Pushbacks in Greece - no isolated incidents

Asylum in Greece
May 24, 2023
4 min read
IHA Team

In the first week of 2023, 32 boats carrying 1108 people were pushed back by the Hellenic Coast Guard, an increase of 125% compared to 2022. Excessive force (such as excessive beatings, water immersion and sexual abuse) is used in 89% of the cases. Excessive force includes beatings, water immersion, sexual abuse and other forms of torture.

On the 19th of May, two days before the general elections in Greece, a video taken by an Austrian activist was released to the public by the New York Times. Twelve asylum seekers are shown being forced into a high-speed inflatable boat by men wearing balaclavas. They are then transferred to an EU-funded Hellenic coast guard vessel, which proceeds to abandon them on an inflatable raft in the middle of the Aegean Sea. They are being left adrift before being picked up by the Turkish coast guard.

This isn’t an isolated incident. However, the video may be the strongest evidence to date of the illegal pushbacks in the Aegean Sea. Until then the Greek government have been denying to carry out pushbacks and claiming that their treatment of refugees is ‘hard but fair’.

What happened in the last weeks?

29th of April: following an investigation of several months, journalists Giorgos Christides & Katy Fallon have uncovered evidence of a violent pushback which took place on Samos on 22-23 January of this year. A group of ten people were stripped, beaten, robbed and cuffed with cable ties. They were loaded onto a boat and the Turkish Coastguard picked them up.

1st of May: Mare Liberum, a search and rescue organisation, has ceased working in Greece after 5 years, citing 'sabotage, obstruction and repression' carried out against it by the Greek government and coastguard. Their efforts to rescue people have been continuously opposed, which makes it impossible for them to continue their work in Greece and prevent pushbacks.

4th of May: a boat carrying 36 people contacts AlarmPhone and the Greek Coastguard in distress of the Peloponnese coast. There is no response for several hours. 15 hours later, the Greek coastguard claims they 'had not been able to find the boat'. Nine hours after that, family members of those aboard report that their family members have been picked up by the Turkish Coastguard, after having been beaten and pushed back by the Greek coastguard, which had claimed it 'could not find' their boat.

4th of May: Aegean Boat Report reports that a boat carrying nine people was pushed back late the night before from Lesvos by the Greek Coastguard. When the Turkish Coastguard encounters the boat, they find only six people. One person is confirmed to have drowned, a woman and a baby are described as 'missing'.

Pushbacks, which refer to the practice of forcing asylum seekers back over a border without the possibility to apply for asylum and with no consideration of individual needs, are in violation of multiple European and international laws, including the 1951 Geneva convention, of which Greece and all other countries of the EU are signatories.

– Jozefien Dierynck (Human Rights Master Student & IHA Volunteer)

Besides direct pushbacks, Greece also prevents asylum seekers from reaching the mainland indirectly. On the 1st of May, Mare Liberum, a search and rescue organisation, officially ceased its operations in Greece after five years, after repeatedly being sabotaged, obstructed and repressed by the Greek government and coastguard. Because of the numerous counts of intimidation they have faced, they were no longer able to continue rescuing people and preventing pushbacks on the Aegean Sea.

Like many organisations, we have experienced sabotage, obstruction, and, repression during our time in the Aegean. The Hellenic Coast Guard has repeatedly tried to intimidate us, through reckless manoeuvres or radio calls, through repeated controls and questioning of our papers. In addition, we were banned from leaving the port, justified by the Corona measures. And to make matters worse, the Greek police raided our ship, searched it, and are now investigating us on flimsy grounds.

– Mare Liberum

Whether directly or indirectly, pushbacks by the Greek government and coast guard continue to happen on a nearly daily basis, regardless of national, European or international law. In 2022, this cost 326 people their lives, and it seems like 2023 is already on its way to exceed this number. Border fortification and pushbacks do not deter movement, it just forces people to take more dangerous routes.

By continuously shedding light on these pushbacks, IHA aims to spark a dialogue and challenge the policies and practices that perpetuate this crisis. We cannot compromise on the principles of humanity, dignity, fairness and justice. Nor can we compromise on fair and efficient asylum processes that are rooted in international law and human rights. We demand: Stop pushbacks now.

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