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Greece Says It Doesn’t Ditch Migrants at Sea. It Was Caught in the Act.
Video evidence shows asylum seekers, among them young children, being rounded up, taken to sea and abandoned on a raft by the Greek Coast Guard.
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By Matina Stevis-Gridneff, Sarah Kerr, Kassie Bracken and Nimet Kirac
The asylum seekers had already hopscotched countries for years to escape war in the Horn of Africa. They had barely set foot in Europe, hoping to start new lives, when masked men rounded them up and stripped them of their belongings.
Now they were crammed into the dinghy, rocking on the open waters and trying to shield themselves from the bright sun as Naima Hassan Aden clutched her 6-month-old baby and wept.
“We didn’t expect to survive on that day,” said Ms. Aden, a 27-year-old from Somalia. “When they were putting us on the inflatable raft, they did so without any mercy.”
Their ordeal might ordinarily have remained largely unknown, like those of so many other asylum seekers whose accounts of mistreatment have been dismissed by the Greek government. Only on this occasion, it was captured in its entirety on video by an activist who shared it with The New York Times.
A Times investigation verified and corroborated the footage. We also interviewed 11 of the asylum seekers from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia whom we located at a detention center in Izmir, on the Turkish coast.
Many were still wearing the same clothes they had on in the video. They gave detailed accounts of what happened to them that matched the events in the video — before Times reporters showed them the footage. The approximate height and size of the adults and children matched, too.
Sulekha Abdullahi and her six children were cast adrift.CreditCredit…Michael Downey for The New York Times
The Greek government did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But campaigning on Lesbos last week ahead of general elections on Sunday, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis defended his government’s “tough but fair” migration policies and boasted of a 90 percent drop in the arrival of “illegal migrants.”
The government has consistently denied mistreating asylum seekers and points to the fact that it shoulders a disproportionate burden of managing new arrivals to Europe.
But the video, provided by an Austrian aid worker, Fayad Mulla, who has spent much of the past two and a half years working on the island and trying to document abuses against migrants, may be the most damning evidence yet of the Greek authorities’ violation of international laws and E.U. rules governing how asylum seekers must be treated.
In addition to interviewing the asylum seekers in Turkey, The Times verified the footage by doing a frame-by-frame analysis to identify the people in the video, geolocating key events and confirming the time and day using maritime traffic data, as well an analysis of the position of the sun and visible shadows.
We showed the video in person to three senior officials from the European Commission in Brussels, describing how we had verified it. Later, in written comments, the Commission said that it was “concerned by the footage” and that, though it had not verified the material for itself, it would take the matter up with the Greek authorities.
Greece “must fully respect obligations under the E.U. asylum rules and international law, including ensuring access to the asylum procedure,” said Anitta Hipper, the European Commission spokeswoman for migration.
The Greek authorities declined requests to meet in person to review the video.
Greece and the European Union hardened their attitudes toward migrants after the arrival in 2015 and 2016 of more than one million refugees from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. The wave of newcomers reshaped European politics, igniting populist hard-right forces who played on nativist angst.
Greece is far from alone in cracking down on migrants. Poland, Italy and Lithuania have recently changed their laws to make it easier to repel migrants and to punish those who help them.
But the new videos suggest that the Greek authorities have gone still further, resorting to surreptitious extrajudicial expulsions that sweep up even the most vulnerable with the participation of its maritime forces.
“Through the will of God, we managed to survive,” Ms. Aden said.
Anatomy of an extrajudicial deportation
It was just after midday on April 11 that a white unmarked van drove down to a small cove with a wooden dock at the southern tip of Lesbos, according to Mr. Mulla’s video.
As the van wound down to the coastline, two men waiting in a speedboat covered their faces with what appear to be ski masks. When the van stopped, three men emerged, unlocked the back doors — and out filed 12 people, several of them small children.
The passengers included Ms. Aden and her baby, Awale, with whom she had originally fled Jilib, a small city in an area of Somalia controlled by Al Shabab, a militant group linked with Al Qaeda, she said. Ms. Aden said they had landed on Lesbos in a smugglers’ dinghy a day earlier and had spent a night hiding in the brush before being rounded up by masked men.
Sulekha Abdullahi, 40, and her six children were crammed in the van, too.
So were Mahdi, 25, and Miliyen, 33, who said they had also arrived on Lesbos by dinghy and sought cover in the brush. They were captured after a short pursuit, and Miliyen’s ankles still bore deep scratches when we interviewed him days later.
They agreed to share their stories but asked to be identified only by their first names, fearful of retribution.
A few minutes after the group was escorted out of the van, everyone was taken out on the Aegean waters in the speedboat. From a distance it looked like a tourist leisure ride. It was anything but.
Another three minutes passed and then the speedboat approached Coast Guard vessel 617, which was mostly paid for with E.U. funds, according to archived lists of Greek Coast Guard assets.
One by one, the migrants were unloaded from the speedboat and taken to the stern of the Coast Guard boat, escorted by six unmasked individuals, some of whom appeared to be wearing the standard dark blue uniform.
The Coast Guard craft then turned eastward toward Turkey and got underway. The boat was not sending out its location, according to Marine Traffic, a maritime live data platform that tracks vessels. But The Times was able to approximate its position using location data from other nearby commercial vessels visible in the footage.
The Coast Guard boat stopped when it neared the edge of Greece’s territorial waters. The video Mr. Mulla shot from the Lesbos coast is blurry because of the distance, but a black object can later be seen floating beside the Coast Guard boat.
In interviews at the Izmir detention facility, all the migrants recounted being pushed onto a black inflatable life raft and set adrift. The use of these engineless rafts has been documented in the past, but the Greek authorities have denied leaving migrants afloat in them, because they are unnavigable and can overturn.
The Greek authorities often use a fax message to tip off their counterparts to the presence of stranded migrants in Turkish territorial waters, according to Turkish officials, and an hour or so after the migrants were abandoned, two Turkish Coast Guard boats appeared.
The Times was able to approximate the location of the rescue through the coordinates of the MSC Valencia, a large commercial ship anchored nearby, visible in the background.
The April 11 rescue, like many others, was posted on a website regularly updated by Turkish authorities.
Its Coast Guard said that it had rescued “12 irregular migrants on the lifeboat that was pushed back to Turkish territorial waters by Greek assets,” off the coast of Dikili, opposite Lesbos, at 14:30 local time.
Turkish Coast Guard video, independently verified by The Times, shows the migrants arriving at the port of Dikili after being rescued.CreditCredit…
The Times analyzed video provided by the Turkish Coast Guard and was able to identify the individuals visible in Mr. Mulla’s footage in one of the shots, which shows the migrants arriving at the port of Dikili in Turkey. The Times was able to confirm it was the same group based on its composition, the physical attributes of its members and their clothing.
Fleeing War and Dictatorship
The ordeal lasted just a few hours, but it forever changed the course of their lives.
The shores of the islands of the eastern Aegean, just miles off the coast of Turkey, have long been chroniclers of misery and epic journeys. The stories told by the 12 asylum seekers involved in the April 11 episode were no exception.
Naima Hassan Aden and her 6-month-old boy, Awale.CreditCredit…Michael Downey for The New York Times
Before getting on a dinghy to Greece last month, all of those we interviewed had been in Turkey for at least a year, trying to earn enough money to attempt to get smuggled to Europe.
For many, Turkey wasn’t even the first step in their long search for a safe home. Ms. Abdullahi and her older children had fled Somalia for Yemen before it, too, became a war zone. Miliyen had escaped Eritrea’s repression for Ethiopia, but it was soon consumed by civil war.
After several failed attempts by Times reporters to track down the asylum seekers, a regional public official in Izmir said that the group had been taken to a detention center in Izmir, on the Turkish coast.
The Turkish authorities, eager to highlight the Greek government’s poor treatment of migrants, granted rare access to the facility, and over three hours on April 20 and 21 we visited and interviewed the group, who confirmed that they were the people set adrift.
When we spoke with Ms. Aden, she held Awale’s feet in her hands and said she had spent over a year in Turkey trying to see if she could make a life for herself and her baby, who was born there. When she got on a smuggler’s dinghy on the night of April 9, she thought she was heading to Europe for a better future.
“Somalia is not a place we can return to,” she said.
Sulekha Abdullahi and her 2-year-old son, Marwan Abdi.CreditCredit…Michael Downey for The New York Times
A widow, Ms. Abdullahi, accompanied by her children, ages 2 to 17, hoped the same. Originally from Mogadishu, in Somalia, she said she had fled to Yemen in 2013. Her younger children — Mariam, 7, Majid, 5, and Marwan, 2 — had been born there, she said.
She decided to move to Turkey as the war in Yemen raged on, and then on to Europe.
After they all arrived in Greece, masked men approached.
“They said they worked for M.S.F.,” Ms. Abdullahi said, referring to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières. It quickly became clear that wasn’t true.
The women and some of the older children tearfully recounted having their hijabs torn off, and the men searching their bodies for belongings.
“They took everything we had, cash, phones, everything,” Ms. Abdullahi said.
Then they were locked in the white van and driven around for several hours.
“We couldn’t see anything outside, we had nowhere to sit,” her oldest daughter, Ladan, 17, said. “We were all laying down.”
Mahdi and Miliyen had been similarly uprooted by war, fleeing different parts of Ethiopia as the country descended into fratricidal conflict.
Mahdi, 25, at the detention center.CreditCredit…Michael Downey for The New York Times
Mahdi said he was an engineering student from Ethiopia’s Oromo region. His parents had borrowed $1,000 to fly him to Istanbul for a new start after his college, the Jimma Institute of Technology, temporarily closed because of the pandemic.
“My parents were extremely worried about me because I was not at university and in our district, men were being recruited to fight,” he said.
But, Mahdi said, it quickly became clear that Turkey was not going to offer the opportunities his parents had hoped for. The country’s economy was in free-fall, and Turks were souring on the migrants they had once relied on to do the jobs they spurned.
His roommate, Miliyen, an only child from southern Eritrea, said he had left with his mother for Ethiopia, just over the border, when the two countries reached their landmark peace agreement in 2018.
Mother and son resettled in Humera, in the Tigray region, where they opened a little cafe. But within a year, the Ethiopian government, aided by Eritrea’s dictator, unleashed a brutal war over the region’s independence aspirations.
Miliyen, like thousands of others, fled to next-door Sudan, certain he would be killed or recruited to fight if he stayed. His mother was too frail to follow, he said, and stayed behind with neighbors.
Now, he said, he has no idea how to contact his mother: The number of the neighbor looking after her was lost forever when the men in Greece took his phone on Lesbos.
“I don’t know if my mother is alive,” he said through sobs, “and I don’t know how to find her.”
Stuck in Limbo
Majid and Mariam Abdi play in a common room in the detention center.CreditCredit…Michael Downey for The New York Times
The fate of the group is now unclear.
Mahdi, the young Ethiopian, was released in early May on court orders, but told The Times after his release that Miliyen and the Somali women and children were still in detention.
Ms. Abdullahi and her family in the detention center.CreditCredit…Michael Downey for The New York Times
When interviewed, the Somali women and some of the older children had described the Turkish facility as a prison and said they could not bear to stay any longer.
“I’m a mother raising children whose father is dead,” Ms. Abdullahi said. “I have heart issues and high cholesterol. I can’t continue to bear the conditions inside this jail.”
Ms. Aden and Awale.CreditCredit…Michael Downey for The New York Times
Ozge Oguz, a lawyer who works with people at the detention center, said many languish there for months before a decision is made on whether to deport them.
“When people are taken to this facility because they were left by the Greeks in boats in the Aegean, they are already victims,” she said.
The Turkish authorities may rescue the migrants at sea, but they accord them only limited rights.
On paper, Ms. Oguz said, the asylum seekers have a right to apply for international protection in Turkey — but the chances are slim. “They do apply, but they’re rejected,” she said. The Turkish authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
By contrast, more than 80 percent of Eritreans and more than half of the Somalis who applied for protection in the European Union last year were successful, according to official statistics.
“I just wanted to go to a place where I can seek safety,” Ms. Aden said.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels and Athens, and traveled to Izmir in Turkey with Nimet Kirac to interview the group of migrants. Sarah Kerr and Kassie Bracken reported from New York. Riley Mellen and Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting. Meg Felling contributed video production. Additional production by Michael Beswetherick and Rumsey Taylor.