengers into two groups, and pushed them back into Turkish waters. Once there, they forced them into inflatable life rafts where the people had to wait until the Turkish Coast Guard picked them up. Several people had to be hospitalized. At the end of this report, we present a more detailed chronology of the case as we witnessed it that day.

The following testimony tells the story from the perspective of one of the passengers, a refugee from Syria.

They waited until 9pm. It was very dark already when they entered our boat. There was a Greek boat coming. First we thought to assist us. It was a big grey ship and it looked like made for war. First they stormed the boat with men wearing black masks. They entered in a very violent way and started beating everybody around. They broke some people’s arms and fingers. They took phones away and also other sorts of belongings, even clothes or trousers of some people. When they found the captain of the boat, they beat him up with very heavy violence. We all feared that he will die. He was severely injured, and had one arm broken 5 times. Also the other hand was broken and he suffered from a brain-shook. Possibly also organs have been damaged, as he was heavily beaten in the stomach. They literally beat him everywhere. He was pushed back with us – back to Turkey.

They transferred all people on two different boats. I think both boats belonging to the Greek Coast Guard or Military. At this point, the first commando of masked men who entered our boat had left. However, also these next group of officers all wear masks. I was lucky because they put me on the boat with the families, which was better because they did not beat us anymore after the transfer. On the boat where they put most men they continued beating them during the whole journey.

All of us had to sit down on the deck. They shouted: “Sit down. Look down.” We had to sit on the floor and were not allowed to take up the head. They treated us like dangerous terrorists. They did not really speak with us. Only in the beginning one of them said they will bring us to the camp now. It was impossible to realize where they brought us, but they went with a lot of speed. The journey lasted 10 hours. Due to the rain and the wind, we all became wet – also the women and children who were with us on the top of the ship. The Greek officers did not give us any food or water and we weren’t allowed to pee. Some said they want to go to toilet, but they only shouted at us.

When it was morning again they forced us into life-rafts. They pushed us down and some people just fell from the boat into the rubber islands. When we were all on the life-rafts they drove away, but stayed in a distance and observed us. In the beginning we were very afraid because we thought they will shoot us, as they were watching at us while holding guns. It was horrible. Some of the second group later told us that they were put on bigger swimming islands – similar to demobilized boats. During their journey, they suffered more violence. Many of them were injured. They were placed on a different location on these bigger life-rafts without a roof. We only met them in Turkey.

When the Turkish coastguard picked us up, we suffered another 2 days. We had to sleep outside in a yard, they only gave us some UN-blankets. After two days we had to pay for a bus ride, which finally brought us to a supportive organization. We could choose then if we want to go to Izmir or to Istanbul. In total, we spent 4 days in the forest, then 3 days at sea, then 2 days outside in the yard of the police station, then 1 night outside at the bus-stop. So 10 days in total under really horrible conditions.

Not only the testimony of this passenger, but also the stories of relatives, the events the Alarm Phone witnessed while speaking with the people on the phone, and footage from passengers and the Turkish Coast Guard leave no doubt that this violent odyssey took place as reported.

This incident shows a whole new level in terms of the distance that the Hellenic Coast Guard is willing to traverse to push people back, as well as in terms of the number of people the Hellenic Coast Guard is capable of attacking at once. Such an operation requires serious coordination: they used multiple ships and at least seven life rafts. And of course, heavy violence. We find it hard to imagine that such an operation could go unseen by either NATO or Frontex, whose presence is heavy in the area. While the exposure of Frontex’s involvement in pushbacks in the Aegean stirred outrage across the European public opinion, the Hellenic Coast Guard shamelessly executed the next pushback, subjecting people to the risk of drowning and to the consequences of the violent attack.

This incident is not an exception but the norm in the Aegean region. Pushbacks are an integral part of the current European migration regime. Side by side with people on the move and migrant communities, we will continue the struggle against this regime, and continue exposing the criminal behaviour of the European border guards.

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Chronology

On October 20, the Alarm Phone is alerted by a boat in distress near the Greek Island of Crete. It was not a usual call as the people reported being on a big boat carrying no less than 180 passengers fleeing Turkey. The precise number later turned out to be 197. The boat was a 22 meter long sailing boat. Worsening weather conditions in the area posed a threat and did not allow them to continue their journey.

October 20, 13:12 CET: We alert the Hellenic Coast Guard in Piraeus. They say that they are already aware of the boat, which is 12 Nautical Miles off the Cretan coast.

Shortly after, the people on the boat decide to change course and sail towards the island. They report to the Alarm Phone that the Hellenic Coast Guard called them and advised to stop their boat as it is too dangerous to land by themselves. In the same call, the Hellenic Coast Guard announced that they will come and rescue them.

October 20, 15:17 CET: The passengers call again and report that two big vessels have arrived and told them to follow their instructions. The person on the phone says that the situation is critical and that they were told that they should wait where they are until they are picked up by the Hellenic Coast Guard at 21:00 EET. When the people try to land on Crete themselves, two vessels of the Hellenic Coast Guard prevent them from doing so and are circling the boat making waves.

October 20, 20:03 CET: We receive a video where someone is clearly heard speaking Greek shortly before a masked man boards the boat and shouts in English to the people to stand back. This video is the last contact we have with the people. None of the numbers we were communicating before works anymore. From this point on it takes nearly 48 hours before we receive news from the people.

During the day of October 22, relatives inform us that the people have been pushed back to Turkey: 197 people were forcibly brought back roughly 200 NM into Turkish waters where they were forced into inflatable liferafts. According to information we received through relatives and the people themselves and as reported above, they were picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard in two different spots off the coast of Mugla: one group in the Marmaris district, another group near Datça.

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Footage

Photos taken and published by the Turkish Coast Guard when they picked up the people from the inflatable life rafts add to the accounts of the travelers:

https://en.sg.gov.tr/76-irregular-migrants-were-rescued-off-the-coast-of-mugla
https://en.sg.gov.tr/121-irregular-migrants-were-rescued-off-the-coast-of-mugla

On a video recorded by one of the passengers, a person is saying that they are off the coast of Marmaris and have been pushed back by the Hellenic Coast Guard from Crete to Turkey. Reportedly, the passengers were divided into two groups and transferred on two Coast Guard vessels, where they were forced to sit on the deck for 10 hours. During the journey to Turkey, some of them were insulted and badly beaten by Greek operatives. Among them, the person piloting the boat was beaten unconscious, and was even feared dead by some. Luckily, he survived but had to get admitted to a hospital in Turkey. Greek operatives also seem to have removed people’s belongings and especially phones, but also money and other items. This is the pattern on most pushbacks: physical violence and theft by European Coast and Border Guards.

Video footage seen by Alarm Phone shows a person with a broken hand, a broken finger and heavy bruises on his belly. The person on the video reports: “this is what the Coast Guard in Greece near Crete island did to us.”

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