NEW YORK – Despite repeated denials by Greece’s New Democracy government that refugees and migrants are being pushed back at land borders and sea, a video shows a group put on an inflatable raft by the Coast Guard and abandoned in the Aegean, The New York Times reported.
That came on the eve of May 21 elections and contradicted Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ assertions that the practice wasn’t happening, despite other allegations from human rights groups, activists, and major media.
The newspaper said the group of asylum seekers, including a 6-month-old infant, were left adrift after reaching Greece on a journey that took years from the Horn of Africa, hoping to find a safe place.
“We didn’t expect to survive on that day. When they were putting us on the inflatable raft, they did so without any mercy,” said Naima Hassan Aden, 27, who was holding the baby on the dinghy, the story claimed, saying it was backed up by a video obtained from an Austrian aid worker, Fayad Mulla.
The paper’s investigation confirmed the footage depicting the group being transported on the mainland, loaded into a van, taken to a Coast Guard vessel, and then embarked on a perilous journey on the raft.
According to the article, 11 asylum seekers from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, who were discovered at a detention center in Izmir on the Turkish coast, provided interviews detailing the alleged events.
Despite repeated requests for comment, the Greek government remained silent, as noted by the paper. Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who recently visited Lesbos Island, a major refugee destination with established camps, defended the government’s policy towards refugees and migrants as “tough but fair,” denying reports of mistreatment and pushbacks at detention centers.
The paper highlighted the activist Mulla, who has spent 2 ½ years on Lesbos documenting abuses against refugees. The video, described as potentially the most damning evidence of Greek authorities’ violations of international laws and EU regulations on the treatment of asylum seekers, was presented to three senior European Commission officials, who expressed concern and indicated their intention to contact Greek officials.
Anitta Hipper, the European Commission spokeswoman for migration, emphasized that Greece must fully adhere to its obligations under EU asylum rules and international law, including ensuring access to the asylum procedure.
Since 2015, refugees and migrants have sought a new life in the EU, fleeing conflict-ridden countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, as well as regions as distant as sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
CAUGHT BETWEEN COUNTRIES
They used Turkey as a jumping-off point, primarily through Greece and its islands, in an attempt to reach more prosperous countries before the EU closed its borders to them, burdening Greece and Italy with the problem.
In 2016, a deal was struck between the EU and Turkey, aimed at containing the influx of refugees, but it has inadvertently allowed human traffickers to continue sending them to Greece, especially to five Aegean islands where Greek camps have been established.
The paper presented the video as evidence that Greece has been carrying out covert, extrajudicial expulsions, despite their denials, involving the participation of maritime forces and impacting even the most vulnerable individuals.
While the report mentioned the group being taken off Lesbos, it did not clarify why they were singled out while a camp on the island accommodated up to 5,000 others seeking asylum and facing wait times of up to two years.
According to the report, a white unmarked van transported the group to the coastline, where two individuals, seemingly wearing ski masks, awaited them in a speedboat. The masked men took the 12 asylum seekers, including children and a baby, away.
Aden explained that they had arrived on Lesbos in a smugglers’ dinghy the previous day and had spent the night hiding in the brush before being captured by masked men following a brief chase.
The video purportedly showed the speedboat connecting with Coast Guard vessel 617, which was largely funded by the EU, as indicated by archived lists of Greek Coast Guard assets.
The migrants were disembarked from the speedboat and taken to the stern of the Coast Guard boat, accompanied by six unmasked individuals, some of whom appeared to be wearing the standard dark blue uniform, according to the paper’s account.
According to Turkish officials who spoke to the newspaper, Greek authorities often use fax messages to inform the Turkish Coast Guard about migrants pushed towards Turkish waters. About an hour later, Turkey’s Coast Guard located the raft.
Turkey granted the paper access to the location where the migrants were being held for interviews, aiming to highlight the Greek government’s mistreatment of migrants. However, Turkey has not faced sanctions for allowing them to be sent to Greece.
Ozge Oguz, a lawyer working with individuals at the detention center, noted that many languish there while awaiting a decision on whether they will be deported. She emphasized that those taken to the facility because they were left by the Greeks in boats in the Aegean are already victims.
Asylum seekers have the right to apply for sanctuary in Turkey, but it is rarely approved, said Oguz. “They do apply, but they’re rejected,” she added. The Turkish authorities did not respond to the paper’s requests for comment.
“I just wanted to go to a place where I can seek safety,” expressed Aden.