A group has been stuck for over three weeks on a small islet of the Evros river. Their story includes countless distress-calls, physical attacks, sexual violence, non-assistance when immediate medical aid was needed, and the complete disregard for a European Court of Human Rights ruling, which granted the group interim measures and ordering the Greek state to provide them with assistance. It is another clear example of the brutal reality that people endure at the land border between Türkiye and Greece.
On the 21st of July 2023, a group of people reached out to Alarm Phone. The 52 people – among them several children and elderly people with severe health conditions – told us how they were stuck on a small islet near the village of Lagyna on Greek territory in the middle of the Evros river, which borders Greece and Türkiye. When reaching out to Alarm Phone and calling for help, the people informed us they had already been stuck on the islet for eight days. At 14:19 CEST of the same day, Alarm Phone alerted Greek authorities, as well as Frontex, UNHCR and various NGOs via email about the people in distress, sharing their location and their request for immediate and urgent assistance.
At this point, we did not know that this would be the start of an odyssey lasting over two weeks, with no end in sight, which would include countless emails and calls to authorities, public outcries via social media to mobilise for evacuation, an ignored decision of the European Court of Human rights and ongoing barbaric violence by Greek forces against the group.
On the day after the alert, Greek authorities informed Alarm Phone about joint efforts, together with Frontex, to search for the group, “[…]we would like to inform you that after extensive searches by the Greek Authorities and Frontex join patrols in the location indicated by the coordinates area and also more widely, no human presence was found”. This would not be the last time that Greek authorities claimed to have been unable to find the group despite conducting “extensive searches” for them.
Several days later, on July 26th, the people told us how they had heard car noises the previous day on the Greek side of the river, but that they were still waiting for urgently needed assistance. At the same time, their condition worsened with every day: they reported injuries and various health issues, as well, they told us how everyone’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating in light of the ongoing difficulties they were facing. The violent act of leaving people for days being stuck on an islet not only risks physical injuries, but is a mental torment in and of itself that traumatises people. Already by this point, the non-assistance from Greek authorities and Frontex was causing damage to the people calling for help – but the situation would continue to deteriorate over the coming days.
On July 27th, 08:18 CEST, Greek authorities again claimed to have searched for the people: “[…]we would kindly like to inform you that after extensive searches by the Greek Authorities and Frontex patrol in the location indicated by the coordinates and also more widely, no human presence was found”. This is despite the Evros region being a highly militarized border area, where the EU has invested hundreds of millions of euros into fortifying the border. The technologies deployed in the area include sensors, thermal cameras and drones – but in spite of this, the Greek authorities and Frontex state they are unable to find a group with a clearly indicated location? How embarrassing. While it is clear that their statement is a blatant lie, it is remarkable that Greek authorities and Frontex have reached a point where such obvious untruths have become implicit to their operational activities. To have reached this point, these strategies have to be widely accepted within their ranks and as such demonstrate how the brutal means of deterrence used at the borders of Greece have become normalised, from overt and brutal violence to misinformation and non-assistance. This is particularly true in the Evros region, as demonstrated over the next days in the developments we witnessed for this case.
A day later, on July 28th, the group told us again about activities on the Greek side of the river: the people had spotted a black car parked “on the Greek side” and a drone that was flying over them. Shortly after, they reported being attacked by police and what they described as “mercenaries”: “Police and mercenaries stormed us. They started to hit the world. And now we’re in the water”. They sent us several videos showing the cruel attack.
We immediately informed the authorities about the attack. It is clear: in this highly militarised and controlled border zone, no such attack could have happened without some level of coordination from the authorities – the very same authorities who had been claiming for days that they could not locate the group. After the attack, the people told us how they were shocked and devastated. However, this attack did not signal the end of their suffering. The group told us that after the attack, they were forced back to the same islet as before by Turkish authorities.
Together with the Rule39 Initiative, an application for Interim Measures at the European Court of Human Rights was handed in on August 1st. By this point, we had been in contact with the people for 11 days. Throughout this entire period, the authorities had been aware of the group and their calls for assistance. Despite this, the group’s calls for assistance remained ignored. Moreover, instead of receiving help, the people were violently attacked.
We are still in contact with this group. They report that an old man has broken his leg. They are back on the same islet as before the attack. We informed local authorities, but they still claim to have not found the people. Stop lying, end the suffering now!!
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) August 2, 2023
During the morning of August 2nd, the response by the European Court of Human Rights arrived: the court had granted the Interim Measures and ordered Greece to provide food, water and medical assistance. We immediately informed authorities, including Frontex and UNHCR about the decision and reiterated the urgent need of assistance for the group.
Interim measures granted by @ECHR_CEDH in favour of the group. The court accepts the application by #Rule39Initiative & orders #Greece to provide food, water & medical assistance. The people just reported the arrival of #Greek authorities on scene – we demand a quick evacuation! https://t.co/7n2JZr2kEu pic.twitter.com/LhYfnKnr3V
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) August 2, 2023
During the morning of the 3rd of August, Greek authorities sent another email, claiming once again to have searched for, but not found, the people. At the same time, the people shared videos with us showing themselves loudly screaming for help. In desperation, the group decided to cross the river themselves. This is extremely dangerous – every year dozens of people die in the Evros river, which has strong undercurrents that can drown people. Luckily, they managed to cross the river and arrived safely on the Greek riverbank, which they documented with several videos that they sent to Alarm Phone. They reported talking to two people wearing shirts with “police” written on it. This is when an incredibly violent chapter of their journey started.
The people left the islet & arrived on the riverbank on the Greek side of the river! They report presence of a military vehicle, a drone & people with shirts saying "police". Authorities still claim that they supposedly searched but didn't find anyone. How's that possible?
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) August 3, 2023
Following the news that the group were talking with “police”, Alarm Phone shift teams once again called various border guard and police stations, including the ones at Soufli, Alexandroupolis and Thrace. All our calls went unanswered. In the meantime, the people reported they were put into cars and told us that they feared they would be brought back to Türkiye. The position they shared showed them near Soufli:
We continued to call the authorities, however, they either did not pick up, rejected responsibility – claiming it was outside of their jurisdiction, or refused to give any information.
We spoke again to the people in distress. They say they are in a car and fear to be brought back to Turkey! Is there a #pushback in the making? @hellenicpolice stations stopped accepting our calls or pretend not to know about the case. #stoppushbacks
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) August 3, 2023
Shortly after midnight on August 4th, the people reached out to Alarm Phone again. They were pushed back to Türkiye and severely beaten. A woman from the group explained what had happened to them after they were taken in the car:
She told us how, after half an hour in the car, the young men and even some women were severely beaten. The attackers stripped the women of all their clothes and forced the young men’s eyes open to look the undressed women. They then beat the men badly. The woman said the group was worried that two among the attacked men were beaten to death. The attackers even beat the elderly women and told them to return to their country. The group was, again, forced back onto the islet, and reported that there were now several people missing, among them the two men who had been heavily beaten.
The people told us how they were left severely shaken and outraged, desperate to know what happened to their friends who went missing who they fear died. They reported that amongst their group are three year old babies who are understandably extremely psychologically distressed and traumatised by the violent assault of the Greek police. “Please please can we help them. Turkey and Greece have left them in the middle. Do we know where the people who went missing are?”.
The people report to have been brutally attacked, incl. sexual violence against women & 2 men being beaten up so badly that the group fears for their lives. The 2 were reportedly separated from the group & missing. This violence & hostility must stop!!
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) August 4, 2023
We want to know: what has happened to the missing? Who is responsible for the brutal attack and the sexual violence? And what was the role of Frontex in this whole story? How can orders of the European Court of Human Rights just be ignored? And why has help been repeated denied for people who are in urgent need of it?
Not only have the attacks subjected people to overt violence, but the continuous non-assistance has led to many medical emergencies – this includes three elderly people with diabetes in need of medical assistance, an elderly person with circulatory problems in the leg, which were purple on both sides, a pregnant woman who suffered from contractions and was bleeding, and several children who were weak, mentally distressed and badly bitten by mosquitoes. It should also be noted that the group told us how they ran out of food and water days ago and are forced to drink water from the river, which carries with it a risk of poisoning.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, but instead sees the recurrence of an all too familiar pattern. The incredible level of violence used – which can only be understood as systematized forms of torture and brutalisation– against people on the move is abhorrent. It is illustrative of the dehumanisation implicit to the racist European migration regime. Furthermore, it demonstrates an obvious dysfunctionality of European institutions, where decisions of the European Court of Human Rights are easily ignored by Greece, without consequence. Instead of being forced to take action, Greek authorities merely responded to both Alarm Phone and the ECHR that the people could not be located. And once again, we see how Frontex is involved in a situation which resulted in a brutal pushback.
On August 6th, the people were still stuck on the islet. There were also still in very distressed condition – and one that continues to deteriorate. They expressed their shock and disbelief that an ECHR decision obviously does not count in Greece. They themselves have called 112 over 50 times and written emails to Frontex and Greek authorities – but instead of receiving much needed assistance, have been subject to repeated and vicious attacks.
We are still in contact with the group, which is again on the Greek islet, after being pushed back to #Türkiye. 2 people are still reported missing. They called 112, but no help arrived. The suffering must end – evacuation is urgently needed!
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) August 5, 2023
In the early hours of the morning on August 7th, the group reached out to us again to report another attack, telling us that “Mercenaries came upon us while we were asleep [on the islet], and we were sent back to Turkey”. They then told us how they were picked up by the Turkish army, who is forcing them back into Greece. The group was incredibly distressed, commenting that they have “become a football between Greek and Turkish army.” As the situation continues with no end in sight, and the people, who are in dire need of urgent medical assistance, are pushed back and forth across the river by Greek and Turkish forces, we again make it clear, these attacks must end and the people be given the help they so urgently need.
We, along with the group currently stranded on the islet, are shocked and outraged – even though we witness such crimes and attacks against people on the move almost daily, and with increasing intensity. We will continue to fight against the normalisation of such violence and will never forgive the ones responsible for it. While Greece tries to cover up the mass murder of Pylos, for which the Hellenic Coast Guard is responsible, the real and merciless face of the Greek border regime remains clearly visible in the Evros region, as too does the complicity of the EU.
Previous reporting on violent attacks in the Evros region: