A group of newly arrived people walk through a dry forest in Lesbos. MSF/Evgenia Chorou

Migrants on Greek islands tell medical NGO of being beaten and pushed back out to sea

A report by Doctors Without Borders sets out testimony from patients on the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos.

MIGRANTS ARRIVING ON the Greek islands of Lesbos and Samos have reported suffering violence and being sent back to sea, according to a report from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

According to MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, the majority of patients its staff interviewed on the islands made multiple crossing attempts prior to their ultimate arrival. The report details accounts of “pushbacks” from land and sea shared by migrants.

Pushbacks are measures by which refugees and migrants are forced back over a border, including sea borders. The New York Times published verified footage in May of refugees on Lesbos being placed in an inflatable boat and transferred from there to a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel, which abandoned them on a raft in the Aegean Sea.

In a statement to The Journal, the Hellenic Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy said that Hellenic Coast Guard officers “operate around the clock with efficiency, a high sense of responsibility, professionalism, but also absolute respect for human life and human rights.”

The Ministry said that its Coast Guard operates in line with Greece’s international obligations, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

“Regarding allegations of alleged illegal acts, we must emphasize that the operational practices of the Greek Authorities do not include such practices. In any case, however, in cooperation with the judicial authorities and other co-competent bodies, relevant control mechanisms are in place, where necessary,” it said.

The MSF report covers a period of two years from August 2021 to July 2023, during which time NGO’s staff provided emergency medical assistance to 7,904 people shortly after their arrival on the islands during 533 separate responses.

In June of this year, an MSF doctor described groups of masked anti-migrant vigilantes operating on Lesbos. Those groups feature again in this latest report from the medical NGO. 

“Patient testimonies point to a recurring practice of pushbacks at sea and from land, reportedly carried out by uniformed officers and/or unidentified masked individuals. At sea, accounts describe the forceful towing of asylum seekers’ boats, deliberate damage to boats’ mechanical components, and being abandoned at sea on life rafts.

“From land, testimonies point to a pattern of practices including physical assault, handcuffing, informal detention, groups being forcibly taken to the shore before being pushed back at sea, as well as humiliating strip searches.”

Patients interviewed by MSF reported being subjected to “various and alarming forms of inhuman treatment” prior to being pushed back out to sea.

Physical assaults – beating with sticks, slapping, kicking, punching and handcuffing of hands and ankles – were often accompanied by intimidation tactics.

These included “the shooting of firearms, verbal harassment and humiliation, forced strip searches and intrusive body searches of men, women and children, and the destruction or dispossession of essential personal belongings carried by people on their journeys”, the report said. 

“The repeated exposure to hazards and reported violence upon crossing, coupled with the near-total absence of assistance at land and sea, threaten the lives and wellbeing of people seeking safety and protection,” the report said. 

emergency-medical-aid-activity-in-lesvos-greece An MSF team member sits with a group of newly arrived people in Lesbos, who are resting after they have been assisted by MSF teams and provided with food and water. MSF / Evgenia Chorou MSF / Evgenia Chorou / Evgenia Chorou

Pushbacks have occurred both from the land and in Greek waters, the report said. 

“During sea-based pushbacks, people attempting to reach Greek shores are intercepted in Greek waters by boats manned by ‘individuals with covered faces’, as they are frequently described. The group’s boat engine is then either removed or destroyed and the people on board are left to drift or are towed into Turkish waters.”

Pushbacks from the land have followed a similar pattern, according to MSF. 

“After arriving on Greek islands, people describe being chased and apprehended by groups of unidentified people with covered faces, often subjected to physical and verbal assault, and their possessions similarly confiscated or destroyed. They are then taken against their will to a vessel at sea, then put on life rafts and cast adrift.” 

MSF also said that about 2,000 people, who had reportedly arrived by boat on the islands, went missing before their staff’s arrival at landing locations. 

In one case cited in the report, a group of seven people sent an emergency alert to which MSF staff responded. The group had arrived by sea and were in a mountainous area inaccessible by road. One woman was reportedly injured, bleeding and in need of medical assistance.

The group said they were hiding in bushes from Greek authorities. 

Upon arrival near the scene, following a Whatsapp pin being sent from the group, MSF staff encountered Greek authorities who prevented them from accessing the area, saying it was a “military zone”. 

“They insisted that MSF could not enter, saying that it was a military area, that police officers were already searching for the group, and that if they were found and medical assistance was required, then MSF would be called,” the report said. 

More than seven hours later, MSF staff were allowed to access the site. There was nobody there. 

emergency-medical-aid-activity-in-lesvos-greece An MSF Lesbos team member shouts through a megaphone in order to locate people who are in need of urgent medical assistance. MSF / Evgenia Chorou MSF / Evgenia Chorou / Evgenia Chorou

On one occasion, MSF was alerted to provide emergency medical assistance to a group of around 40 people who said they had been chased and beaten by men with covered faces. 

“Arriving at the location, people – including a woman who was eight months pregnant – began running out of the bushes towards the MSF team, screaming and in acute distress. They told the team that they had spent two nights hiding outside in cold temperatures and, shortly before MSF arrived, had been caught and beaten by men dressed in dark clothes with covered faces.”

MSF doctors treated various injuries among the group.

One woman was “bruised and bleeding from a deep cut above her eye”. 

A man had bruises on his legs where he said he had been “beaten with a truncheon”, and another man had “swollen lips and multiple skin injuries”, another reported being beaten in the stomach. 

“Several people had bruises on their wrists and said they had been handcuffed with zip-ties. The MSF team also provided the group with water, food and clothes and referred the pregnant woman to hospital,” the report said. 

As well as physical injuries and medical conditions caused by pushbacks and other abuses, MSF has also treated patients on both islands for mental health problems.

Mental health conditions MSF MSF MSF

Greek and EU policy

According to MSF’s latest report, Greek government policies have made the situation for migrants arriving on these islands, and those assisting them, increasingly difficult and dangerous. 

The Greek government, under recently re-elected prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has sought to restrict the services available to those arriving by boat. 

On Lesbos, those awaiting the processing of asylum claims stay in one of two refugee camps called Controlled Access Centres. Those whose claims are rejected, still stranded on the island, have no access to the food and other services available within the camps.

The same is true for those who have successfully claimed asylum. They are left to fend for themselves once granted permission to stay in Greece. 

Greece, along with Italy, has borne much of the strain when it comes to receiving migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. The rhetoric and policies of both governments have made life more difficult for humanitarian organisations operating in the area, the MSF report said. 

“The overall provision of humanitarian assistance on the islands takes place in a climate of suspicion and criminalisation – of both humanitarian workers and those they seek to assist. The ever-shrinking humanitarian space has negatively impacted the efforts of civil society to respond to the needs of people seeking protection in Europe,” the MSF report said. 

“MSF continues to respond to the human and medical consequences of Greek and EU migration policies that promote deterrence and violent border control practices over safe passage and assistance.” 

After the New York Times report in May, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said her officials had written to the government requesting “that this incident be fully and independently investigated”.

msf-mobile-clinic-in-the-closed-control-access-centre-in-zervou An MSF worker standing in the waiting area outside the mobile clinic in the Closed Control Access Centre in Zervou, Samos. MSF / Evgenia Chorou MSF / Evgenia Chorou / Evgenia Chorou

Human rights record

MSF is not alone in its criticism of Greek border policies and the conduct of those who enforce them. 

In August, a group of UN human rights experts called on the Greek government to adopt safe and impartial border protection policies. It also condemned the lack of accountability for violations involving Greek law enforcement personnel.

“We urge Greece to take steps to ensure a transparent and impartial investigation into allegations of violations of the principles of non-refoulement and non-discrimination and of the right to life involving Greek law enforcement personnel, including the Hellenic Coast Guard, and border violence,” the UN experts said.

Refoulement is the practice of forcibly returning an asylum seeker or refugee to their country of origin, where they are likely to face persecution. 

“We are particularly concerned by their failure to provide prompt and effective assistance to migrants in distress and ensure safe disembarkation and adequate reception of migrants,” the group said.

In April 2021, Amnesty International published a report on the same issue, in which it referenced reports on pushbacks dating back to 2013. Amnesty documented 21 cases of “summary, unlawful returns from Greece to Turkey, often accompanied by arbitrary detention and violence, in some case amounting to torture”.

Human Rights Watch published a report on similar incidents in April of last year, in which it reported the testimony of Afghan refugees accusing the Greek authorities and masked men of beating them and robbing their money and phones. 

So far this year, 2,467 people have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, according to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration.