Greece says it does not ditch migrants at sea. It was caught in the act

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Majd Abdi, left, with his sister Mariam Abdi play in a common room at the detention center in Izmir, Turkey, April 20, 2023. (Photos: NYTimes)
The asylum-seekers had already hopscotched countries for years to escape war in the Horn of Africa. They had barely set foot in Europe, hoping to start new lives, when masked men rounded them up and stripped them of their belongings.اضافة اعلان

Now they were crammed into the dinghy, rocking on the open waters and trying to shield themselves from the bright sun as Naima Hassan Aden clutched her six-month-old baby and wept.

“We didn’t expect to survive on that day,” said Aden, a 27-year-old from Somalia. “When they were putting us on the inflatable raft, they did so without any mercy.”

Their ordeal might ordinarily have remained largely unknown, like those of so many other asylum-seekers whose accounts of mistreatment have been dismissed by the Greek government. Only on this occasion, it was captured in its entirety on video by an activist who shared it with The New York Times.

A Times investigation verified and corroborated the footage. We also interviewed 11 of the asylum-seekers from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia whom we located at a detention center in Izmir, on the Turkish coast.

Sulekha Abdullahi, second from left in the back row, with her six children at the detention center in Izmir, Turkey, April 20, 2023. 

Many were still wearing the same clothes they had on in the video. They gave detailed accounts of what happened to them that matched the events in the video — before Times reporters showed them the footage. The approximate height and size of the adults and children matched, too.

The Greek government did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But campaigning on Lesbos last week before general elections Sunday, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis defended his government’s “tough but fair” migration policies and boasted of a 90 percent drop in the arrival of “illegal migrants”.

The government has consistently denied mistreating asylum-seekers and points to the fact that it shoulders a disproportionate burden of managing new arrivals to Europe.

But the video, provided by an Austrian aid worker, Fayad Mulla, who has spent much of the past two and a half years working on the island and trying to document abuses against migrants, may be the most damning evidence yet of the Greek authorities’ violation of international laws and EU rules governing how asylum-seekers must be treated.

We showed the video in person to three senior officials from the European Commission in Brussels, describing how we had verified it. Later, in written comments, the commission said it was “concerned by the footage” and that, though it had not verified the material for itself, it would take the matter up with the Greek authorities.

Greece “must fully respect obligations under the EU asylum rules and international law, including ensuring access to the asylum procedure,” said Anitta Hipper, the European Commission spokesperson for migration.

Greek authorities declined requests to meet in person to review the video.

Greece and the EU hardened their attitudes toward migrants after the arrival in 2015 and 2016 of more than 1 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. The wave of newcomers reshaped European politics, igniting populist hard-right forces who played on nativist angst.

Greece is far from alone in cracking down on migrants. Poland, Italy, and Lithuania have recently changed their laws to make it easier to repel migrants and to punish those who help them.

But the new videos suggest that the Greek authorities have gone still further, resorting to surreptitious extrajudicial expulsions that sweep up even the most vulnerable with the participation of its maritime forces.

“Through the will of God, we managed to survive,” Aden said.

Anatomy of an extrajudicial deportation
It was just after midday on April 11 that a white unmarked van drove down to a small cove with a wooden dock at the southern tip of Lesbos, according to Mulla’s video.

As the van wound down to the coastline, two men waiting in a speedboat covered their faces with what appear to be ski masks. When the van stopped, three men emerged, unlocked the back doors — and out filed 12 people, several of them small children.

The passengers included Aden and her baby, Awale, with whom she had originally fled Jilib, a small city in an area of Somalia controlled by Al-Shabab, a militant group linked with al-Qaida, she said. Aden said they had landed on Lesbos in a smugglers’ dinghy a day earlier and had spent a night hiding in the brush before being rounded up by masked men.

Sulekha Abdullahi, 40, and her six children were crammed in the van, too.

So were Mahdi, 25, and Miliyen, 33, who said they had also arrived on Lesbos by dinghy and sought cover in the brush. They were captured after a short pursuit, and Miliyen’s ankles still bore deep scratches when we interviewed him days later.

They agreed to share their stories but asked to be identified only by their first names, fearful of retribution.

A few minutes after the group was escorted out of the van, everyone was taken out on the Aegean waters in the speedboat. From a distance it looked like a tourist leisure ride. It was anything but.

Another three minutes passed and then the speedboat approached coast guard vessel 617, which was mostly paid for with EU funds, according to archived lists of Greek coast guard assets.

One by one, the migrants were unloaded from the speedboat and taken to the stern of the coast guard boat, escorted by six unmasked individuals, some of whom appeared to be wearing the standard dark blue uniform.

The coast guard craft then turned eastward toward Turkey and got underway. The boat was not sending out its location, according to Marine Traffic, a maritime live data platform that tracks vessels. But the Times was able to approximate its position using location data from other nearby commercial vessels visible in the footage.

The Coast Guard boat stopped when it neared the edge of Greece’s territorial waters. The video Mulla shot from the Lesbos coast is blurry because of the distance, but a black object can later be seen floating beside the Coast Guard boat.

In interviews at the Izmir detention facility, all the migrants recounted being pushed onto a black inflatable life raft and set adrift. The use of these engineless rafts has been documented in the past, but Greek authorities have denied leaving migrants afloat in them, because they are unnavigable and can overturn.

Greek authorities often use a fax message to tip off their counterparts to the presence of stranded migrants in Turkish territorial waters, according to Turkish officials, and an hour or so after the migrants were abandoned, two Turkish coast guard boats appeared.

The Times was able to approximate the location of the rescue through the coordinates of the MSC Valencia, a large commercial ship anchored nearby, visible in the background.

The April 11 rescue, like many others, was posted on a website regularly updated by Turkish authorities.

Its coast guard said that it had rescued “12 irregular migrants on the lifeboat that was pushed back to Turkish territorial waters by Greek assets,” off the coast of Dikili, opposite Lesbos, at 14:30 local time.

The Times analyzed video provided by the Turkish coast guard and was able to identify the individuals visible in Mulla’s footage in one of the shots, which shows the migrants arriving at the port of Dikili in Turkey. The Times was able to confirm it was the same group based on its composition, the physical attributes of its members, and their clothing.

Stuck in limbo
The fate of the group is now unclear.

Mahdi, the young Ethiopian, was released in early May on court orders, but told the Times after his release that Miliyen and the Somali women and children were still in detention.

When interviewed, the Somali women and some of the older children had described the Turkish facility as a prison and said they could not bear to stay any longer.

“I’m a mother raising children whose father is dead,” Abdullahi said. “I have heart issues and high cholesterol. I can’t continue to bear the conditions inside this jail.”

Ozge Oguz, a lawyer who works with people at the detention center, said many languish there for months before a decision is made on whether to deport them.

“When people are taken to this facility because they were left by the Greeks in boats in the Aegean, they are already victims,” she said.

Turkish authorities may rescue the migrants at sea, but they accord them only limited rights.

On paper, Oguz said, the asylum-seekers have a right to apply for international protection in Turkey — but the chances are slim. “They do apply, but they’re rejected,” she said. Turkish authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

By contrast, more than 80 percent of Eritreans and more than half of the Somalis who applied for protection in the EU last year were successful, according to official statistics.

“I just wanted to go to a place where I can seek safety,” Aden said.

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