Reports by a coalition of international investigative journalist news sites said that two Africans who couldn’t swim drowned after being tossed into the sea, allegedly by Greek police after reaching the island of Samos.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has repeatedly denied growing reports that refugees and migrants were being pushed back across the border and the sea despite claims by human rights groups, activists, witnesses, and major media sites, including videos purportedly showing the practice.
An investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian, The Netherlands’-based Lighthouse Reports, France’s Mediapart and Germany’s Der Spiegel
said it revealed the drownings and other incidents of pushbacks.
The victims were Sidy Keita from Ivory Coast and Didier Martial Kouamou Nana from Cameroon who the report said made it to Samos on Sept. 15, 2021 on a dinghy from Turkey, which lets human traffickers keep operating during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.
Although said to have landed on the island safely, their bodies were found days later, washed ashore in Aydin province, on the Aegean coast off Turkey, the international reporters saying they pieced together what happened.
That was said to include interviews with more than a dozen witnesses, analysis of classified documents, satellite imagery, social media accounts and online material, and discussions with officials in Turkey and Greece.
“There is mounting evidence that would-be asylum seekers are being illegally removed from Greek territory before having the chance to lodge asylum applications, the report said.
Keita, 36, left Ivory Coast after taking part in protests against president Alassane Ouattara and went to Turkey, which is holding some 4.4 million refugees and migrants who fled war, strife and economic hardships in their homelands, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan but also Africa.
Keita arrived in Turkey in March 2020. Kouamou, 33, a mechanic in Cameroon, landed in Turkey as well, hoping to join his brother who had been living in France since 2014, the report said.
They were said to have gone to the Basmane district of Izmir, a known spot for human traffickers, with Turkey not being sanctioned for letting them continue to operate while blaming Greece for pushbacks.
They were among 36 who then boarded a dinghy from near Kusadasi on the Turkish coast that left at sunrise on Sept. 15, the report claimed, adding that lawyers working for the Human Rights Legal Project (HRLP) on Samos received a text message informing them of the dinghy’s arrival.
The HRLP emailed a notification to police, the UN refugee agency UNHCR, a member of the European Commission based on the island and the Reception and Identification service for asylum seekers on Samos, it was reported.
The HRLP email, seen by the Guardian, asks that the arrivals be provided with the necessary assistance to register as asylum seekers on the island as prescribed by law. There was no reply.
But after the dinghy landed witnesses described hearing what sounded like shots being fired and those on the craft fled in panic to hide on a hill, with eight escaping.
The other 28, including a baby, young children and a pregnant woman, were apprehended and it was claimed they were loaded on to a Coast Guard boat, driven out to sea and cast adrift on two life rafts.
One of them, identified by a pseudonym, said he was strip-searched and beaten and that a woman wassubjected to an internal physical search by officers looking for money.
“The police beat us with the greatest violence,” he said. The woman said, “I was punched in the face and in the stomach. I was crying,” that she too was robbed and her baby was thrown into the life raft “as if you were throwing a garbage can.”
She said that, “We have to denounce this because it’s inhuman. They hit people in front of us, they traumatized the children.”
The two rafts were picked up by the Turkish Coast Guarda few hours later, the report claimed, the pregnant woman said to have gone into labor on the raft and delivering a child shortly after being saved.
Of the eight people who first escaped on Samos, four made it to a refugee camp and four were apprehended, one woman found outside a monastery, given a bottle of water and also allegedly thrown into the sea, but also rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard.
Keita, Kouamou and another man said they were stopped on a road by men identifying themselves as police officers, had their money and phones stolen, taken to port and put on a Coast Guard speedboat.
They said that one-by-one they were taken into the sea and tossed overboard, one of them identified by a pseudonymn – who survived the ordeal by swimming to Turkey’s coast a mile away.
“I resisted,” he said. “They beat me properly before throwing me into the water,” he said, adding that Keita’s body washed up on the shore shortly thereafter and that he tried to resuscitate him.
He said he was picked up by Turkish police and told them what happened. “They pushed us into the sea,” he said he told them. “They did not provide us with a raft or boat,” and that Kouamou disappeared under the waves.
Keita’s body was found by the Turkish Coast Guard and two days later it was said they found Kouamou on the same beach, both later identified in a morgue by the man who survived.
The report said it could not verify the story and that two Greek officials with knowledge of Coast Guard operations, who didn’t want to be identified, also confirmed that what he described had happened before to other refugees.
Both officials said refugees are usually provided with lifejackets before being told to swim back to Turkey, whose Coast Guard said it has conducted 11 rescue operations in the area.
Dimitris Choulis, an HRLP lawyer, is filing a lawsuit pressing for criminal charges to be brought against those involved in the pushback on behalf of some of the 36 people who made that journey, the report said.
“What is very dangerous for our democracy is having police officers overstepping the law,” he said. “My hope is, as a Greek lawyer, to restore the rule of law in the island of Samos, because this is what seems to have been lost,” he added.
In a statement, the Greek police authorities said: “The Hellenic police authorities, following a strict disciplinary legal framework, investigate every piece of information which is communicated to them and concerns alleged incidents of ill treatment at the borders, including allegations for unprocessed returns (pushbacks), in order that the foreseen by law penalties are imposed and similar behaviours are avoided in the future.
“The allegations on the breach of the principle of non-refoulement do not meet reality and in fact undermine the work of the Hellenic police at the operational border areas,” it added.
The Hellenic Coast Guard said in a statement: “The practices described and attributed to operational assets and personnel of the coastguard do not correspond with our operational processes in deterring non-authorised border crossings, or dealing with third country nationals during the surveillance of sea borders.”