“Drop the engine, f@@!” they shouted. So our boat no longer had an engine and we could not escape. One of them was taking down the Greek flag from the boat, as if he wanted to hide her. They ordered us to hand over all our mobiles and money and they took it from us […] They tied up our boat and began to accelerate.”
“A man began to search my body: he put his fingers in my vagina and anus… Then he brought his hands to my sternum, cut off my bra and was touching and holding my breasts: underneath, all around, in between… He undressed the baby. She tore off his diaper and searched for it. To find what? Money;”.
“He put us in his car saying he would help us. But he took us to another place – it looked like a military base or something – where we saw the people from the boat surrounded by several black-clad men holding guns. “Don’t worry, the ambulance is on its way,” they told us. The ambulance that came though was a semi truck that took us all to shore».
These are just some of the shocking testimonies included in the Doctors Without Borders report, which describe a regime of violence and re-promotions which seems to have been consolidated at Greek borders. The report is based on 56 testimonies and medical data collected by the organization from August 2021 to July 2023.
“There are many serious indications that the exercise of violence, and of a specific type of violence, is not an isolated incident, but is occurring perhaps to a greater extent than is recorded in the report,” he points out, speaking to “ethnos.gr“, Achilleas Tzemos, Deputy General Director of the Greek Department of Doctors Without Borders and explains that many hesitated or refused to share their experiences, fearing that it will have consequences on their asylum applications.
The modus operandi of re-promotions
Re-promotions seem to constitute De Facto practice both at aquatic as well as in land borders of the country. According to what the experts comment, in the first case, as soon as the migrants arrive in Greek territorial waters, they are approached by boats, their engine is destroyed, they are abandoned ungoverned at sea or they are towed back to Turkish waters. In the second, again, they are chased, beaten, forcibly taken to boats, then put into boats and abandoned at sea.
“We counted how many times each participant has been re-promoted. From the 56 testimonials we recorded 183 re-promotions. There are some who have been re-promoted more than 10 times”, commented Achilleas Tzemos.
In all the testimonies they are named as the perpetrators “uniformed“, “hooded men» «people in black clothes». As the Deputy General Director of the Greek Department of Doctors Without Borders explains, “We are not able to identify who these persons are and with this admission we use the word uniformed in a general way. Who are these uniformed and masked men must ascertain, investigate and take the necessary actions.”
The modus operendi outlined in report of Doctors Without Borders he had also revealed a NYT report. In a video published last May by the American media, masked men were recorded “unloading” migrants from a white van and putting them on a speedboat. They are then boarded a Coast Guard vessel and abandoned on a motorized raft in Turkish waters. The Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in an interview he gave to CNN at the time, promised that the incident would be investigated, however, about six months later and while his mandate has been renewed, “we have not seen any results in these investigations. We don’t know if they have been completed”, emphasizes Achilleas Tzemos.
Greek or European phenomenon?
The violation of humanitarian law by obstructing access to asylum procedures certainly does not seem to constitute a Greek “cacophony”. After all, Frontex had been accused of complicity in refoulements. “We see violent push-backs happening both at the EU’s external and internal borders. And in many other countries, such as Italy, France, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Sweden, Bulgaria, where groups of Doctors Without Borders have a presence and programs”, points out the Deputy General Director of the Greek Department of Doctors Without Borders.
“I think there is a tolerance, maybe this is one informal politics, which could never be official, because it is illegal to do these acts. That is, the exercise of violence against people seeking protection cannot be part of an official policy. Since these incidents are not isolated, but we see them in too many EU states, one could consider that it is something more systematic and not just the result of some people behaving in such a way,” he comments.
The report includes testimonies that talk even about deaths people during re-promotions, like that of a pregnant woman who died in a pushback, which happened in December in Samos. But the violence with which they are greeted at the border has painful consequences for those who manage to survive and perhaps after many failed attempts to seek asylum in our country. “Apart from the effects on their physical health. This has far-reaching and long-term consequences for their mental health. Too many suffer from post-traumatic stress. They have too much stress, too much difficulty sleeping. And this makes their ability to live a more normal life one day quite difficult”, notes Achilleas Tzemos.
From re-promotions to increasing saves
It should be noted, however, that in recent months there has been a shift, with statistics showing an increase in rescues. “The report covers the time period up to June 2023. What we can say is that since then – now if the tragic shipwreck at Pylos, the elections and the change of persons in the ministries or even seasonality – something seems to have changed. There was a much larger number of rescues. We saw that the arrivals on the islands were much higher, we saw many rescues at sea getting publicity. Of course, if this is a change of strategy or a situational one, it can only be judged over time”, points out the Deputy General Director of the Greek Department of Doctors Without Borders and adds that “There are some reports that the violence and pushbacks have not stopped. They have simply decreased and that such incidents still occur.”
The relevant ministries have taken cognizance of the data presented, but so far they are keeping silent. “We hope that they will call us at some point to have a discussion or at least to ask us some things. We ask both the Greek and European governments to take the necessary measures, so that people seeking protection are treated with humanity and dignity. This is the most important reason why we made this report public. The protection of life and human dignity to be respected the policy of re-promotions should be stopped and ensure search, rescue and access to asylum procedures. The second is not to exist impunity of authors of violence and to change the general atmosphere that presents these people as criminals or danger”.
The nightmare conditions in Gaza
The organization has a long-standing presence in Gaza, which has been mercilessly bombarded by the Israeli armed forces for a month. Describing the prevailing conditions, Achilleas Tzemos notes. “Right now the situation in Gaza is nightmarish. Almost half of the hospitals have ceased to function either because they have been damaged or because they have run out of fuel. Thousands of injured people are operated on – many seriously – without proper anaesthesia. A large number of health workers have been killed. Our team is scattered, some have gone and help in other hospitals, others are trying to protect their families. They have lost their homes, they have lost relatives. Due to the interruption of telecommunications and the blackout it is very difficult to coordinate”, he notes.
The ongoing war has been marred by shelling of places where civilians had taken refuge, such as the Jabaliya refugee camp and the Anglican Church’s Al Ahli Hospital, however, he notes, “This is not the first time a hospital has been bombed. Our hospitals have also been bombed in various parts of the world. But usually this was a very obscure exception rather than the rule. In the case of Gaza, what makes the situation uniquely bad is that from the beginning of hostilities until today the WHO has recorded more than 75 health facilities that have been attacked. So I think one cannot talk about an exception, that something went wrong, the medical structures are simply not respected in this case. There is also legal issue but above all it is a serious one moral issue. It is not possible to target health workers who are struggling to keep the civilian population alive.”