Athens, Greece – Within the small hours of April 3, a rubber dinghy stuffed with asylum seekers set out from the Turkish coast close to the city of Babanli.
Among the many 27 passengers, 11 had been youngsters. Their vacation spot was the Greek island of Lesbos.
By 4:31am, once they had been simply 450 metres (1,476 toes) from Lesbos’s northern shore, their engine sputtered out.
At 5:20am, a Greek coastguard vessel noticed them, took the passengers on board, sped them again into Turkish territorial waters, transferred them onto a life raft and notified the Turkish coastguard to choose them up.
That story, with exact geolocation coordinates and timings, was advised by Aegean Boat Report (ABR), a non-governmental organisation run from Tromso by a Norwegian named Tommy Olsen.
Olsen says his sources are the asylum seekers themselves, who name ABR when in misery, ship GPS map factors of the place they’re, and supply movies of what authorities do.
Olsen arrange ABR to supply exact info to coastguards and unbiased search-and-rescue operators of the whereabouts of distressed refugee boats. ABR was registered as a Norwegian NGO in October 2018.
The thought was that the authorities would rescue asylum seekers and convey them onshore to be registered and interviewed, in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Conference on the Standing of Refugees.
Turning them round with out assessing their want for worldwide safety is a violation of that legislation, which Greece has ratified.
Greek authorities deny the account of the April 3 pushback, as they deny all such allegations.
For his pains, Olsen expects Greek authorities will quickly indict him as a refugee smuggler and spy. That, at the very least, is what was leaked to Greek media final September, when ABR was named together with three different organisations because the goal of a police investigation.
“I’ve been referred to as an enemy of the state in Greek parliament, on nationwide tv,” Olsen advised Al Jazeera.
“They tried to make it that I’ve been in cooperation with Turkish authorities, I work with smugglers, I’m a trafficker, I’m wealthy, I’ve cash, I’ve homes paid by the Turkish authorities in Turkey, and naturally I’m a spy as a result of I do know the place the Greek boats are – for some purpose they assume I do know the place the Greek coastguard is, to alert smugglers.”
If something, the refugees think about that Olsen has betrayed them by sharing their location with Greek authorities who deport them.
“I name the [Greek] coastguard and hope they may take them again to Greece … I’m really making an attempt to obey the legal guidelines by informing the suitable authorities, however the issue is they’re breaking the legislation each time they really feel prefer it.”
Crackdown on non-state actors
Late final September, two dozen riot police boarded the search-and-rescue boat Mare Liberum in Mytilene harbour and seized cell phones and laptops.
Two days later, the crew heard they had been to be indicted within the Greek smuggling investigation.
“This was all simply leaked to the press. Our lawyer went to the prosecutor asking, making an attempt to get info, however nothing was offered,” Philipp Hann, the boat’s captain, tells Al Jazeera.
Haris Petsikos, Hann’s lawyer, says he’s certain a felony prosecution is within the pipeline, despite the fact that “there was no official cost”.
However he’s incensed over the media leak.
“It isn’t solely unorthodox … Names have come out within the media, which had been leaked by the police and the journalists they had been leaked to have advised us. It violates the presumption of innocence and their private knowledge [protection], and that’s unacceptable.”
Petsikos additionally represents the search-and-rescue group Emergency Response Centre Worldwide; 30 of its members had been indicted on related expenses in September 2018, following media leaks.
That case remains to be pending.
Hann, who has operated Mare Liberum within the east Aegean since 2018, says the usual process was to sail the place crossings often occur.
“We merely observe and doc the motion of the actors and inform the authorities once we see a refugee boat,” he says.
Till final yr, the Greek and Turkish coastguards had been rescuing and pulling again boats of their respective jurisdictions, he says.
The massive change in official attitudes got here in March final yr.
That’s when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspired asylum seekers to cross Greek borders and enter the European Union at will, despite the fact that Turkey has a standing settlement with the EU to carry undocumented migrants again.
Greek border guards on the Evros River repulsed tens of 1000’s of tried crossings.
The Greek coastguard switched from search and rescue to deterring and repulsing refugee boats, which it mentioned had been typically accompanied by Turkish coastguard vessels.
Each on land and at sea, Greek authorities had been strengthened by Frontex, the European border and coastguard.
“Since March 2020, Turkey used the individuals crossing in a method the place they performed what we referred to as Greek water polo, ping-ponging refugee boats between the coastguards and leaving them unattended and adrift for a number of hours,” Hann tells Al Jazeera.
“After that, the true pushbacks occurred. First the [Greek] coastguard began to violently hinder the boats to return, however that didn’t work out so properly, and the subsequent step was the process they’ve now – to take the individuals on board and put them afterwards right into a form of life raft.”
That process is well-documented by the Authorized Centre Lesvos (LCL), a authorized assist organisation that helps asylum candidates navigate a labyrinthine EU asylum course of.
LCL issued a report on February 1, wherein it documented 17 pushbacks over the previous yr. All observe an analogous sample.
A Greek coastguard vessel approaches the refugee boat in query. Black-clad males carrying balaclavas, who kind a separate group from the coastguard crew, board the boat and disable the engine by chopping the gasoline line and eradicating the gasoline tank. The boat is then both towed again to Turkish waters and forged adrift, or passengers are taken on board the coastguard vessel, sped to the Turkish waters from which they got here and put in a life raft to be picked up by the Turkish coastguard.
In lots of circumstances, authorities are reported to have confiscated cell phones, overwhelmed or intimidated asylum seekers and detained them on land. The asylum seekers concerned have reported these occasions to LCL after they received again to Turkey.
LCL says it has gained a number of asylum circumstances whose candidates had been pushed again on their first try and enter Greece.
“In order that reveals there are weak individuals being pushed again,” says Natasha Dailiani, a lawyer with LCL.
“It’s very tough to show which particular person, or state physique, was in a selected place at a selected time. That’s why we stress the repetitiveness, the frequency and the systematic nature [of the phenomena],” says Dailiani. “So many testimonies from so many individuals by so many organisations – nobody has any purpose to lie about this.”
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi begs to vary. On December 6, after two Somali girls drowned off Lesbos, Mitarachi accused assist teams of working with Turkish authorities to smuggle Somalis to Europe.
“Based on testimonies and cross-referenced info, NGOs are footing the invoice for visas and journey to Turkey, utilizing flights to Istanbul. Then, the [asylum seekers] are transported to the Turkish coast, the place smugglers, once more with NGO help, assist them to enter the European Union illegally,” Mitarachi claimed.
This scapegoating of NGOs had been foreshadowed three months earlier, when media leaked the indictments in opposition to 33 volunteers in 4 organisations.
“NGOs that act illegally usually are not acceptable,” Mitarachi had mentioned on September 28.
By then, a brand new legislation obliging assist teams to bear skilled audits and register their personnel with the federal government was being enforced.
Mitarachi declined to be interviewed for this text, however he has usually spoken proudly about the truth that the coastguard decreased refugee flows by four-fifths final yr whereas denying pushbacks.
His rhetoric displays the nationwide safety angle Greece has had in direction of migration ever since Erdogan’s about-face of March 2020.
“Our nation, as all Europe is aware of, faces an asymmetrical risk, wherein migration is was leverage within the train of international coverage,” Mitarachi mentioned on March 29.
Dailiani, the lawyer with LCL, says that as an alternative of investigating the teams conveying details about alleged pushbacks, Greek authorities ought to be investigating the allegations themselves.
“There hasn’t been an investigation on the judiciary stage or the extent of an unbiased authority involving particular allegations and depositions. With a lot proof and so many experiences, an official investigation is warranted,” she says.
“It’s not sufficient for authorities to disclaim issues. They should look into this and ask why there’s a repetitive, particular modus operandi, with engines being eliminated and girls and kids being left on lifeboats with out engines. It’s a really particular technique.”
Doing the EU’s soiled work
The European Fee and the European Parliament have launched investigations into whether or not Frontex, the European border safety company, has been complicit in these alleged pushbacks.
However EU authorities appear to be soft-pedalling the difficulty.
When she visited Lesbos with Mitarachi on March 30, Inner Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson made no criticism of Greek authorities’ dealing with of search and rescue.
“[Pushbacks] have been the historic stance of Europe,” says Apostolos Veizis, government director at INTERSOS Hellas, a humanitarian organisation, and former head of MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres or Doctors Without Borders] Greece.
“If this function for the time being is being taken by sure member states, be it Bulgaria or Greece or another member state that’s on the entrance line, these individuals are doing what Europe has been asking different international locations to do for Europe,” says Veizis.
The EU has offered cash to Morocco, Libya and Turkey to carry again refugees. Italy has additionally donated coastguard vessels and coaching to Libya.
Europe’s confederal system of presidency supplies Brussels and centrally situated member states believable deniability, says Veizis.
“Pushing individuals again is one thing that on the central stage is being accepted. It’s a hypocrisy that’s typically mixing with [the idea] that member states are unbiased states. So we offer them with instruments, with Frontex, with cash, however then how they use them is their very own inner problem.”
Society, too, accepts this, he says.
“The resistance of society is much less and fewer. The financial disaster, COVID itself and the instability that many international locations are dealing with because of financial causes don’t give these individuals the chance to speak about different issues.”
On reflection, March 3, 2020, marked a turning level within the Aegean.
That’s when European Fee President Ursula von der Leyen stood with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the Evros River, which kinds Greece’s land border with Turkey.
“This border is just not solely a Greek border however additionally it is a European border … I thank Greece for being our European protect in these instances,” she mentioned.