Death in the Aegean EU Border Officials Accused of Throwing Refugees into the Sea
The refugees thought the worst was behind them when they reached the Greek island of Samos. It was Sept. 15, 2021, and they had just completed the crossing in a rubber dinghy from the Turkish coast. The sun was coming up as they landed on the craggy rocks.
Among the 36 refugees who came ashore on that morning were two men who had left their homelands several months before: Sidy Keita, 36, fled from Ivory Coast after taking part in demonstrations against the president. And Didier Martial Kouamou, a 33-year-old father of two who had worked as a mechanic in Cameroon, was hoping to join his older brother Séverin in Paris. Both sought to apply for asylum in Europe.
Seven refugees from the group have precise memories of Keita and Kouamou. They all confirm to DER SPIEGEL that the men were with them when they landed on Samos. The European Union and its member states have clear rules about what to do in such cases. Those who make it to the EU have the right to apply for asylum. But that never happened.
A few days after their arrival on Samos, Keita and Kouamou were found dead. Following an examination of Keita’s body, authorities determined that he had drowned.
The Aegean has transformed into a death zone in recent years. Since spring 2020, the Greek Coast Guard has been systematically pulling intercepted migrants back out to sea and abandoning them on inflatable rafts. DER SPIEGEL has verified the illegal practice, with some of the operations even recorded on video. Images of the frightened refugees huddled on the rafts show what has long since become normality in the Aegean. But in the case of Keita and Kouamou, there are indications that border guards went a step further.
"The Soldiers Are Looking for Us"
To determine the truth behind the deaths, DER SPIEGEL conducted reporting for this story together with European partner outlets Lighthouse Reports, the Guardian and Mediapart. The reporters involved spoke to more than a dozen witnesses and sources inside Greek security agencies in addition to examining medical reports, photos, videos and satellite images.
The reporting strongly suggests that Greek border officials pulled Keita and Kouamou out to sea and then threw them overboard. There is no definite proof that this is what happened, but the evidence is extremely credible.
Shortly after their arrival on Samos, the refugees became gripped by panic. Photos they took show that a Coast Guard boat began approaching them from the sea, while other officials, say several of the refugees, were advancing overland. Some of them had covered their faces with balaclavas.
The refugees called for help. "Come get us," one of the men said into his mobile phone. He sent the message together with his location to the organization Aegean Boat Report, which maintains contact with asylum-seekers. In another message, the frightened voice of a man can be heard: "The soldiers are looking for us," he whispers.
Lawyers from the Human Rights Legal Project also learned on that morning of the group’s arrival. Writing via email, they insisted that the refugees be registered at a refugee camp, as the law requires. They sent the email to Greek officials, the UN Refugee Agency and to the European Commission’s representative on Samos. They received no reply.
According to several witnesses, Keita and Kouamou were among the few refugees on that morning who were able to evade the Greek border guards. A far larger group of 28 refugees was taken into custody on the coast. One of those was Pascaline Chouake, a young mother from Cameroon.
Men in Balaclavas
Chouake recalls how the border guards, some of them wearing balaclavas, took them onto a Coast Guard ship. Once on the boat, she says, the men beat the refugees and took away their mobile phones and valuables. One of the men reached into her vagina, Chouake claims, and took the 500 euros she had hidden there. Several other asylum-seekers confirmed her account. One refugee claims that the guards also searched his anus.
The Coast Guard then took them back out to sea, toward Turkey, the refugees say. The masked men transferred them onto two inflatable rafts and abandoned them at sea. Chouake says they threw her child to her in the life raft as if throwing something into "a garbage can." The child wasn’t even a year old at the time. Several hours later, the Turkish Coast Guard brought the 28 people to safety. Photos and videos show the refugees on the rafts shortly before they were saved.
The Greek Coast Guard has denied the accusations. They admit to having registered an incident involving two refugee boats that day. But they insist the boats were discovered when they were still in Turkish waters and that they were then intercepted by the Turkish Coast Guard. The Greek Coast Guard says nothing about the presence of the refugees on Samos, which is documented without a doubt by witness testimony and photographs.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has boasted that his administration has drastically reduced the number of refugees arriving in the country from across the Aegean. He has described the actions of his border guards as a humanitarian act and insists his top priority is protecting the refugees. DER SPIEGEL has provided evidence on multiple occasions that this is untrue. The EU’s external borders have transformed into a zone of lawlessness. The cases of Keita and Kouamou would represent a new nadir in the brutal treatment meted out to refugees on behalf of the Europeans. If what the survivors say is true, it would mean that people were deliberately placed in a life-threatening situation by Greek security personnel.
Ibrahim, another man from Cameroon, is the key witness in the case of Keita and Kouamou. It's an afternoon last autumn, and he is sitting in a restaurant in the Turkish port city of Izmir. He has asked that his real name not be used for this story. Quietly and with great concentration, he discusses what happened to him in Greece.
Shortly after their arrival on Samos, Ibrahim says, he fled with Keita and Kouamou into the forest, where they hid. Three of Keita’s acquaintances confirm this account. They say that he contacted them from Samos on a video call and that Keita was out of breath in the call.
The next morning, Ibrahim says, they ventured out of their hiding place, only to be immediately stopped by officers in civilian clothing, who called for backup. He says that men wearing balaclavas then beat them and bundled them into a car before then taking them out to sea on a speedboat.
Ibrahim recalls huddling in the bow. After around half an hour, the Greek officials switched off the motor. Then, says Ibrahim, they threw Kouamou into the water. And then Keita. "I resisted," says Ibrahim. "They beat me properly before throwing me into the water."
Kouamou was the first to slip beneath the waves, says Ibrahim, adding that he managed to make it to the Turkish coast because he is a strong swimmer. He says he dragged Keita out of the water a short time later and tried in vain to revive him. He then drove a stick into the sand to help him find the place later. Kouamou’s body was recovered two days later.
Ibrahim says he spent that night in a copse of trees and was picked up by Turkish border guards the next morning. Ibrahim led them to Keita’s body and provided detailed testimony. DER SPIEGEL has obtained the file, which also includes photos of the stick that Ibrahim had rammed into the sand. Keita’s lifeless body lies on the rocks nearby, his feet extending into the turquoise water.
When contacted, the Greek police issued a blanket denial of the accusations. They claim that officers adhere to all applicable laws and protect the lives of migrants. They insist that they perform no pushbacks, that the accusations have nothing to do with reality and that such allegations undermine the work of the Greek police. The Coast Guard said that the practices described do not correspond with the operational procedures of the border guards.
There is no independent proof for Ibrahim’s accusations, but his account is credible. Ibrahim’s description of the Turkish coastal region is consistent with satellite photos and his description of the waves match that day’s weather report. That he is a strong swimmer isn’t surprising, since he once served in the Cameroon Navy. And he was able to identify the Greek speedboat from photos – a model built by Rafnar. The Greek Coast Guard verifiably has such a boat stationed on Samos.
Even Greek officials believe Ibrahim’s story is credible. DER SPIEGEL spoke with two officials – neither of whom wanted their name to be used in this article – who have intimate knowledge of how the border guards work. They say that Greek border officials do, in fact, throw refugees overboard, a tactic, they say, that is primarily used for smaller groups. Plus, public tenders are necessary for the acquisition of the rubber rafts used for pushbacks, they say, and the purchase of a large number of such rafts could provoke uncomfortable questions.
Refugees have told NGOs and Turkish officials of similarly brutal incidents on several occasions. Since May 2021, the Turkish Coast Guard has registered 29 pushbacks during which people were allegedly thrown into the water. Often, the incidents involved small groups of refugees who were intercepted near the islands of Samos or Chios.
Kouamous brother Séverin
Didier Martial Kouamou was buried in his home village of Batchingou in southwestern Cameroon. His aunt, who raised him as a son, took custody of the body. At home, she has turned around pictures of her nephew so they face the wall.
Kouamou’s brother Séverin, who was waiting for him in Paris, has been overcome with guilt. "I am constantly asking myself if it’s my fault," he says from behind the counter in the small mobile phone shop where he works. "I told him he should come."
Sidy Keita lies buried at the Doğançay Cemetery in Izmir, the "Cemetery of the Nameless." It's where the Turkish state buries those who have no family in Turkey who are able to afford a grave marker. Keita’s acquaintances in Izmir started a collection, but the money ultimately wasn’t enough to repatriate his body to Ivory Coast. There are no flowers on Keita’s grave, nor does it even bear his name. Only a wooden plaque is stuck in the ground bearing the number 68091.
Ibrahim ultimately did make it to Greece in a separate attempt, and this time ended up in a refugee camp, where he has applied for asylum. He registered himself there as a minor, a step sometimes taken by refugees in an effort to protect themselves from immediate deportation.
Ibrahim says that as he was fighting for his life in the waters of the Aegean, he swore to himself that he would tell the world about what had been done to him. Greek lawyers are preparing to file a lawsuit at a local court. Turkish lawyers have filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights.
The question is whether Ibrahim will be able to get through the legal proceedings. During a second meeting in Greece, he seems far more distraught than he did in Izmir. His eyes are glassed over. All that is left from his life is in a clear plastic sheet protector he carries with him. Sometimes, Ibrahim says, "I feel like I left a part of me in the water."
With additional reporting by Brenda Kiven