Videos and Eyewitness Accounts Greece Suspected of Abandoning Refugees at Sea

An investigation by DER SPIEGEL and partners has revealed that the Greek Coast Guard intercepts refugee boats, puts the migrants in life rafts, tows them toward Turkey and then abandons them to their fate. What do German troops in the area know about the practice?
Abandoned: The Greek Coast Guard leaves refugees to their own devices on the Aegean.

Abandoned: The Greek Coast Guard leaves refugees to their own devices on the Aegean.

Foto: Maximilian Kohler

Europe is just a few kilometers away, recalls Amjad Naim, when the men in masks show up. It's the morning of May 13 and the Palestinian is sitting in an inflatable boat, having paid migrant smugglers in Turkey for the trip. Naim can already see the Greek coast, and with every second, he is getting closer and closer.

Naim wasn't alone in the boat. They were a group of at least 26 people and they had almost reached the island of Samos. Naim remembers hearing a helicopter, and then all hell broke loose. For the next several hours, those on board would be afraid for their lives.

The men in the masks approached in a large vessel, says Naim, adding that he remembers seeing the Greek flag and several dinghies. And then, he says, the masked men went on the attack.

They fired shots into the water, he says, snagged the migrants' inflatable raft with a grappling hook and destroyed the motor, thus stopping the boat. The men then took the migrants on board their vessel, Naim says, adding that he started crying and hid his mobile phone in his underwear.

There are videos that prove that Naim really was on his way to Samos. The images show a young man with closely cropped hair and a smooth-shaven face. The motor of the small inflatable boat hums in the background as Naim smiles into the camera. He is originally from the Gaza Strip in the Palestinian Territories, where he studied law and got married. His wife is waiting for him in the Netherlands. Naim blows a kiss into the camera.

The next images of Naim are shaky -- a 55-second clip made by Naim that clearly documents a crime. The footage shows him and the other refugees on two inflatable life rafts. 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.

In the video, a Greek Coast Guard ship, 18 meters (59 feet) long, is dragging the rafts back toward Turkey. An additional ship stands by. Water can be seen pouring into Naim's raft.

Then, as can be seen in the video, the Greek Coast Guard unties the tow rope, leaving the refugees to their fate in the middle of the sea. Sitting in a rubber raft that has no ability to maneuver on its own.

It is possible that Naim's experience could be an isolated incident. It is conceivable that the Greek sailors simply lost their patience or that that particular ship was crewed by an especially nasty group. But that is not the case. Naim is apparently just one victim among many. There is a system behind the tactics he was exposed to. In a joint investigation with Lighthouse Reports and Report Mainz, DER SPIEGEL has forensically analyzed dozens of videos and compared them with geodata in addition to speaking with numerous eyewitnesses.

The material shows beyond doubt: In the eastern Aegean, European values are being sacrificed in the name of protecting its external borders.

Masked men, almost certainly Greek border control officials, regularly attack refugee boats in the area. In one case on June 4, the inflatable boat belonging to the masked men can be clearly identified as a Greek patrol boat. It belongs to Greek Coast Guard ship ΛΣ-080.

After the refugee boats are intercepted, the Greeks, apparently, frequently put the migrants in inflatable life rafts, tow them toward Turkey and then leave them to their fates. In most cases, they are dragged ashore after several hours by the Turkish Coast Guard.

The actions taken by the Greeks are a clear breach. It has long been known that Greek Coast Guard personnel delay rescue attempts and perform aggressive maneuvers. Now, though, they are actively putting the lives of migrants at risk and they are using life-saving equipment to put people in danger.

Images of migrants on orange life rafts have been appearing for weeks on Facebook and Instagram. NGOs like Aegean Boat Report , Josoor  and Alarm Phone  have also spoken with refugees and reported their experiences - and since March 23, activists have documented a number of incidents. The Turkish Coast Guard has also published images of the orange life rafts. But Naim's video is the first to document beyond doubt a Greek Coast Guard vessel towing life rafts toward Turkey and then abandoning the refugees on the open sea.

These so-called pushbacks represent both a violation of international law and of the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights. Asylum seekers have a right to have their cases heard on an individual basis and countries are not permitted to bring them back against their will to a place where their safety is not guaranteed.

Itamar Mann, a lawyer at the University of Haifa and member of the Global Legal Action Network, believes pushbacks could also have criminal consequences. From a legal perspective, such operations, he says, are a kind of torture, with refugees experiencing inhumane treatment and humiliation.

When contacted, the Greek Coast Guard denied the accusations and claimed that its personnel does not wear masks. They also said they obey all applicable laws. Delays in rescuing the refugees, they said, were due to the Turkish Coast Guard because they only accompany refugee boats if they are traveling in the direction of Greece. The Greek officials, they said, only locate the refugee boats and then inform the Turkish Coast Guard as quickly as possible.

They claimed that they cooperated with the Turkish Coast Guard in the May 13 incident. In their statement, the Greek Coast Guard did not specifically address the video showing the pushback.

Caught in the Middle

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has been in office since last July, and since then, he has taken several steps to ensure that fewer refugees arrive in Greece. He had temporarily suspended the right to asylum and shortened the deadline for appeal in asylum cases. Furthermore, during his tenure, border guards on the Maritsa River between Turkey and Greece have apparently used live ammunition against refugees, likely killing at least one. His government has considered blocking refugee boats with barriers at sea.

His government refers to the practices as "active surveillance." In fact, though, they are abandoning refugees on the high seas.

There is a reason for this new degree of brutality: Since the end of February, Turkish border guards are no longer stopping refugees on their way to Europe. Indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has even arranged for refugees to be bused to the Greek border, where they were pushed back by Greek border guards. Erdogan's intention is to ratchet up the pressure on the European Union, with Brussels and Ankara currently trying to hammer out a new refugee deal.

The cynical game seen on the banks of the Maritsa River is now being repeated in the Aegean. The Turkish and Greek Coast Guards are pushing refugee boats into the territorial waters of the other, with the migrants themselves getting caught in the middle. In such a situation, those wanting to cross the Aegean need quite a bit of luck.

Omar, a young man from Afghanistan, had lost almost all hope for such luck on the morning of June 4, floating in a boat between the Greek island of Lesbos and the Turkish coast. Omar, whose name has been changed for this story, wasn't alone: A total of 31 men, women and children were on board.

Turkish and Greek vessels had repeatedly pushed the migrants back. In one video, a dinghy can be seen that doubtlessly belongs to the Greek Coast Guard. Masked men, says Omar, had pushed their motor into the water, which is why to refugees were hanging off the back of the refugee boat and kicking, doing all they can to propel the boat to European soil. The scene was captured on video.

Omar is desperate. He makes a final video, posting it to a refugee group on Facebook. In the video, he speaks into the camera for a good six minutes. "Please help us," he pleads. "We have a right to live."

Perhaps it was this video that saved Omar's life. Activists shared it on Facebook and just a short time later, a Turkish liaison officer on the supply ship Berlin told German soldiers of the vessel in distress. The ship is part of a NATO mission and was located off Lesbos. Using a tender, the Germans took the refugees ashore.

A subsequent press release from the Bundeswehr, as the German military is called, noted that the refugees' lives had been in danger, which is why the commander intervened. A small boat unable to maneuver on its own: It must have seemed rather strange to the soldiers. The press release made no mention of an attack on the refugee boat.

German Officials Pulled Into the Chaos

The episode shows, though, just how deeply German officials have been pulled into the chaos on the Aegean. It also raises the question as to whether the Germans know of the assaults and of the lifeboats - and whether they tolerate the pushbacks or are perhaps even involved.

Around 600 border guards are helping the Greeks monitor activity on the Aegean, all part of the Frontex operation Poseidon. And the mission hasn't always been free of conflict. In March, a Danish Frontex crew refused to carry out an illegal pushback.

A lifeboat in the Aegean: For weeks, NGOs and the Turkish Coast Guard have been documenting the incidents.

A lifeboat in the Aegean: For weeks, NGOs and the Turkish Coast Guard have been documenting the incidents.

Foto: Turkish Coast Guard Command

Behind closed doors, Frontex may already have admitted that it is aware of the brutal tactics involving the lifeboats. European Parliamentarian Dietmar Köster, a member of European Parliament from the German Social Democrats (SPD), says that Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri confirmed the incidents in a meeting with him. Though Köster is certain of his understanding of that meeting, Frontex says there was a misunderstanding, adding that Frontex headquarters has received no reports about pushbacks.

Luise Amtsberg, a Green Party spokesperson on migration policy, doesn't believe it. The waters around Samos are not endless, she told Report Mainz and DER SPIEGEL. "Pushbacks cannot take place completely without the knowledge of the other units in the area."

And there are indications that German officials might know of the pushbacks. In the port of Samos, the German Coast Guard ship Uckermark is anchored. On May 13, on the day that Amjad Naim was on his way to Samos, the Germans identified a refugee boat on their radar, according to information provided by the German Federal Police when contacted.

In all probability, it was Naim's boat. There is no evidence that there were any other refugee boats heading for Samos on that day. The Greek Coast Guard also confirmed that a ship and a helicopter belonging to the Germans had spotted a boat that day. They say it was in Turkish waters when first seen.

The Germans alerted the Greek Coast Guard by radio, and the Greeks then took charge of the situation, according to a written statement. The statement notes that the Germans were "not involved" in any other measures related to the incident and insists that the Germans have no knowledge of the lifeboat episode.

The German Coast Guard has provided no comment as to why no refugees arrived on Samos that day or what happened to the refugee boat that was spotted. And they apparently aren't particularly interested, either.

Even if Frontex was not actively involved in the operation, they bear some of the responsibility, says the lawyer Itamar Mann. Frontex, he believes, must draw a line and even withdraw from the mission if need be.

After the Germans apparently saw his boat and after the Greeks abandoned him to his fate on the high seas on May 13, Amjad Naim floated around for several hours. The sky was almost cloudless, and the sun was beating down, as can be seen in the videos. The refugees had nothing to eat or drink.

The lifeboat soon began to spin in circles, Naim says, with some of the passengers becoming nauseous and others fainting. Turkish and Greek ships, he says, simply ignored them. "It was awful," Naim says.

Saved after hours at sea: The Turkish Coast Guard pulls Amjad Naim and the other refugees out of the water.

Saved after hours at sea: The Turkish Coast Guard pulls Amjad Naim and the other refugees out of the water.

Foto: Turkish Coast Guard Command

It was only after several hours that a Turkish Coast Guard vessel arrived to collect them. Men in white protective equipment helped the refugees off the lifeboat and took their temperatures. Naim then had to remain in quarantine for more than two weeks - in a nasty camp full of filth and mosquitoes, he says.

Naim is now allowed to move freely in Turkey, but still feels trapped. He says: "I can't go forward and I can't go back."

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