Refugees fleeing their home countries to seek refuge in Europe, particularly on Greece’s islands, face harsh treatment including confiscated possessions, beatings, handcuffing, strip-searches, and being forcibly sent back to sea. Lesvos, one of Greece’s Aegean islands, has unfortunately become a focal point for the pushbacks and violence of refugees at the hands of the Hellenic Coast Guard (the National Coast Guard of Greece) and Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency).
“As soon as we entered Greek waters, a small gray boat came in our direction,” said Fatima.* “A man dressed in all black with a covered face jumped on our boat. He had a stick in his hand and started beating the person in front of him. Then he pulled off the engine and dropped it in the water. We were left in the middle of the sea with no engine.”
This incident exemplifies a “pushback,” the forcible return of individuals across an international border without assessing their rights to seek asylum or other protection. These pushbacks violate international and EU law which was established during the 1951 Geneva Convention. Greece, like all EU member states, is a signatory to this convention, which outlines legal protections for refugees.
Countless more examples of pushbacks in Lesvos exist.
In October 2023, a video depicts masked men on the Hellenic Coast Guard vessel using boat hooks to disable a fragile rubber boat carrying forty-seven refugees. Two months later, twenty-two refugees stranded at sea near Lesvos phoned the Alarm Phone hotline to request urgent help. They reported a military boat in their vicinity, but Alarm Phone said that the military boat was “not assisting and instead pushing (the refugees) further away from the coast (of Lesvos), ” despite observing that water was sinking the refugees’ boat.
While Greek authorities and Frontex argue that they are legally allowed to send back undocumented migrants seized at sea or in disputed waters attempting to enter the country’s sovereign territory, evidence reveals their involvement in push backs even after refugees have landed on Greek soil. The common scenario of land pushbacks involves Greek border patrol returning migrants to the open sea, even after they have arrived on land.
Refugees report the confiscation of possessions, including mobile phones, money, and medications, before being forced onto boats and transferred onto life rafts before they are left adrift. Journalist Tomas Statius highlights a migrant’s claim of being intercepted on Greek soil, placed on a Greek boat, and left adrift in the Aegean on a small life raft.
This was precisely the case in April 2023, when footage leaked of Lesvos’ Hellenic Coast Guard engaging in a pushback of a group of 12 asylum seekers, including children and a six-month-old baby. In the footage, the refugees are observed being transported in an “unmarked” white van to a remote destination in Lesvos. At that location, individuals wearing balaclavas—cloth headgear designed to expose only part of the face—force them onto a high-speed inflatable dinghy. Following this, the refugees are transferred by the dinghy to a Hellenic coast guard vessel, which proceeds to abandon them on a raft at sea. Eventually, the Turkish coast guard picks up the stranded refugees.
“We didn’t expect to survive on that day,” Naima Aden, a Somalian refugee who experienced the push back with her baby, said. “When they were putting us on the inflatable raft, they did so without any mercy.”
This case raises many concerns, as it clearly ties the Hellenic Coast Guard with engaging in a pushback that doesn’t occur at sea nor in disputed waters, but rather on land within EU territory, where asylum seekers had already reached safety.
In January 2023, Aegean Boat Report documented 66 push backs in the Aegean Sea, carried out by the Hellenic Coast Guard. This resulted in at least 1,881 people being denied their right to seek asylum, accompanied by the violation of their human rights by the Greek government.
These pushbacks violate the principle of non-refoulement, a cornerstone in international refugee law, stating that individuals in need of protection cannot be forcibly returned to a place where they will face harm. A 2022 report from OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, affirmed Frontex’s involvement in concealing illegal migrant pushbacks, thereby infringing upon their “fundamental rights.”
Despite this widespread evidence, the Greek government, the EU, and Frontex refuse to publicly acknowledge their breach of the law. Tommy Olsen, Founder of ABR, highlighted, “None of them will reply and none of them will publicly admit that this is going on, even when the evidence is overwhelming over the last three years. But Frontex is fully aware of these incidents, so are those committing these crimes.”
Moreover, there’s a troubling trend where those engaged in pushbacks frequently conceal their identities from migrants, creating a significant trust deficit if survivors later report their experiences. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have reported seeing other unmarked vehicles near their intervention sites, driven by individuals with covered faces – similar to the footage leaked in April.
Not to mention that refugees have shared instances of masked individuals posing as doctors to gain trust. Nihal Osman, MSF project coordinator in Lesvos, emphasizes, “If confirmed, this is unacceptable and a serious manipulation of humanitarian aid.”
Refugees, when not subjected to illegal pushbacks, frequently encounter violence. Upon arrival to land, refugees describe being intercepted by uninformed individuals or masked men who verbally insult them, conduct intrusive body searches, tie their wrists or ankles, and/or violently beat them with batons and sticks.
Elisabeth* recounted a harrowing experience where individuals in her group faced violence upon arriving: “They tied them like this [putting wrists together in front of her body], they also tied the pregnant woman. They even stepped on the other lady’s stomach, beating her.”
“Hundreds of people’s rights are violated every single day by Greek authorities in the name of border protection, while those who have sworn to serve and protect are looking the other way,” Aegean Boat Report states.
The world grapples with an urgent need for a humane solution to the refugee crisis. Tineke Strik, the Dutch Member of European Parliament and a member of the Frontex Scrutiny Working Group, called for a suspension of the border agency’s operations in Greece. “[Frontex] should suspend operations in Greece,” Strik said. “We have so many credible reports from authorities such as the UN and the European Council, which all say that pushbacks are systematic.”
Dr. Christos Christou, MSF International President, extends beyond Strik’s demands, asserting the necessity for “an independent monitoring system to be set up on the Aegean islands, and for search and rescue operations to be stepped up at sea.” Dr. Christou continues, stating, “Finally, we call for people seeking protection to be granted access to fair asylum procedures and medical and humanitarian assistance upon arrival.”
The refugee crisis demands swift, decisive action from the global community. Advocacy groups relentlessly call for better conditions, legal adherence, and increased support in hotspots like Lesvos. Immediate action is crucial to protect refugees from violence and pushbacks, but it’s not enough. Refugees deserve more than the bare minimum – a dignified resettlement process and a life filled with purpose and fulfillment.
[Photo Credits: Nancy Nguyen, Lesvos, Greece (December, 2023)]