According to a blog post from the human rights organization Aegean Boat Report, this week 25 migrants from Afghanistan reached the Greek island of Lesbos, only to be rounded up and set adrift by armed "commandos." The group, which includes 17 small children, are now at a center in Turkey.
The Aegean Boat Report (ABR) charity posted a blog on January 13, telling the detailed story of a group of 25 Afghan migrants, who they say were sent back into the sea from Greece, where they had been hoping to seek asylum. The post includes photos, voice messages and GPS positions for verification reasons.
ABR says the group set off for Greece from Turkey on Sunday, January 9. They reached land on the island of Lesbos in the afternoon and hid in the woods, "afraid that if found by police, they would be illegally returned to Turkey."
At 17:00, the migrants made contact with the NGO, asking for assistance. A recording of a voice message from the group says: "We are refugees from Afghanistan." A woman's voice is heard on the recording, saying "We don't have food, we don't have clothes, ... please help us, please help us."
Pictures of the group walking through fields in Lesbos with GPS coordinates follow, as well as detailed WhatsApp messages, saying the group consists of "17 children, three men and five women."
Tommy Olsen, author of the blog post and founder of ABR, said that "there was no doubt that they were on the island."
Desperately seeking asylum
The woman in the group leaving voice messages for ABR says that among the children were "four newborns," adding that "one of them is so sick."
She further explains that the group have no milk or water for the children, and that the mother of one of the children died on the Iranian Turkish border. She repeatedly pleads for help and says that everyone in the group is scared of someone else dying -- or of potentially being pushed back.
ABR, which is based in Norway, said that their voluneteers "tried to locate anyone who could help them on Lesbos," but despite putting out posts on social media and urgent appeals, "no organization came forward." While criticising the lack of solidarity shown, ABR also explained why it is difficult for local people to come and help:
"No local organizations, no NGOs, volunteers, journalists or lawyers would go to a location to help people who have just arrived, not even to document their presence. Because if they did, and the police found them, they risk [being] arrested on site, [and] charged with facilitating illegal entry to Greece, obstruction of police investigations and whatever charges they might come up with. This just because they tried to help vulnerable people seeking safety in Europe."
After failing to find help, the group had to spend the night in the woods. Pictures of the children wrapped up in the dark follow as proof, with more GPS location details in the north-east of Lesbos.
A night in the woods
"At first light on Monday, January 10, they started moving towards the nearest village, Tsonia, so they would be seen by locals, in the belief that public awareness would prevent the police from pushing them back," writes Olsen in the blog post.
That morning, ABR "emailed organizations, NGOs, authorities and the Greek ombudsman, to tell them that the group would like to apply for asylum in Greece, and needed international protection" -- without receiving any reply.
By 10:20am, the group had reached the outskirts of the village where they saw "several cars and local people." One hour later, they sent a message to ABR saying the "police had found them."
What followed was silence, as "all phones went offline."
Masked men fired shots
ABR say that they had hoped the group would be taken to a camp. But the "Lesbos authorities registered no new arrivals that day, or in the following days."
Local residents told ABR later that "police" had been driving around the area in unmarked cars; ABR has pictures of a gray minivan and a white van in the area, which have, they say, been used by police in the past.
ABR says the men seen in the car were "wearing balaclavas," providing more picture evidence of the cars and their license plates. The group of migrants told ABR later that "four men in dark uniforms and balaclavas, all carrying guns, were the ones who had found them."
They added that the men fired "four shots ... to force them back in line" after some of them reportedly tried to run away. "Everyone was very scared, children were crying, it was an horrific ordeal," writes Olsen.
According to ABR, the group was held "at gunpoint for more than an hour." Everyone was searched and their "bags, papers, money and phones were taken from them."
Local residents say that the unmarked vehicles are frequently used by "secret police" in order to "blend in." Many locals reportedly say that the masked men are actually "military personnel on assignment from the Greek authorities to 'hunt' refugees."
Left in the middle of the sea
The group of migrants managed to hide one phone from the police, and later they used it to send another "desperate message" to ABR. Here the same woman's voice is heard, sounding panicked and scared.
In that message, she reports that they are "in the middle of the sea, water is coming in, it is not good, please help us."
The group also managed to call the Turkish coast guard who eventually found a group of 25 people drifting in distress near Seferihisar, more than 200 kilometers from their original location in Lesbos. ABR surmises that the armed men must have transported the group over 200 kilometers out to sea before putting them in a life raft -- with no motor.
Pictures provided by the Turkish coast guard show the group at midnight drifting in the Aegean. The group said that it was windy at the time when they were put to sea. According to ABR, the group were allegedly transported so far away because of the wind direction at the time, which it says was blowing north west. If they had been pushed back just off Lesbos, they would have drifted quickly back into Greek waters.
'Kicked and beaten'
On January 12, ABR "regained contact with the group, who are now in a quarantine facility in Seferihisar, Turkey."
In that sequence of messages, the group reveal that they were put into a van and were driven away for "maybe an hour." Once they reached "some kind of harbor," they were transferred via "small gray boats" to a bigger boat. "10-15 masked men, all in dark uniforms carrying guns" ordered the group of migrants to "look down and stay quiet" while they were being transferred. They say the children were "terrified" and were "crying."
The migrants say they were placed under a white tarpaulin on the boat and told that they would be taken to Athens. However, they reportedly were "treated like garbage" by the armed men and were "kicked and beaten." Even some of the children are reported to have bruises.
There is also photo and video proof of some of the injuries shared with ABR; in the video, the bruises on one of the small children's arms allegedly manifested after one of the armed men had "trampled on them."
Pushed into a life raft
ABR reported that the group identified the larger boat as one used by the Hellenic Coast Guard (a Sa'ar 4 class offshore patrol vessel): "After seven to eight hours, the boat it stopped. It was dark outside and quite windy, and the HCG vessel was moved back and forth by the waves. A strange boat was put into the sea."
The men then forced everyone to get down into this boat. "Those who refused or didn't move quickly enough were thrown down into the boat," the migrants say.
According to one woman, one of the small babies ended up in the sea although they quickly managed to get the baby back into the raft. "Another girl was pushed down from the Greek ship, and broke her foot."
The group also said that the men seemed to enjoy treating the migrants as though they "were not humans."
On landing in Turkey, two of the babies and one 13-year-old girl were taken to hospital. According to the Turkish coast guard, the two babies had "respiratory problems, vomiting and fever, and the girl had broken a foot after being thrown from the Greek coast guard vessel."
Silence from Greek authorities
InfoMigrants contacted the Greek Ministry of Migration regarding the allegations on Friday afternoon but have not yet received a reply. There is no mention of the events in their recent press releases; however, in the past, the Greek government have consistently denied orchestrating any kinds of pushbacks. Various NGOs as well as the Turkish coast guard have repeatedly accused the Greek coast guard of engaging in pushbacks at sea.
Meanwhile, Olsen concluded in the blog report that he is "ashamed" of what is going on at Europe's doors. He said pushbacks similar to this have been going on for "22 months."
In that time, he estimates "more than 25,000 people have been illegally pushed back in the Aegean Sea, [with] 485 life rafts found drifting carrying 8,400 people, all at the hands of the Greek government, blessed and backed by the EU Commission."
ABR was founded by Tommy Olsen, who worked as a volunteer on Lesbos in 2015 and 2016. After returning to Norway, he set up the organization, which "monitors and reports on issues related to people movement in the Aegean Sea." The charity is funded by a Norwegian NGO and aims to provide information for those on the ground wanting to help migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.