Back in 2013, Australia introduced strange new machinery in its campaign against unauthorized migration: a dozen bright-orange and windowless life vessels, shaped like missiles. These were equipped with navigational systems, air conditioning, and an engine. Each vessel, asylum seekers said, was given “just enough fuel” to reach Indonesia. When they washed ashore in February 2014, Indonesian locals were initially unsure what they were looking at. It was a piece of new deportation infrastructure, designed to launch migrants intercepted at sea back to where they had come from.
In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, Greek authorities have put in place comparable deportation machinery. In at least 11 incidents since March 23, migrants have been found drifting in orange, tent-like inflatable life rafts without motors or propellants and that cannot be steered. Members of the Turkish Coast Guard reported these apparitions, but Greek authorities neither explained nor documented them. Images of these life rafts, fluorescent triangular structures afloat between black sea and dark sky, looked strange enough to seem superimposed. Relying on testimony and footage we obtained from multiple sources, including asylum seekers in the area, our investigation verifies this latest show of violence at the Greek-Turkish maritime border.
Far from Australia’s flashier orange vessels from five years back, these are more modest structures. Importantly, the Greek life rafts have appeared in a very different maritime environment: compared to the oceans surrounding Australia, the Aegean Sea is a relatively placid and narrow body of water. Yet like the Australian vessels, these too have been put in place by State authorities, in an organized way, violating fundamental rules of international law. The two sets of deportation craft share visible similarities and are each used in dangerous ways, shedding light on the legal and moral risks that states are now willing to take, just to keep out unwanted populations.
On Nov. 27, Greek Member of Parliament Kyriakos Velopoulos, leader of the right-wing Greek Solution party, appeared on a popular TV talk show on ERT, a Greek state-owned public broadcaster. He advanced a policy first adopted by the United States in Guantanamo Bay, where Haitian asylum-seekers were detained long before 9/11, and later expanded upon by Australia: open-air detention of asylum seekers on “uninhabited” islands. For those whose applications are rejected, Velopoulos suggested unilateral pushbacks to Turkey: Greek authorities should simply remove arriving migrants from the country and send them back to where they came from. Holding photos of the oblong orange vessels Australia had used, he explained: “This here … is a raft made by the Australian government … with food, actual food, and it never sinks.” An interviewer gasped: “There’s a humanitarian aspect to it!”
The relevant background to Velopoulos’s suggestions goes back to 1990, when the Dublin Convention introduced a system whereby asylum seekers must remain in the first European Union member State they access and have their requests processed there. This created an enormous and unjust burden on states at the “external borders” of the EU, such as Greece.
The latest version of this arrangement, the Dublin III Regulation, was adopted in 2013. In June 2015, the EU further exacerbated the disproportionate role given to Greece in “migration management”: with the announcement of the “hotspot” approach, several Aegean islands became locations for asylum-seeker screening, with departures to the mainland prohibited. By August, the flow of refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, particularly the Syrian civil war, began to surge, generating a crisis within the EU as Member States argued over how to handle the arrivals.
The influx of migrants generated a legal challenge to the Dublin rules, but the Court of Justice of the European Union upheld them in a 2017 ruling. In the meantime, in 2016, the EU and Turkey issued a joint statement saying Turkey would prevent unauthorized migrants from leaving its territory, in return for as much as 6 billion euros from the EU. Refugees and migrants thus became a bargaining chip that Ankara continuously used in its diplomatic wrangles with Brussels.
Earlier this year, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed for Western approval of his military operation against Syrian and Russian forces in northern Syria, he intensified his exploitative bargaining. On Feb. 29, he declared that the country would no longer prevent migrants from reaching Europe.
As thousands of migrants gathered at the Turkish-Greek border, seeking to enter, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis warned in a tweet, “Once more, do not attempt to enter Greece illegally – you will be turned back.” On March 1, the Greek government issued an emergency decree suspending asylum applications. According to Human Rights Watch, the Greek National Security Council announced that unauthorized migrants would be immediately returned, without registration, “where possible, to their countries of origin or transit,” such as Turkey. As in other countries in the Mediterranean basin, which also resorted to emergency measures, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has provided a convenient pretext for cracking down on migrants.
Adrift on the Aegean
According to a report from the Turkish Coast Guard, the first of at least 11 alleged pushback incidents involving life rafts occurred on March 23. One of the Turkish Coast Guard’s March 23 reports on “irregular migration” stated that the Guard had rescued 31 Syrian asylum seekers found floating in a life raft off the coast of Muğla’s Datça district in the Aegean Sea. The raft in question can clearly be seen in a press release photograph published by the Coast Guard about the incident.
The refugees contacted the Consolidated Rescue Group, a grassroots organization run by Arabic-speaking volunteers who operate an emergency hotline for migrants in distress. In a statement obtained by the group and forwarded to us, the asylum seekers rescued on March 23 said they landed on the Greek island of Symi on March 22, at approximately 6 am. At certain points, the island is less than 8 km (or 5 miles) from the Turkish shore. The next day, the Greek authorities forced them onto “a small raft that looked like a tent and was orange in color” and left them to drift.
“Up until then, we had no idea that this was what they are going to do,” one of those on board, a construction worker (name withheld for security reasons) from the southeastern outskirts of Damascus, told us in a follow-up interview over WhatsApp.
The Greek Coast Guard had brought them to the main port of Symi and boarded them onto a ship: “They told us they would take us for a Corona test, and then we would be given our belongings back and transferred to Athens,” he said. Instead, after two hours onboard the Greek Coast Guard vessel, the authorities forced them down into a small raft: “They put everyone in … children, women, elderly, and young people. They didn’t leave anyone in the ship,” he said, telling us that they were left to drift “for over three hours,” until they were eventually rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard.
He provided us with video footage that he recorded of the group’s arrival on the island of Symi, as well as footage recorded from inside the raft, while awaiting rescue (see below).
The Greek government’s daily public statistics of arrivals contains no record of their arrival on the Greek island or their deportation to Turkey.
A series of similar incidents were reported by the Turkish Coast Guard in the following days. On March 27, the Coast Guard reported rescuing 10 migrants (eight Palestinian, two Egyptian, consisting of 3 men, 2 women and 5 children) in a “life raft” off the coast of Muğla’s Datça district (the Turkish version is written as “Can Salı”). Again, photographs accompanying the Coast Guard’s official press release show people being rescued from a tent-like raft. According to the Turkish Coast Guard’s statements, the migrants had been “pushed back towards Turkish territorial waters by Greek Coast Guard.”
The next day, on March 28, nine Syrians (4 men, 2 women and 3 children) rescued were reported found in a “life boat” off the coast of Aydın’s Didim district, again with clear photographs of the distinctive tent-like raft accompanying the Guard’s report.
We interviewed a Kurdish couple from Hasaka, Syria, who were among the group. According to the couple, on the morning of March 27, “around 7 or 8 a.m.,” they arrived on the Greek island of Farmakonisi. Unlike the larger Aegean islands of Chios, Lesvos, Samos, and Kos, where refugees most commonly arrive, Farmakonisi is an uninhabited island and a military base. There are no camps or reception facilities for asylum seekers.
The couple told us they were held by the army in terrible conditions. They described being “treated like animals, … [t]he army took our phones, money, clothes, and documents then threw them into the sea. Around 3 a.m., they took us toward the sea border. Then they made us take a boat shaped like a square tent, 2 meters wide. Then we were rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard.”
Again, on March 29, the Turkish Coast Guard reported rescuing 18 migrants (7 men, 4 women and 7 children) at 11:40 p.m. The Coast Guard issued a press release, complete with clear photos of the migrants being rescued from a life raft.
This is consistent with statements from migrants claiming to have been among those rescued. We interviewed a Syrian man who provided us with photographs of his arrival on Rhodes on March 27. The man told us he arrived with a group of 18 people: seven Palestinians, six Syrians and five Iranians, including children and a pregnant woman. After arriving on Rhodes, the man and the rest of the group were held by the Greek police on the roadside from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.
“The weather was really cold and they did not let us light a fire to warm the women and children who were with us,” he said. The group was then transferred to the port by bus: “They gave us two tents, without anything in them. We were under full surveillance,” he added.
“They [Greek authorities] were suspicious that we had corona, so we wrote a sign that none of us has corona so that we could reassure them, hoping they would treat us in a humane way,” he said. “But this changed nothing.”
The group stayed in the makeshift camp for 2 1/2 days, until the night of March 29. He said that was when “a military van with army officers transferred us to the port and handed us over to the Greek Coast Guard.”
They were on board the Greek Coast Guard boat for about one hour: “Then they switched off the engine of the boat and made us go down, in the middle of the sea, in a rubber boat shaped like a tent.” They were left to drift for what he describes as approximately two hours, when they were intercepted by the Turkish Coast Guard:
When the Turkish Coast Guard found us and took us to the Turkish land, they registered our information and transferred us to the police station. They split us in half. One half was Syrians and Palestinians and the other half is the other nationalities. For us, we were detained for like 15 days and after that we were released without any rights as refugees, such as having a Kimlik [Temporary Protection Identification Document].
Without the proper registration, he explains, he is now hiding from the Turkish authorities as he fears being forcibly returned to Syria, where he fled.
Contravening International Rules
“Shaped like a tent,” as migrants repeatedly describe them, the life rafts the Greek Coast Guard appears to be employing to expel migrants are, in fact, designed for emergency evacuation in the case of shipwreck. They are manufactured not for transportation, but for rescue in case of a boat or ship sinking, to keep survivors afloat and alive until assistance arrives. They are not equipped with an engine or other propellant, cannot be steered, and provide minimal protection from the elements.
As Paul Crowley, a former captain for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in Ireland, explained to us, such life rafts are never to be deployed “for any other reason other than to preserve life if no other option is available. It would contravene any internationally recognized standard to take people from a non-life-threatening location, either land or vessel, and place them in a raft.”
As far as the law goes, these returns risk violating the international standard of non-refoulement. This principle is at the centerpiece of international refugee protection, and prohibits returns of asylum seekers to any place where they may suffer persecution, torture, or inhuman and degrading treatment. The returns also violate Greece’s obligations under human rights law, including the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, and the right to life (see Articles 3 and 2, respectively, of the European Convention on Human Rights). Inasmuch as these violations constitute a “widespread or systematic attack” directed against a “civilian population,” they may raise concerns under international criminal law. Evidence continues to surface that these days, when it comes to the treatment of migrants, the Greek authorities violate fundamental edicts of international law unabated.
While the use of rescue equipment for deportations appears to be a new development, pushbacks on the Aegean are not. On March 23, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants Felipe González Morales stated that he is “very concerned about the reported pushbacks of asylum seekers and migrants” by Greek authorities at both land and maritime borders. He also referenced recent violence committed by Greek authorities against those seeking to aid migrants in the Aegean Sea area. The Germany-based human-rights monitoring organization Mare Liberum (“The Free Sea”) told us that a more common tactic of the Greek Coast Guard is to remove the engines of migrants’ boats and leave them to drift. Likewise, reports of the Turkish Coast Guard resorting to violence have arisen since Turkey’s implementation of the 2016 deal with the EU. Examples reported to the authors by migrants and NGO workers include driving rings around boats and throwing stones to stop boats from leaving Turkish waters.
Clearly both countries have geostrategic motives for their treatment of migrants related to their fraught relationships with the EU – including aid money and various benefits for their own citizens. Often, it seems like the two countries are playing a violent game of ping-pong across the Aegean with migrant bodies.
An Iraqi refugee whom we interviewed over WhatsApp — we will refer to as “Hatim” for safety reasons — told us that he has been pushed back to Turkey by Greek authorities on three occasions since July 2019. Hatim and his family fled to Turkey in 2014, when ISIS took over their home city of Mosul. They were selected for resettlement in the United States, and had just finished their first interview when Trump’s January 2017 Executive Order interrupted the program. On the night of April 1, 2020, he and his family made four separate attempts to reach the Greek island of Chios. On the last attempt, their rubber dinghy, carrying approximately 40 people, entered Greek territorial waters and was intercepted by the Greek Coast Guard. The Coast Guard confiscated the fuel from their boat and returned them to Turkish waters, leaving them to drift.
The systemic nature of such violations by the Greek authorities was recently highlighted by whistleblowers working under Frontex, the European border enforcement agency. In early March, the crew of a Danish patrol boat participating in “Operation Poseidon,” an EU maritime border patrol mission coordinated by Frontex, revealed that the Hellenic Coast Guard has explicit orders to stop migrant boats from crossing the sea border between Turkey to Greece. The Danish unit had refused to obey a pushback order from Operation Poseidon headquarters. Since then, NGOs Alarmphone and Mare Liberum have documented a series of pushbacks by Greek authorities along the Greece-Turkey border, including in the Aegean, that have become increasingly visible and severe.
Most notably, Greek newspaper EFSYN reported an incident involving 26 migrants whose arrival on Mourtia Beach on the Greek island of Samos April 1 was documented by a resident. The arrival was not reported by the Greek authorities. In fact, government statistics recorded no new arrivals to Samos on that date.
However, photographs taken by the Samos resident (and reproduced in EFSYN’s reporting) show the deflated dinghy and newly arrived migrants heading away from the shore. One member of the group is distinguished by bright red trousers while another carries a red duffle bag. EFSYN published photographs obtained from the Turkish Coast Guard of the same group who had arrived on Mourtia Beach aboard a Turkish Coast Guard boat after their rescue later that day, noting the marked similarities in the appearance, clothing and baggage of the migrants in the two sets of photographs. On the same day, the Turkish Coast Guard reported rescuing 26 migrants (found with a life raft) on the shore near Kuşadası national park, in a location that cannot be reached by land. According to the Turkish Coast Guard, the migrants said they had landed on Samos, were rounded up by the Greek Coast Guard and left to drift in the raft.
On May 12, EFSYN published a video of a life raft like the ones pictured above (but without the cover) being dragged by a Greek Coast Guard boat off the southeast coast of Samos. The video was originally published by the Turkish Coast Guard on April 29, at which time it announced rescuing 22 people found drifting off the coast of Aydin province, bordering the Greek island of Samos. According to Bellingcat’s recent investigation into the incident, the group of 22 migrants rescued on April 29 (pictured in the video) had, in fact, arrived on Samos the previous day, on April 28.
Most recently, a video surfaced on YouTube appearing to show the Turkish Coast Guard rescuing a group of 30 migrants aboard two life rafts. According to Turkish records and reports, including photographs, the Coast Guard rescued 30 migrants in two life rafts on May 13, consisting of 13 Congolese, eight Syrians, five Bangladeshis and three Palestinian nationals, along with a Lebanese national. The rescue occurred off the coast of the district of Menderes in Turkey’s İzmir province.
On May 15, yet another group of migrants were rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard after being found in these distinctive life rafts. This group of 25 migrants also reported having been repelled by Greek authorities, again with photographic evidence.
The Tent and the Missile
Australians eventually replaced their orange lifeboats with fishing boats, although the intention was the same – pushing migrants away from Australian shores. But there was something chillingly memorable about that episode. It embodied the often-hypocritical moral stance of liberal democracies regarding strangers in need: a willingness to engage in extreme measures, even violence, to enforce borders, coupled with an emphasis on efficiency and a pretense of safety.
While the Australian deportation vessels appear to have been custom-made and reportedly were purchased for $40,000 AUD each (about $25,000 USD), the Greek life raft “tents” are considerably more modest. They are the kind of equipment a yacht owner might purchase online for around $2,000. Under the 1974 Safety of Life as Sea Convention, maritime vessels are required to have such protective gear available. The Hellenic Coast Guard has now repurposed them for the opposite ends – putting people in danger.
The Greek orange rafts seen in pictures appear to be a model manufactured by a Greek company called LALIZAS, which specialize in rescue equipment. A November 2019 LALIZAS newsletter includes an article entitled “24 hours in a LALIZAS Liferaft: Mission accomplished!” It describes a training in which members of Greece’s Hellenic Rescue Team and Hellenic Air Force carried out a simulated “‘actual’ case of emergency” by relying on a LALIZAS life raft and its food and survival equipment for a full 24 hours (see the story on the LALIZAS website here, and official video of the simulation, here). The life raft in question, code named “MEDUSSA” for the simulation, appears identical to those in many of the images of the tent-like rafts migrants have been rescued from while adrift in the Aegean.
According to the Greek government’s procurement records available online, it purchased the life rafts for the Greek Navy in 2017. Several government ministries appear to have contracts with this company.
The Australian life raft most closely resembles a missile. Its very image conveys the omnipotence of a regional superpower. By using such a machine, Australia effectively said to those attempting unauthorized maritime entry, “We will shoot you away.” To be sure, this missile is not fired at the migrants. It’s as if they become part of its ammunition; shot back at Indonesia’s shores, they are expected to crawl out of the shell once the missile crashes on one of the country’s countless atolls.
Compared to the grandeur of the Australian missile-like object, and its mechanical cruelty, the Greek tent-like raft is a poignant symbol of inhumanity. Set adrift on the Aegean, its disquieting quality emerges from the fact that it becomes a kind of metaphor for the refugee’s condition. Asylum seekers describing it had often used the Arabic word ḵēma (خيمة), which is the tent one would use in a camp (and typically not a home, even if that too is a tent). It echoes the word mūẖym, which means refugee camp. No fuel is rationed to reach a destination, and the expectation appears to be that the life raft will simply drift across the relatively narrow waterway.
The act of putting migrants to sea in inflatable tents is in line with the broader EU contemporary response to the “refugee crisis” – rejection and abandonment. This is, at least, how asylum seekers protesting at Moria camp, on the Greek island of Lesvos, see it: “We have been abandoned here,” said one asylum seeker on April 22.
Like the Australian example, the tent too is an instrument of deterrence: “We will shoot you away” is replaced with a threat of an even more perilous exile on water. This aspect, however, does not make the Greek use of the life rafts any better than the Australian display of technological might. Both are utilized to perform what is almost an act of murder, but ultimately not quite there.