An investigation carried out by German news magazine "Der Spiegel," German TV show "Report Mainz" and Netherlands-based media non-profit organization "Lighthouse Reports" claims that Greek Coast Guard officers intercept migrant boats coming from Turkey and send them back to Turkey in unseaworthy life rafts.
The controversial report was corroborated by video footage showing the Greek Coast Guard abandoning migrants in the Aegean Sea on May 13, suggesting that migrants are routinely left to float on life rafts for hours before usually being intercepted and rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard. The report further suggested that Greek Coast Guard officials hide their identities behind masks during such operation in order to not be found out.
According to the joint investigation, the phenomenon of masked men interfering with migrant vessels in the Aegean Sea has been observed for several years, with refugee organizations highlighting that these groups have in the past reportedly caused deliberate damage to the engines of migrant boats with the aim of stopping them from reaching Greek soil.
The investigation says that for the first time, the identities of these masked men could be linked to the Greek Coast Guard.
Die griechische Küstenwache setzt offenbar Bootsflüchtlinge im #Mittelmeer aus – auf aufblasbaren Rettungsinseln, wie Recherchen von REPORT MAINZ, @LHreports und @derspiegel zeigen. #reportmainz 21.45 Uhr @daserste #flüchtlinge #griechenland https://t.co/U2GRSujwZV— REPORT MAINZ (@reportmainz) June 16, 2020
Read more: 36 migrants rescued off Lesbos on Sunday
Naim told Der Spiegel how along with at least 26 other people, he feared for his life as masked men prevented the group of migrants from reaching the Greek island of Samos. Naim recalls that he saw the Greek flag on a large vessel from which he says he heard gunshots being fired before the engine of the inflatable raft he was on was deliberately damaged by the men on the large boat.
Der Spiegel says that a 55-second video clip taken by Naim during the alleged assault “clearly documents a crime,” referring to how Naim and others were forced to get on inflatable rafts to continue floating in the sea alone.
“The Greek Coast Guard had put them off of the ship and onto the rafts. The square-shaped platforms are little more than wobbly rubber rafts,” the report reads, underscoring that migrants might have drowned in the past because of the practice.No isolated event
Another eyewitness named Omar meanwhile chronicled in Der Spiegel how he had experienced the same kind of treatment at the hands of the Greek Coast Guard on June 4, with the engine of the migrant boat he was traveling on also being destroyed by masked men. The event was also captured on video, according to Der Spiegel, with the inflatable boat seen in the video being identified as a Greek patrol boat associated with the Greek Coast Guard ship ΛΣ-080.
The joint investigation further stressed that the events recounted by eyewitness Amjad Naim on May 13 and eyewitness Omar on June 4 were not isolated incidents. Following the forensic analysis of “dozens of videos” similar events were further corroborated with the help of further eyewitnesses. The report also highlights that since March 23, activists from various NGOs and refugee support groups have documented a number of further similar incidents.
“The (video) material shows beyond doubt: In the eastern Aegean, European values are being sacrificed in the name of protecting its external borders,” the article in Der Spiegel said. Meanwhile Der Spiegel reporter Giorgos Christides tweeted that the Turkish Coast Guard was also complicit in these events.
Greece & Turkey are playing a dangerous game with asylum seekers' lives. Turkey allows or even escorts dinghies across the Aegean. A joint investigation of @derspiegel @reportmainz & @LHreports reveals Greece often responds with illegal pushbacks Thread👇 https://t.co/fe6Qb9DI4S— Giorgos Christides (@g_christides) June 16, 2020
Greek Coast Guard denies accusations
Greek authorities including the coast guard have rejected the accusations without, however, commenting specifically on the video footage dated May 13 -- other than stating that they had cooperated with the Turkish Coast Guard during the incident. They added that delays in rescuing migrants at sea were to be blamed on the Turkish Coast Guard, alleging that they only accompany migrant boats if they are traveling in the direction of Greece.
In a statement, the Greek Coast Guard said that their officers always act in compliance with applicable laws and that there was no such practice as disguising their identities behind masks.
Greek media outlets meanwhile have published footage taken by a Turkish police drone, showing the Greek Coast Coast removing the engine of a migrant vessel near the island of Lesbos and then abandoning the migrants on board the vessel to their fate. There were no details on when the drone video footage had been taken.
Lesbos is particularly hit by the influx of migrants arriving at the tiny Greek island over the past few years, with the island's infamous Moria migrant camp being notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary.Pushbacks at sea
While the Greek government also denies any involvement in what amounts to violent pushbacks in Aegean water, it does admit that it engages in practices referred to as "active surveillance” in the sea. Greece has stepped up its border control since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February opened Turkey’s borders with Greece for migrants and refugees living in Turkey to cross over.
Pushbacks are legally regarded as a violation of international law and are in breach of the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights, as would-be asylum seekers don’t get an opportunity to have their cases heard on an individual basis but are effectively rejected on a collective basis instead.
As there are other border patrol forces also active in the Aegean Sea, including a contingent of about 600 German border guards helping Greek authorities as part of the Frontex operation “Poseidon,” the question of whether the practice of pushbacks is known among German authorities or other EU states has also since been raised.
Luise Amtsberg, a Green Party spokesperson focusing on migration policy, told Der Spiegel and Report Mainz that other authorities must also be in the know: "Pushbacks cannot take place completely without the knowledge of the other units in the area,” she said.
With AFP, Der Spiegel