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Greek Coastguard Accused of Throwing Migrants Overboard to Their Deaths
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Witnesses allege that the Greek coastguard has caused the deaths of dozens of migrants in the Mediterranean over a three-year period, including nine who were deliberately thrown into the water. More than 40 migrants are claimed to have died due to forced expulsions from Greek territorial waters or being taken back out to sea after reaching Greek islands. The Greek coastguard has firmly denied all accusations of illegal activities. However, when a former senior Greek coastguard officer was shown footage of 12 people being loaded into a Greek coastguard boat and then abandoned on a dinghy, he candidly remarked that it was “obviously illegal” and “an international crime.”

The Greek government has long faced accusations of conducting forced returns, pushing migrants back towards Turkey, which is illegal under international law. This is the first time the number of incidents allegedly resulting in fatalities due to the Greek coastguard’s actions has been calculated. The investigation identified 15 incidents from May 2020 to 2023, resulting in 43 deaths. Initial sources included local media, NGOs, and the Turkish coastguard. Verifying such accounts is challenging as witnesses often disappear or are too fearful to speak out. However, in four cases, accounts were corroborated by speaking with eyewitnesses.

 

The investigation suggested a clear pattern. In five incidents, migrants reported being thrown directly into the sea by Greek authorities. In four of those cases, they had already landed on Greek islands but were hunted down. In several other incidents, migrants were put onto inflatable rafts without motors, which then deflated or appeared to have been punctured.

One of the most chilling accounts came from a Cameroonian man who said he was hunted by Greek authorities after landing on the island of Samos in September 2021. Planning to register as an asylum seeker, he and two others were transferred to a Greek coastguard boat, where events took a terrifying turn. He recounted that the coastguard threw his companions, another Cameroonian and an Ivorian, into the water, where they drowned. “They started with the other Cameroonian. They threw him in the water. The Ivorian man said: ‘Save me, I don’t want to die’… and then eventually only his hand was above water, and his body was below. Slowly his hand slipped under, and the water engulfed him,” the survivor recounted. He too was beaten and thrown into the water but managed to swim to shore. The bodies of his companions, Sidy Keita and Didier Martial Kouamou Nana, were later found on the Turkish coastline. The survivor’s lawyers are demanding that the Greek authorities open a double murder case.

In March 2021, a Somali man reported that after arriving on the Greek island of Chios, he was apprehended by the Greek army and handed over to the coastguard. He claimed that the coastguard tied his hands behind his back and dropped him into the sea. “They threw me zip-tied into the middle of the sea. They wanted me to die,” he said. He survived by floating on his back until one of his hands broke free, but the rough seas claimed the lives of three others in his group. He eventually reached land and was rescued by the Turkish coastguard.

In September 2022, a boat carrying 85 migrants experienced motor failure near the Greek island of Rhodes. Mohamed, a Syrian, recounted how they called the Greek coastguard for help, only to be returned to Turkish waters and placed in life rafts. The raft Mohamed and his family were given began to sink almost immediately due to an improperly closed valve. Despite their screams for help, the coastguard left them. “The first child who died was my cousin’s son… by morning, seven or eight children had died,” he said. His children survived until just before the Turkish coastguard arrived.

Greek law allows migrants to register asylum claims on designated islands, but many are apprehended before reaching these centers. Migrants often report encounters with non-uniformed, masked men allegedly working undercover. Human rights groups claim thousands seeking asylum in Europe have been illegally pushed back from Greece to Turkey, violating international and EU law.

Austrian activist Fayad Mulla experienced the secrecy of such operations firsthand. In February last year, on the Greek island of Lesbos, he was stopped by a man in a hoodie, later identified as a police officer, while driving to investigate an alleged forced return. The police attempted to delete footage from his dashcam and charge him with resisting arrest. No further action was taken, and two months later, Mulla filmed a forced return, later published by The New York Times. The footage showed a group of migrants, including women and babies, being transferred from an unmarked van to a small boat, then to a Greek coastguard vessel, before being abandoned on a raft and rescued by the Turkish coastguard.

Dimitris Baltakos, former head of special operations with the Greek coastguard, initially denied that the coastguard would engage in illegal activities. However, during a break, he was recorded admitting in Greek that such actions were “obviously illegal” and “an international crime.” Greece’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy said that the footage is being investigated by the National Transparency Authority.

Romy van Baarsen, an investigative journalist on the island of Samos, shared that a Greek special forces member she met on a dating app admitted to “driving back” refugee boats under orders from the minister, with punishment for failure to comply.

Greece is a primary entry point into Europe for many migrants, with 263,048 sea arrivals in Europe last year, 41,561 of which landed in Greece. Despite a 2016 EU-Turkey deal to stop migrants from crossing into Greece, enforcement has waned. The Greek coastguard insists its staff works “tirelessly with the utmost professionalism, a strong sense of responsibility, and respect for human life and fundamental rights,” noting that from 2015 to 2024, they rescued 250,834 refugees/migrants in 6,161 incidents at sea.

However, the Greek coastguard has faced criticism for its role in the Mediterranean’s largest migrant shipwreck in a decade, where over 600 people are feared dead after the Adriana sank in Greece’s rescue area last June. Greek officials claimed the boat was not in distress and was heading safely to Italy, thus no rescue attempt was made.

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Piers Potter

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