Reflecting, one more year of border struggles in Greece
From December 2022 to 25 January 2023, Alarm Phone was in contact with a group who struggled for almost two months at the Turkish-Greek land border. Their story is one of systematic and merciless violence against people on the move. Below, we tell their story and the struggles that they shared with us. Since the events that are described below, the struggles of those who try and reach Europe continue, and Alarm Phone has been in touch with groups who have undergone hardships and violence no person should be subjected to; not least at the hands of a European Union who boasts of their records of upholding human rights.
2023 has seen huge wildfires that destroyed 3/4 of the Dadia forest in the middle & southern part of Evros region. During the fires, we saw pushbacks and non-assistance – and a strong rise of racist propaganda, blaming people on the move to have caused the fires and also direct, physical attacks against them, buoyed along by right-wing actors and local mayors who encouraged the rounding up and targeting of people on the move in the area. We were in contact with one group for over three weeks throughout this time, who told us of physical attacks, sexual violence, non-assistance, and of missing people who they fear had died. They told us how they suffered brutalisation and torture, multiple imprisonments, and push backs. Again, as with the group whose story we share below, we do not know if they ever made it safely to Greece.
2023 has also seen the deadliest shipwreck for people on the move in recent times, where 600 people went missing and are presumed to have drowned on a shipwreck near Pylos in June 2023. Alarm Phone had been in contact with the boat and alerted the authorities to the need for urgent rescue many hours before the ship sank. Investigations conducted following the tragedy provided evidence to suggest that the Hellenic Coast Guard’s actions contributed to the shipwreck, where the reckless actions of the coast guard ensured the deaths of hundreds of people. 6 months on and 9 survivors from the shipwreck remain imprisoned facing the rest of their lives behind bars, accused of boat driving and smuggling. At the same time, investigations into the failing of the coast guard have made no progress, demonstrating the impunity of state actors in the murder of people at the borders of Europe. This is the true face of the European border regime.
As we enter into 2024, we take this moment to not only share the story below, but to reflect and remember all those who contacted Alarm Phone in 2023, all those who lost their lives, and all those who have endured torturous violence and unimaginable pain as a result of the deadly borders of Europe.
We will never forget you.
For 48 days, a group of around 50 people were stuck on an islet in Evros river, along the Turkish-Greek land border. Throughout this time, they were struggling to find a place of safety and exposed to repeated removals (“pushbacks”) from Türkiye to Greece, and from Greece to Türkiye, at the hands of the authorities of both states.
The group had reached out to Alarm Phone on the 8th of December 2022, and – with a short break in between- they remained in contact with us until the 25th of January 2023, when they were pushed back from Greece to Türkiye a final time and the contact broke down completely.
Many of the people in the group were highly vulnerable individuals: elderly, small kids, persons in need of medical care. There was even a woman in labour, who (unlike the others) was eventually brought to safety. The composition of the group changed slightly throughout the long period of time during which they were pushed back and forth between Greece and Türkiye. Some are said to have been deported back to Syria after one of the pushbacks, but we could not trace exactly what happened. Further to the last pushback, the entire group’s fate remains unknown. Our thoughts remain with them, and we hope they have finally reached a place of safety.
The cruel game of ping-pong between borders to which the group were forced to be a part of could not even be prevented by two interventions of the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”). The ECtHR issued two interim measure decisions under Rule 39 of the Rules of Court, ordering the Greek authorities to provide emergency assistance to the group and refrain from the pushbacks. These decisions were not complied with by the Greek authorities, which we note is now becoming a recurrent practice in respect of interim measure decisions issued in pushback cases against Greece.
Furthermore, despite the long and extensive contact Alarm Phone had with the group and the group’s own tireless efforts to reach out to the civil society, to human rights defenders and to everyone who would listen to them, the case did not attract a great deal of media attention. Unlike the month-long Alarm Phone case in the summer 2022, when the 5 year old girl Maria reportedly died, which became a huge news topic and narrative played upon to foster anti-migrant and anti-NGO sentiments in Greek politics, for this case wider public interest remained low. We fear that the backlash from the previous case, where the Greek authorities really did everything to counter and cover their crimes – here, journalists were accused of lying and a debate is still ongoing as to whether Maria existed or not – has created an environment of fear that meant journalists were hesitant to report on a similar case. This group suffered the consequences of the Greek authorities’ determination to criminalise and silence all activities supporting the protection of foreigners’ human rights.
From our side, despite the attempts to criminalise the communication across this border, we will continue to amplify the voices of those who cross and want to report about their situation. For this reason, we have decided to publish what we did in this case in the below day-by-day report. We thank the people who suffered the abuses we share below for having been willing to share their story with us. We are thankful because through this we can begin to open the Black Box along the Evros river and shed light on the daily crimes committed along the Turkish-Greek land border.
It is a long document, showing the desperate struggle of the people to get their right to dignity, water, bread and a roof above their heads. It is about the right to asylum. It is about the disrespect of human rights by European actors.
In the end, despite being in contact for so long with the people, the fate of the group remains unknown. We want to thank them for sharing all this hardship with us. We also want to apologise; we have not been strong enough to defend your right to seek protection in a place you had hoped to feel safe enough to stay. We hope you will find it. We will never forget, and so we wrote it all down.
From 8 December 2022 to 25 January 2023
On the 8th of December at 11.15 CET, Alarm Phone was alerted to a group of people trapped on a small islet on the Evros river, that separates Greece and Türkiye. Alarm Phone made contact with the group who told us that: “There are 50 people. There are around 15 women and almost 16 children and there is a pregnant woman in labour. There are four people missing because the Greek army attacked them at river”.
Alarm Phone later found out that the number of people in the group was unclear, and there was between 40-50 people. The group shared their location with Alarm Phone, showing them to be on Turkish territory, and so Alarm Phone alerted the Turkish authorities by email at 15.56 CET 08 DEC.
That evening, one person from the group told Alarm Phone that they had been beaten by both Turkish and Greek forces, and were worried about being pushed back and forth between the two countries by each authority. They told Alarm Phone that they had run out of food, that the young children were out of milk, and that the weather was very cold.
Between 21.00 and 21.15 CET Alarm Phone contacted the Turkish authorities at Meric, Ipsala and Edirne by phone, giving the position of the group on the islet to police at the Edirne station. At 22.50 CET, a second email was sent by Alarm Phone to Turkish authorities to stress the urgent needs of the group stranded on the islet.
On the 9th of December, Alarm Phone lost contact with the people for a few hours, but continued to call the Turkish police at Edirne, who, at 02.19 CET, told Alarm Phone they had sent a patrol to the location we had given them shortly after our first email, but had allegedly not found anybody there.
Throughout that morning, Alarm Phone continued to try and contact the people, but couldn’t reach them until late morning. Upon having re-established contact with the group, at 10.55 CET, Alarm Phone contacted Meric police station and again provided the group’s coordinates. The police told Alarm Phone they would send the coordinates to the Turkish military. Another email was sent to the authorities at 11.09 CET, and was followed up with calls to Meric and Edirne police stations to understand if the Turkish authorities will try and find the group.
At 14.55 CET, Alarm Phone received voice messages from the people, telling us that they were still stranded on the islet and that no one had come to find them. They told us that the pregnant woman was giving birth, other mothers were unable to feed their children, and that they urgently needed rescuing to Greece. They told us that some individuals among the group were fearful of deportation back from Türkiye to Syria if the Turkish authorities took them back to Türkiye. The group also expressed concerns that they would freeze to death if they were left on the islet.
Alarm Phone continued to try and contact the people for updates but did not hear back from the group until 14.21 CET on Saturday the 10th of December, when one person from the group sent a voice message. They stated that they had been exposed to the rain and mud for 2 days. They said they would rather die there than going back to Türkiye were they feared to be deported directly to Syria.
At 14.51 CET, one person from the group sent Alarm Phone a new position which showed them to be on Greek land N 41° 15′ 5.908”, E 26° 23′ 38.875” Therefore, at 16.27 CET, Alarm Phone sent an email to the Greek authorities, Frontex, and NGOs including UNHCR, with a list of all the names and dates of birth of the people in the group, informing the authorities of their desire to claim asylum and their need of urgent rescue.
At 16.41 CET, Alarm Phone called the Soufli border guard station, but there was no answer. At 16:55 CET, Alarm Phone called the Didymoticho police station, where the police officer who answered the phone seemed to be aware of the group but said they had not received the email from Alarm Phone. At 17.38 CET, the shift called the Didymoticho police station again, who said police officers were on the way to the location.
At 17:58 CET, Alarm phone sent an updated email to the Greek authorities, Frontex, and NGOs, giving an update on the urgent, and increasingly worsening medical condition of people in the group who reported that there was one pregnant woman in labour, one child suffering from cancer, one child who was half -paralysed, one child who had diabetes, someone with a broken leg, another person with heart problems and a half-paralysed woman.
At 20:00 CET, someone else from the group told Alarm Phone they were 40 people and had been stuck on an islet between between Türkiye and Greece for over 10 days, so most probably the people were not all together since the beginning, and whilst being pushed back and forth the composition of the group had changed.
At 21:40 CET, Alarm Phone tweeted on the situation:
The people called us directly today & appear to be on the Greek bank of #Evros river. They report they are ~40 people incl. 10 children & 16 women, many with serious medical conditions. They say that 2 persons went missing during a #pushback & a woman could give birth any moment.
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 10, 2022
Alarm Phone stayed in contact with the group overnight, who provided updates that the situation was unchanged, and that they still had no food or water, and that the medicines that some of the group needed had all run out.
On the 11th of December 2022, Alarm phone collected further details on the medical conditions and vulnerabilities of people in the group.
There were many people in this group who were highly vulnerable and had serious medical problems: an elderly person being paralyzed, another person with heart and kidney problems and a broken foot, one woman who had undergone a caesarean section and urgently needed aftercare of the wound, a 12-year-old child who was a cancer patient, a 5-year-old child who was seriously sick, another 5-year-old child who was asthmatic, a 3-year old with bacterial disease, an elderly person who was blind in the right eye and deaf, another elderly person with heart disease and anal fistula abscess, an adult with iron rods in his feet and two children aged 11 and 12 years who were seriously sick, probably poisoned from drinking the river water.
At 09:50 CET, Alarm Phone received a message from the group, reporting that “5 people in civilian clothes came with a boat and took the pregnant woman and her children to the Greek side.” The group told us that the people who took this woman, who was possibly the one in labour, were the same who had previously come to remove some of the group’s belongings (such as clothes, food and other things).
At 12.06 CET, Alarm Phone sent an updated email to Greek authorities, Frontex, and NGOs, including the details of the medical conditions as described by those in the group, and details about the woman and her five children who had been taken away from the islet. At 12.25 CET, Alarm Phone called the Soufli border guard station, which declared that they did not know anything about the woman and her children.
At 14.50 CET, we published another tweet:
🆘 The group is still at the #Evros river. They say that some men/boys were stripped off their clothes & beaten and that the pregnant woman & her kids were evacuated towards #Greece by unknown people in civilian clothing. Border guards in Soufli didn't confirm that.
Rescue now! pic.twitter.com/rWKBzrpf3L
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 11, 2022
Alarm Phone stayed in contact with the group throughout the day. The group stated that
“The situation is unbearable. We want help as soon as possible, because we are exposed to anything. If the Greek army attacks us, our conditions will be bad, and we will lose contact with you. The cold is bitter. There are families. There are young children, there are old people, we will die from the cold, we do not want to return to Türkiye, we will be persecuted”.
At 19.34 CET, Frontex replied to our previous email saying they had passed the information to the authorities.
At 22:42 CET, the situation seemed to worsen for the group, as we received this message:
“My brother, we have a ten-year-old boy. He was stung in his foot, and his condition is very bad. He vomits, and his body has turned blue, and he is in a bad condition.”
At 00.31 CET on 12/12, Alarm phone alerted the authorities, Frontex, and NGOs by email of the medical situation of the young boy who had been bitten, and a call to Greek authorities was made straight afterwards, but there was no answer.
At 08.06 CET, one person from the group sent Alarm Phone a message saying – “The Greek border guards are surrounding us and preparing to enter. It means that the commandos are preparing to storm, and everyone is in a state of terror”.
At 08.41 CET, Alarm Phone called UNHCR Athens to try and understand if they would intervene in the situation. UNHCR were unable to confirm but said they had passed along the information to relevant authorities. At this point, Alarm Phone also gave UNHCR’s number to the group directly. At 08.44 CET, UNHCR sent an email to Alarm Phone asking for an updated location and whether there was ongoing communication with the group on land, so they could follow up with the authorities, stating that they “understand there are severe humanitarian concerns about the group”. Alarm Phone replied to UNHCR with the requested details.
At 11.09 CET, an updated email with all the locations and medical situations listed was sent again to the Greek authorities. At 12.06 CET, Frontex replied saying they had passed the information to the authorities.
The Alarm Phone continued to try and understand the exact position of the group to see if they had moved or been taken anywhere by the border guards they had reported were surrounding them. At 14.14 CET the group sent us this exact location: 41°15’06.6″N 26°23’38.7″, E 41.251844 and at 14.24 CET. They also told us that – “We understand that we are on the river bank from the Greek direction. When the Greek border guards come, we go back a little bit by their order… and the Turks are the same issue, they say go there.”
Throughout the afternoon, Alarm Phone continued to communicate with the group, who expressed their frustration at being stuck for so many days without help. In the evening the group sent a message detailing their fears that two of the children would die soon: “We are in a very bad situation. We suffer from cold, hunger, and lack of supplies. This period that we went through is very difficult and painful. We can no longer bear it. There is a child in a bad situation. If you cannot help us, we will lose the child, children at the age of 2 and 3. Please help as soon as possible before other lives are lost.”
At 18.15 CET, Alarm Phone called the Soufli border guard station again, who declared that they were not aware of any email sent to them about the group. Alarm Phone therefore shared the GPS coordinates of the group again, and the Soufli border guard station said they would act as necessary, however, it remained unclear what this meant. At 22.21 CET, the Alarm Phone shift called the Soufli border guard station once again, who confirmed having received the information, and declared that an operation had started upon receiving the alert. However, they told Alarm Phone that up until now they had not found anyone at the location, but that the operation would continue for several days.
Alarm Phone obtained a new position from the group via live location (N 41° 15′ 5.908′, ‘E 26° 23’ 38.875”) at 22.25 CET, and shared this again with Greek authorities, Frontex, and NGOs straight away.
Later that same night, Alarm Phone received a video from the group on the islet, which translated as follows:
“We urge humanitarian organizations to consider our situation, I have multiple health issues.” –
“We urge the commission to help us, we are in a difficult situation. We have no food and it’s freezing here.” –
“I am very tired. My legs hurt so much from the cold, the river’s water was super cold. I am very tired.” –
“I have three kids and I am suffering from a heart disease. My kids are hungry, we have been out for 10 days. We are drinking from the river. and we are getting sick from it. Please help us, you are our brothers and sisters, we have been in this situation for over 10 days. we have no tents or blankets. we are sleeping under trees. Have mercy on us.”
“I have been with my son here for 11 days. Please help us, and have mercy for these children.”
At 00.30 CET, Alarm Phone made another call to Soufli border guard station, who told us once more that they did not receive our email, and that they had only received the details when Frontex forwarded the information. We read out the coordinates over the phone again to be sure. The border officer speaking informed Alarm Phone that there were officers close to the location we had sent, and that they would look for the group. Alarm Phone called Soufli again at 05.00, 05.30, and 06.50 CET, and struggled to get through at first. Eventually, they told us that the group was under the jurisdiction of the Metaxades region, and advised to call them and ask them instead, however it was never possible to reach an English speaker from the authorities in Metaxades.
The group on land maintained contact with Alarm Phone, but were understandably frustrated and upset that no rescue has so far happened. They asked repeatedly – “Where is the humanity?”
At 08.03 CET, Alarm Phone managed to contact someone at Metaxades police station, and the officer insisted an email be sent with details of the situation. Such an email was sent at 08.35 CET to Metaxades with the location, medical situation, names and dates of birth of people in the group, stating that they wished to claim asylum in Greece.
At 09.32 CET, Alarm Phone published another tweet about the situation:
The people just told us: "No one has come to us. We have been here for 13 days".
We called several #Greek borderguard stations who claimed to have searched but not found them, even though the group hasn't moved. Stop this non-assistance, rescue now!
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 13, 2022
At 10:20 CET, the Alarm Phone tried to call the fire service at Didymoteixo, but they said they could not do anything without an order from 112. At 10.57 CET, the shift called the UNHCR Protection Unit in Thessaloniki, but the also said they could not do anything.
At 14.58 CET, Alarm Phone received confirmation that the people managed to call 112 and had been told by authorities that they would register the case.
During this time, people from the group reported their desperation and frustration at the situation, they said that they knew that the police were the only one who could save them but that they were afraid of being beaten and pushed back and wanted other witnesses there to make sure they were not pushed back. They said that the medical situation continued to get worse.
At 16.29 CET, the Alarm Phone tried to call UNHCR, but there was no answer. At 16.40 CET, Alarm Phone called Didymoteixo police station but the person couldn’t speak English. At 16.53 and 16.58 CET we called Soufli station, but they said again it was not their territory and that it was necessary to call 112 or Didymoteixo. At the same time, Alarm Phone was informed by the person who had called 112 that the information they gave had been passed to Soufli station, and so it seemed they were aware of the case and that it had been in their territory otherwise the call would not have been directed to them by 112. The Alarm Phone shift also called Oresteada headquarters at17:05 CET and Oresteada police station at 17:08 CET.
At 19:43 CET, we published another tweet:
Still no rescue arrived! The people are tired after 13 days in rough conditions & repeated attacks by #Turkish and #Greek authorities. Their distress call has been forwarded to @hellenicpolice, @Frontex and many others. You are all responsible if lives are lost!
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 13, 2022
During the evening Alarm Phone continued to try and contact Soufli and Didymoteixo stations to get more information, but was unsuccessful at finding out anything further.
On the 14th of December, Alarm Phone received a message from the people in the morning saying:“My dear brother, our conditions are very bad. I mean, we have not been able to live on this island for 13 days. The condition of the children is bad. There is no medicine for sick children.”. And so, we called UNHCR again at 12.38 CET, who confirmed they had received all our emails and passed all of the information on to authorities, but could not do more. In the evening at 18.40 CET, the group told us they could see a large number of Greek border guards close by and that they feared being pushed back.
At 20:23 CET, we published another tweet:
About an hour ago, the people reported “large movement of Greek border guards" in the area where they are stranded. They say they are afraid. We hope the purpose of this mobilisation is to provide assistance & eventually rescue the group & not to further terrorise them.
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 14, 2022
At 22:42, Alarm Phone received a WhatsApp from the group – “Our souls are exhausted… We have already warned you that there is a move by the masked Greek border guards. The island was stormed and several people were kidnapped. They searched on phones… We appeal to the living consciences to find a solution to our issue… We are getting worse every day… We sent this message to all organizations… Terror is now looming over the island”
Alarm Phone tried to confirm what had happened with the group, and if people had been taken. They reported that that the Greek border police had come in the evening and 4 people had been taken. They reported that the police had come 4 times during the day to harass them, and that the last time they had taken their bags and phones. They told us they had only one phone left now, and that it was running out of battery. They also reported that the border police had beaten them very badly. Alarm Phone asked them for the names and nationalities of the four people who had been taken, details which were then sent by email to update all actors who had been alerted of this case.
During the day, the group gave to Dr. Daria Sartori (Rule 39 Initiative) power of attorney to lodge a request for interim measures in their interest before the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”). The request was submitted on the same day, asking that Greece be ordered to immediately provide assistance to the group, and to not remove them from Greek territory.
At 08.46 CET, Alarm Phone received confirmation that the request for interim measures had been submitted the day before.
At 09.45 CET the group informed Alarm Phone that they were still on the islet and that their situation was deteriorating, with the elderly and children and sick people suffering a great deal. The group again reported to have been attacked in the evening of the 14th of December, by people that the group identified as Greek authorities, who had taken away most of the group’s belongings, including all phones, save for one.
At 10.32 CET, Alarm Phone received confirmation that a follow-up letter had been sent to the ECtHR, to inform the Court of the attack and ask for a prompt intervention.
At 10:35 CET, Alarm Phone tweeted:
The people told us that yesterday night, Greek forces approached them, took bags & phones, attacked them physically & removed 4 people from the group. The rest of the group is still stuck in the same place & urgently calling for help as their situation is getting worse every day!
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 15, 2022
At 13.58 CET Alarm Phone received a message from someone in the group: “Our situation has gone from worse to worse. The condition of the children is very bad, because of the severe cold and polluted water. The state of the elderly, their health condition is bad. We have been here for 13 days, stuck on an island between Greece and Türkiye, and there is no food.”
At 19.25 CET, Alarm Phone was informed that the interim measures requested had been granted by the ECtHR. We received a copy of the ECtHR decision, which ordered Greece “that the applicants should not be removed from Greece and be provided with food, water and adequate medical care as needed until further notice.” The decision also clearly stated that a failure by the state to comply with a measure indicated by the ECtHR can ground its liability under international law. Contextually, the ECtHR asked for further information from the group as well as from the authorities.
Alarm Phone immediately informed the group of this update, and they replied saying that the medical situation had gotten even more urgent – “We have a small child who has been vomiting frequently for hours now. He has been vomiting blood”.
At 20.00 CET, the Alarm Phone shift team sent an email to Greek authorities, Frontex and NGOs with the court decision from the ECtHR attached, also informing them of the urgent medical need of the young child who was vomiting blood.
At 20.25 CET we published another tweet:
The @ECHR_CEDH granted Interim Measures acc. to #Rule39 for this group! The decision states that #Greece must provide food, water & adequate medical care. Meanwhile the situation on the ground gets worse. The people reported that a small child is vomiting blood. pic.twitter.com/Cy5MfRr0C6
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 15, 2022
At 20:48 CET, Alarm Phoe sent the group a WhatsApp and let them know about the tweet and the court decision and we asked them the questions requested by the court:
- What are the current whereabouts of the applicants? Have the applicants been attended by the Greek authorities?
- What is the applicants’ current state of health? Are they in need of medical treatment, and in the alternative, has it been provided to them? If medical documents are available or any other elements, you are requested to provide it.
- the applicants are invited to provide more details about the exact circumstances he will face in case of removal to Türkiye and/or to their countries of origin, as well as any relevant documents.
At 21.20 CET, Alarm Phone tried to call Soufli border guard station again but there was no answer.
Later in the evening, we contacted the group again to explain what the interim measures meant, and how they confirmed that it is Greece’s responsibility to provide rescue, water, and food, but that Greek authorities can still, unfortunately, choose not to act on the decision, however, we reassured the group that they would continue to keep pressuring the authorities to act as the courts had ruled.
At 08.14 CET, Alarm Phone received a message from someone in the group who reported that the young child who was vomiting blood yesterday remained unstable, and that he now had a high fever. They reported that the child was crying and refusing to drink milk from its mother. They also reported that their phone battery was running low and they feared they would lose contact.
At 12.21 CET, Alarm Phone sent another email to Greek authorities, Frontex, and NGOs, with a screen shot of the updated live location of the group – 41°15’06.0”N 26°23’38.8”E @ 11:36 CET 16.12.22. The email also asked for details to explain what actions would be taken following the ECtHR’s decision, and also for details on what had happened to the pregnant woman, her children, and the four other people that were taken from the islet.
Alarm Phone published another thread of tweets at 13.16 CET with details on the group’s conditions as told to Alarm Phone via WhatsApp:
We updated the Twitter thread at 19.19 CET:
Despite Interim Measures granted, the group did not receive any medical assistance and is still neglected by the responsible authorities. This non-assistance must end immediately!
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 16, 2022
At 13:48 CET, Dr. Daria Sartori communicated by email the ECtHR decision to the Greek authorities.
At 20:51 CET, Alarm Phone received a messaged from the people: “The border guards came to us through boats, and they fired several bullets in the air and asked us to hand over the phones. They told us that if you did not hand over the phones, we would take them by force. They told us that we would go back. Everyone on the islet was tense and afraid.”
At 21.49 CET, Alarm Phone sent an email to authorities and NGOs, detailing this attack, and asking again for rescue and assistance for the group, who all wished to claim asylum.
Despite worries from the group that they would run out of battery, on Saturday 17th of December, Alarm Phone maintained contact with the group, who told the current Alarm Phone shift that the situation remained desperate, and that the medical needs grew every day. At 15.05 CET the group reported: “Our situation is as it is every day getting worse. Children’s conditions are deplorable. Everyone suffers from skin rashes and severe diarrhea, especially children. We are waiting for someone to come and save us. There was little left in charging the phone.” Alarm Phone published this information as a tweet at 16:32 CET
The situation of this group is getting worse. They report that several people "suffer from skin rashes and severe diarrhea". Their emergency situation is known for days, but no rescue arrived. The battery of their phone is dying, we are worried to lose contact with them.
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 17, 2022
At 18.03 CET, the group told Alarm Phone that – “the situation of women and children is getting worse every hour. We have a child with asthma who is sick in the respiratory system, and his medications have run out, and his health condition has been difficult for hours”.
Alarm Phone tweeted again at 19.51 CET:
🆘 According to the group, there is a child with asthma with them. Their medications have run out & consequently the health conditions have been deteriorating for hours. The child needs help! Rescue now!
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 17, 2022
At 18.27 CET, Alarm Phone sent another email to the authorities, Frontex and NGOs to update them of the situation with the young child without their inhaler who was struggling to breathe, repeating again that the ECtHR had issued a decision stating that it was Greece’s responsibility to assist the group.
At 10.19 and 10.31 CET, Alarm Phone shift received messages from the group stating again that the situation continued to deteriorate and that the medical situation remained desperate. The group reported that they were exhausted and struggling.
At 18.50 CET, one person from the group messaged Alarm Phone to report that: “We hope that tomorrow morning there will be a solution to our situation. Our condition is getting worse every hour. Today it is raining and very cold. Today a herd of wild boars approached us.” They reported later that evening that their phone battery might run out and they still had no food or water.
In the morning of the 19th December at 07:58 CET, Alarm Phone received a message from the group detailing that a young boy from the group was lost, and they did not know if he was lost in the trees or if he had fallen into the river. They told the shift team that the mother was distraught. The group asked why nothing had happened since the ECtHR’s decision and asked if lawyers could visit police stations directly and give them the decision, so that the police and border guards were forced to act.
At 09.15 CET, Alarm Phone sent another email to the Greek authorities, Frontex and NGOs, with an updated GPS position (41°15’05.2″N 26°23’40.5″E @ 09:15 CET 19 Dec). The email also informed all the actors that there was a missing boy in the group, and once again reminded them of the ECtHR’s decision and the failure to act on the court’s decision.
At 09:53 CET, Alarm Phone tweeted:
🔴 #Evros – The people are still stuck in the same place. According to the people, a child has gone missing & the health situation of the group is deteriorating day by day. It has already been 4 days that @hellenicpolice ignores the orders of @ECHR_CEDH. Rescue is needed NOW!
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 19, 2022
In the afternoon the group sent a video and the name of the missing child to Alarm Phone, confirming that he was still missing.
Later that night, at 23.30 CET, the shift team received further messages from the group, reporting movements by the Greek police: “Brothers, we have now noticed a movement of the Greek border guards next to us. We do not know what it is. We don’t know what their intentions are”, “They are now next to us and are lighting in the floodlights. If we lose contact, be aware that we have been arrested.”
On the 20th of December, the Alarm Phone shift team managed to make contact with the group, who reported that the police had left the area in the morning hours, and that they had spent another very cold night outside on the islet. The group told the shift team that the missing child was still missing and the mother was in a great deal of distress. They also said that the police had done nothing but make noise, and they detailed how tired they were and how they hoped for good news about their case in light of the ECtHR decision, however there was still no good news to give, and no sign that a rescue would happen.
In the morning of the 21st of December, Dr. Daria Sartori (Rule 39 Initiative) sent replies to the to the ECtHR to answer questions asked by them regarding the group’s situation and the Greek authorities’ behaviour. Alarm Phone informed the group of this and explained to them the necessity of waiting for a further decision from the ECtHR. The group replied by saying that they hoped the ECtHR would bring good news.
Shortly after this, contact was lost with the group for a long period. The Alarm Phone shift team sent another message at 23.00 CET, but the message was not received. Alarm Phone tried repeatedly to reach them over the next days.
On the 23rd of December 2022, after two weeks of trying all possible means to push the authorities for a rescue, including raising public awareness of the case and getting a court order for rescue from the ECtHR, Alarm Phone could not re-establish contact with the group, and it seemed to Alarm Phone that they had been pushed back.
Alarm Phone published a final tweet to update about this development:
We lost contact to the people and are worried. We hope they were found and brought to a safe place. We were in contact with them for 2 weeks. They were exposed to rough weather and heavy violence.
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 23, 2022
While we communicated their location repeatedly to local authorities and @Frontex, #Greece claims in its response to the @ECHR_CEDH that they could not find the people. How can you not find a group of more than 40 people in a highly militarised & surveilled border region?
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) December 23, 2022
On the 28th of December, Dr. Sartori, who had managed to make further contact with the group, wrote to the ECtHR with an update on the situation:
In respect of the above case, I am writing to provide a relevant update on the Applicants’ situation. In the evening of 27.12.22, the Applicants informed their Representative that right before the Christmas weekend they were rounded up by Greek border guards, and subsequently detained at an unknown location for two days. On the third day, the Greek border guards forced the Applicants to the Turkish side of the Evros river. Once there, the Applicants were forced back to the Greek side by Turkish border guards.
The Applicants are currently at the following location on Greek territory: 41°15’07.0″N 26°23’40.8″E .
The Greek authorities’ behaviour reported by the Applicants represents a clear disregard for the international obligations imposed on Greece, including the interim measure issued by the Court. The Applicants’ experience also demonstrates the untruthfulness of the Greek Government’s replies to the Court’s questions, alleging that operations to find and rescue the Applicants would have been carried out without success…
Subsequently, as Dr. Sartori also lost contact with the Applicants, the request for interim measures at the ECtHR was renounced and the case was closed on the 5th of January.
RE-OPENED: 17.01.2023 – 13:00-19:00
After nearly three weeks without any contact from the group, Alarm Phone received a message from one person from the group. At 14.55 CET, the person sent the following message:
“We were forcibly deported by Greek commandos on 30th December. On the following night, they told us that the police were coming to rescue us. Then when we showed ourselves we saw the commandos and with them mercenaries. They were all masked and covering their faces. They beat us and insulted us. They did not even show mercy with the children and women. After all this torture they deported us to the Turkish side. They handed us over to the turks who detained us in Aderna prison and separated us into two groups. They gave one group an expulsion card to leave Turkey.
We do not know where the other group is and we are now in Greek territory, and we feel threatened that if we were arrested a second time we would be imprisoned from between 3 to 6 months and then be deported to Syria.
We are now in a very bad situation, and we have two sick children who are in a bad condition, suffering from asthma and shortness of breath. The situation is very critical. We are exposed to cold, hunger, and disease.”
The person then told Alarm Phone that they wished for the lawyers who were working on Rule 39 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in December to follow their case again, as they “have been and are still being subjected to the worst cases of persecution from Greece and Türkiye”. They told Alarm Phone that some of the group from December had been deported back to Syria.
Later that night, at 21.00 CET, the group told Alarm Phone that: “Children can’t stand this cold and lack of food. I hope you hurry up to reach us as soon as possible. The place is not safe from both sides. Putting the two sick children in danger.”
The next day the group provided Alarm Phone with more details about the pushback, at 12.53 CET, they wrote: “We were attacked by masked people wearing clothes and carrying weapons and batons. We call them “mercenaries” or “commandos”. We do not know who they are. The treatment was very bad with everyone, even children and women. They all were treated harshly.”
At this point, we collected the names from all those in the group (48 people). At 13.23 CET, the shift called the group, but the people reported being worried about their phone battery running out and so communication continued over message. The shift team confirmed with the group that they wanted a lawyer to represent them for a new application for interim measures to the ECtHR.
At 14.30 CET, Alarm Phone received a video from the group showing a woman with her children, and another women standing next to her. The woman on the video explained the terrible situation they were in without water, and explained that two of the children had surgery, with the video showing the scars. They also sent a new location: 41°16’24.1″N 26°25’43.2″E @14:51 CET 18 JAN.
As well, the group sent copies of the deportation notices they had been given after they were pushed back to Türkiye to Alarm Phone. This once again demonstrates the violence of pushing people back to a country that then serves them with deportation orders. They also sent photos of their situation, and photos of a wild boar that was on the islet.
At 17.44 CET, we sent an email to the authorities, Frontex and NGOs, including UNHCR to update them of the situation, detailing that:
“… the group that for several weeks was stranded on an islet in Evros River between Turkey and Greece contacted us again. After several days, and despite an interim measure granted in favour of the group by the European Court of Human Rights, ordering the Greek authorities to provide medical assistance, food and water, the group was attacked and kidnapped by a group of masked men and brought back to Turkey. In Turkey, part of the group was deported back to Syria, although they were facing persecution in Syria and they had previously entered Greek territory and given their names, dates of birth and nationality in order to claim asylum as is their right. Now, the other part of the group is once again stranded on a small islet in Evros river, on Greek side…”
Further to this, the email provided a more detailed overview and timeline of what had happened thus far with the group and provided details of the ECtHR decision, as well the email included a list of names, DOBs and nationalities of all 48 people in the group, the video sent to Alarm Phone of the woman and her children, as well as details on their medical situation, lack of access to water and food, and a request that urgent medical care and rescue be provided to the group.
At 18.30 CET, Alarm Phone received a reply from Frontex, advising that they had also relayed the message to the Greek authorities.
At 18.35 CET, we published a thread of tweets on the situation:
We have renewed contact to the group that was stranded on an islet in #Evros River between #Greece and #Turkey for some weeks in December. The European Court of Human Rights had ordered Greece to ensure their protection, however, they were violently pushed back back to Turkey.
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) January 18, 2023
Now the ~48 people are again on #Greek territory where they wish to exercise their right to claim asylum. They’re without clean drinking water or food and suffer from the cold weather. We hope this time their rights will be upheld! We demand their immediate safety and protection! pic.twitter.com/oUrXUylF3k
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) January 18, 2023
At 20:30 CET, the group sent a message and video to Alarm Phone, reporting that the “Greek coastguard are pushing us back, and the Turkish ones too. Please help us. We have children including sick ones, and elderly people. We beg you for help”. The video seemed to show how that the group could see lights from the police and that they were not being pushed back at that moment, however they clearly feared that they would be pushed back to Türkiye again.
At 10.18 CET, Alarm Phone received a new GPS position from the group: N 41° 16′ 24.136”, E 26° 25′ 43.186”.
At 14.50 CET, Alarm Phone received confirmation from Dr. Daria Sartori (Rule 39 Initiative) that she had submitted to the ECtHR a new request for interim measures and would keep us updated on the outcome.
At 19.40 CET, Alarm Phone received a worrying message from the group, who reported that one of the children had been injured:
“Brothers, something serious happened now while one of the children was sleeping. A pig attacked him while he was sleeping. Apparently, it broke its hand. The child’s condition is very bad and he is crying and screaming. This poses a danger to all of us. If the Greek border guards hear us, they will arrest us. Please help as soon as possible”
They also sent a video of a child lying on the ground, crying and holding their arm.
At 19.49 CET, Alarm Phone was informed that the ECtHR had again granted the requested interim measures, and ordered Greece that the applicants “should not be removed from Greece and be provided with food, water and adequate medical care as needed until further notice”. Once again, the ECtHR asked for further information from both the Greek Government and the group about the ongoing situation.
Alarm Phone immediately informed the authorities, Frontex and NGOs of this development, also relaying the situation of the child who had been badly injured by the wild boar, and again asking for urgent medical assistance and a rescue mission to be conducted.
At 21.11 CET, we called the police station at Didymoteicho, however, they pretended not to understand, and did not seem willingly to take action even when the granted interim measures were referred to.
At 22:12 CET, Alarm Phone received a message from the group detailing how they had been trying to call the emergency services for help for the child but had been told they could not be helped because they were in a border area. The group said they were worried as it was almost the weekend:
“Saturday and Sunday will be a holiday, and this holiday is always the border guards storming us and beating us and deporting us to the Turkish side. They take advantage of the holiday because no one knows what they are doing.”
At 23.23 CET, we called the police station at Didymoteicho with a Greek speaker. The officer reported that they never received an email about the situation or with evidence of the interim measures. The officer provided a new email address with a different spelling, and the shift immediately sent the email to this new address, also translating the text into Greek.
At 09.16 CET, we called the police station at Didymoteicho again to see if they had received the alert email, the officer again reported that they had not received it. We provided the officer with the coordinates of the group over the phone, and the officer confirmed that they would launch a rescue operation, giving the caveat “if they are in Greek territory”. This last w suggested that they would once again follow the narrative that the group are on the Turkish side of the islet and are therefore not Greece’s problem, despite the interim measures being granted by the ECtHR. This is a regular line used by Greek authorities to deny their responsibility for rescue along the Evros river, where they often state a position is outside of their territory, in accordance with a 1926 map of the region that delineates the Turkish-Greek land border and differs in places from the border as shown on Google maps.
Meanwhile, we maintained contact with the group, who continued to detail the ways in which they continued to suffer in the cold, with children who had serious injuries, including one child who had drunk potentially contaminated water that had made them ill. The group reported that they had called 112 and 166 for help but had been told repeatedly they could not be helped as they were at the border. The group said they had been advised on the phone that:
“There must be a decision from the mayor of the area so that we can reach you. They told us that the mayor must sign the court’s decision in order for you to be evacuated from this place”
At 11.20 CET we tried to call UNHCR in Athens, but could not reach them, at 13:59 CET we were able to speak with someone at UNHCR but were told only that the case had been forwarded to the protection unit who were working on it. When asked what they were doing the UNHCR staff member just repeated the same thing again, and advised Alarm Phone to write a mail. When it was confirmed by the shift that Alarm Phone had already done this, the UNHCR staff member simply repeated that the protection unit was working on the case and that they were unable to give any further information about what action was being taken.
At 14.54 CET, we tried to reach local politicians in the area, attempting to reach somebody in the municipality of Didymoticho to inform them about the need of intervention and rescue fort the group, as the authorities were not acting according to the interim measures. However, Alarm Phone was unable to speak with anyone.
During this time, the shift team had not heard anything further from the group, who were not replying to any messages. At 19.29 CET, the group replied to advise that their situation still continued to deteriorate, we confirmed that Alarm Phone was continuing to try and put pressure on the authorities to rescue them.
The next morning, Alarm Phone was unable to make contact with the group; the messages remained undelivered, and the phone did not ring.
At 08:42 CET, we published a tweet:
"On 19 January 2023, the Court (the duty judge) decided, in the interests of the parties and the proper conduct of the proceedings before it, to indicate to the Government of #Greece, under Rule 39, that the applicants should not be removed from Greece and… pic.twitter.com/Z8gndk3y7T
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) January 21, 2023
be provided with food, water and adequate medical care as needed until further notice.
The parties’ attention is drawn to the fact that failure of a Contracting State to comply with a measure indicated under Rule 39 may entail a breach of Article 34 of the Convention."
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) January 21, 2023
The #Didymoticho border guards told us that a decision to rescue needs to come from the ministry. When the people called 112, they were told that "the mayor of the area must sign the court decision in order to be evacuated".@kmitsotakis @nmitarakis @theodorikakosp#StopPushbacks
— @alarmphone (@alarm_phone) January 21, 2023
Later in the morning, at 12.00 CET, the group messaged the Alarm Phone shift to provide an update of their situation, describing how it remained critical and how the weather had become even worse, with heavy rain. They tell us again the children continue to suffer a great deal.
At 12.35 CET, Alarm Phone sent a further email to the Greek authorities, Frontex, and NGOs to update them of the situation and the group’s location, and again reminding them of the interim measures, asking that they act on the court’s orders and ensure the safety of the 48 people in need by conducting a rescue mission and providing medical assistance.
At 13.39 CET, the group sent a video of the young boy in the group who had been injured by the boar to Alarm Phone. They described how he had fallen in the mud and that he was in great pain. They sent a further message at 22.38 CET:
“Brothers, we want to inform you that there is a large movement of the Greek border guards near the island. We hope that they will not attack us. Everyone is afraid now, because if we are arrested, we will be deported to Türkiye, and there we will be imprisoned, persecuted, and sent to Syria.”
Later that evening, when Alarm Phone called the police station at Didymoteicho again for an update, an officer claimed they did not have any news about the case, they had not received the email and that they wanted to have the coordinates again, which were given again at once.
Around 9:00 CET the next morning, the Alarm Phone shift team managed to speak with the group on the islet again by phone. They reported that they were drinking rainwater and running out of food, and that the people who were injured were especially struggling to stay strong. At 10.37 CET we sent a further email to the Greek authorities, Frontex, and NGOs, reminding them once again of the interim measures, again attaching the court documents to the email. In the same mail, we reminded all the actors of the medical urgency of the situation.
Shortly after this, the group told us once again how much they feared a push back, and how the Turkish border guards had told them last time they would push them further back to Syria. The group repeated this again on message when we spoke to them at midday:
“Every weekend the Greek authorities attack us and arrest the group for one/two days. After Greek authorities push back the group to Türkiye, the Turkish authorities normally release them. Last weekend, around 14-15 January (not sure when exactly) Türkiye gave the group an expulsion order, affirming that next time, the Greek authorities will deliver them to Türkiye, they will be arrested for 3-6 months and after they will be expelled in Syria. All the people in the island have the expulsion document.”
At 13.39 CET, after receiving no response to the previous email, Alarm Phone sent a further email to Greek authorities, Frontex and NGOs, this time with the text translated into Greek. As well, we tried to call Didymoticho police station twice, but there was no answer.
At 18.58 CET we once again tried to call Didymoticho police station twice, but there was again no answer. Alarm Phone then decided to speak with other legal professionals in Greece to see if there were any other ideas of how to put pressure and make the authorities act according to the decision of the ECtHR.
That evening, the shift team told the group how they hoped all those on the islet would make it through another difficult night. The group replied:
“We have nothing new. We are waiting for tomorrow morning hoping that it will be a good day and good news from you. Because we have a woman in a very difficult psychological condition an hour ago from now, in the last moments we saved her, she was about to throw herself into the river.”
The next morning, Alarm Phone heard from the group that the woman who had threatened to throw herself in the river the previous night continued to struggle with her mental health and that it was very difficult to calm her down.
Alarm Phone updated the lawyer working on the interim measures about this further development. We also sent a further email to the Greek authorities, Frontex and NGOs at 09.14 CET, once again reminding them of the interim measures, and also updating them of the critical psychological state of one member of the group. The email was sent in both Greek and English. At 09:31 CET, another call to Didymoteicho police station was made by Alarm Phone, the officer answered that they were looking for the group, but when pressed for more details, the officer said they could not hear well, and it was not possible to get any further information. The shift tried to call back again but there was no answer.
At 09.35 CET, Alarm Phone received the following message from the group:
“A few moments ago, the Turkish side was shouting at us and threatening us to return to our lands. If you return, you will be imprisoned. Also, a little while ago, a drone appeared, and it filmed us. Please inform the lawyers.”
At 09.50 CET, Alarm Phone received a response from Frontex to the alert email, advising that they had forwarded the information onto the Greek authorities. At 10.09 CET, we called Didymoteixo police station multiple times but there was no answer, they we called Meric police station where the officer who answered advised that he did not speak English. Despite multiple attempts to reach someone at the police stations, it was not possible.
The group sent us a message at 11.00 CET, advising that a child had burnt their foot by walking too close to the fire that they had been using to try and keep warm.
Throughout the day, Alarm Phone continued to try and reach the police but could not get hold of anybody to speak to. By this point, Alarm Phone had not been able to reach anyone at any police station – besides one phone call where little information was provided – since Saturday 21.01.23, despite many ongoing efforts to do so. The group continued to ask Alarm Phone for updates throughout the day, detailing how there was more than one injured child in the group. Unfortunately, there were no updates from the authorities or from the lawyer to give to the group. At 18.29 CET, the group sent multiple videos with them speaking in Arabic, in the videos, the people said:
“23.01.2023 this is the situation we are facing for more than one and a half month. The greek border guards throw us to the Turkish border guards, and the Turkish throw us back. Last time we entered Türkiye the Turkish border guards gave us a paper that forbids us to reenter Turkish territory. iI we do so, we will be imprisoned for a period of 3 to 6 months. (showing different children): this child got burnt yesterday. And this child was attacked by a pig. And this child has had operations. This is the situation we are living in, this is the bad situation of the migrants. And this (showing a piece of plastic) is what we use to protect the children from cold and rain, we don’t have anything else to protect them. How long is this going to continue?”
Later in the evening, from around 21.30 CET, they sent us many messages, advising that they would try to cross to Greece and surrender to the police, regardless of what might happen, if no help came to rescue them and let them claim asylum. They told how International Organisations and courts had failed them and that they could not continue in their situation. They wished to be put in touch directly with the lawyer so they could share their decision with them directly, and wished to make it public if they were arrested.
“…we are not fine… note that we gave ourselves 24 hours if no solution to our problem was found we decided to try to cross towards the Greek villages, everyone cannot stay in this hell. No one knows our condition and the circumstances we live in… It doesn’t make sense for people to live in a forest for more than a month. But it seems that the western world does not consider us to be human beings… We cannot bear it any longer and we cannot bear to see children or women die before our eyes… We do not write these letters, sorry, not to put pressure on you, the lawyer, or anyone… We are tired of you who speak in the name of humanity and human rights”
The next morning, the group sent the same messages again to Alarm Phone. In the meantime, one lawyer Alarm Phone had been in touch with was considering the best way to send the interim measures to the public prosecution, to try and put pressure on the authorities to act. Unfortunately, no action had been taken by the end of the day, and there are few updates from this day, not least because the police stations no longer seemed to take our calls.
After further discussions with lawyers familiar with interim measures in the Evros region, one group active in pursuing interim measures, told Alarm Phone that they would try to prepare a draft letter to be sent to both President of the Court (ECtHR) and Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner.
Alarm Phone messaged the group for details needed to prepare the draft letter, and the group replied only to ask if there were any updates from the lawyer about how their situation may change and what action was being taken. We informed them of the steps being taken, but did not manage to get answers to the questions the court had for the group and did not manage to speak with them again during the day.
This was the last time Alarm Phone managed to speak with the group.
The next day, Alarm Phone sent a message to the group, it was not delivered at first, but even later when the group received the message, we did not get a reply from them, we sent a few messages throughout the morning and afternoon but did not get a response. We also continued to try and call local police stations in the morning but got nowhere with this once again. It was the longest that Alarm Phone had not heard from the group since the case was reopened in January 2023.
In the meantime, Dr. Daria Sartori (Rule 39 Initiative), had replied to the ECtHR to provide an update on the case:
The Applicants have reported that… Greek border guards approached by boat the islet on which the Applicants are stranded. The border guards fired bullets in the air and then asked the Applicants to hand over their phones, threatening to use force if they would not comply. The Applicants were terrorised by the Greek border guards’ attitude. It is to be reminded that the group includes very small children, including children less than two years’ old.
The Greek border guards then left without having provided any assistance to the Applicants.
Once again, Greek authorities are not only completely disrespecting the Court’s interim measure decision (issued one day before the above episode), but they are exposing the Applicants, including small children, to further psychological stress and acting with the clear purpose of hindering contacts between the Applicants and the outside world, including their Representative.
This represents a serious breach of Greece’s international obligations, including Art. 34 ECHR, and it is the same course of events observed in case no. 57123/22, and in several previous cases as reported by different actors and recorded in the BVMN report “ISLETS, INTERIM MEASURES, AND ILLEGAL PUSHBACKS: EROSION OF RULE OF LAW IN GREECE”, published in July 2022 and available at: https://www.borderviolence.eu/20548-2/.
Once again, the Greek Government was asked by the ECtHR to comment on this letter, and once again they replied that they had searched but not found the group on the islet.
Late that night, as there was no contact to the group anymore and we feared there had been a pushback, the case was closed for the regular shift work. Nevertheless, we continued a follow up with the group but were unable to get further information on the group.
Soon after, Dr. Daria Sartori (Rule 39 Initiative) informed the ECtHR of the definitive loss of contact with the group, and the case was closed by ECtHR on the 2nd of February.