Drift-backs in the Aegean Sea

Over 2 years of systematic and widespread violent attacks against migrants in Greek seas carried out by the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex

On 15 July, Forensic Architecture and its partners published an interactive cartographic platform named “Drift-backs in the Aegean Sea” mapping over two years of material evidence of violent and illegal collective expulsions carried out against migrants in the Greek seas. 

This impressive work constitutes, to date, the most complete compilation of documentation evidencing the state violence carried out against migrants forced to take the already perilous crossing of the Aegean Sea in order to reach Europe. The platform maps out and displays the locations, modes of operation, actors involved and consequences of over 1,000 illegal collective expulsions or “drift-backs” of over 27,000 migrants by the Greek authorities.

The Legal Centre Lesvos (LCL) is proud to have contributed to this crucial project by sharing the evidence gathered over the last two years, as part of our continuous efforts to prevent, monitor, document, denounce and litigate illegal expulsions, inhumane treatment and abandonment of migrants at sea.

Undeniable illegal, systematic, widespread and dangerous attacks against migrants

Drift-backs, pushbacks, collective expulsions, attacks, abductions, or enforced disappearances, are all different ways to point at the same types of crimes carried out in the Aegean sea by the Hellenic Coast Guard and Frontex against migrants. Those crimes put people’s lives at risk and expose them to inhumane and ill-treatment often leading to irreversible traumas, severe injuries and drownings. Over a year and a half ago, in January 2021, the LCL demonstrated that these pushbacks are not only always dangerous per se, they also contravene a laundry list of treaties and protocols, and constitute Crimes against Humanity, due to the systemic and widespread nature of the attack being carried out against migrants. The platform released by Forensic Architecture reconfirms this finding and is a key tool demonstrating and exposing, once again, the scale of those illegal practices at EU sea borders. The platform is a significant contribution to the collective efforts mobilised over the last years by media, investigative projects, activists, civil society and solidarity groups advocating for accountability and an end to these illegal practices. It also confirms the importance of those sustained joint efforts.

The Forensic Architecture platform also highlights cases where particular intention to endanger people’s lives and  induce torture or ill-treatement by the authorities were recorded and evidenced. For instance : “26 cases were recorded where people were thrown directly into the sea by the Hellenic Coast Guard, without use of any flotation device. In 2 of these cases, the people were found handcuffed. 11 people were documented to have drowned during the drift-back, and at least 4 more went missing”. 

The platform is non-exhaustive and will be updated as long as those crimes continue, however, it is worth highlighting that out of all the drift-backs recorded in the Greek seas, over one third of them (386) took place from or off the shores of Lesvos Island. This is also a reminder that the work of legal and civil society actors on the “hotspot” islands, like LCL, should continue. The platform is, among others, a great support for the ongoing cases of pushbacks brought before the European Court of Human Rights against Greece

A further confirmation of Frontex direct involvement, complicity and cover up

In July 2022, Le Monde, Lighthouse Reports and Der Spiegel reported on the conclusions of a year-long investigation of the European Anti-Fraud Agency (OLAF) regarding the involvement of Frontex in migrants’ pushbacks in Greece. Their report, which was issued in February 2022 – but until now has not been made public – had already led to the fall of the Frontex executive director Fabrice Leggeri on 28 April 2022, who resigned before being submitted to further internal investigations and sanctions for mismanagement and long-lasting cover up of human right violations.

According to the revelations by Le Monde, Lighthouse Reports and Der Spiegel, the OLAF investigations establish that for more than two years, Frontex was aware that pushbacks were occurring in Greece, but decided to cover up the Greek State and to participate financially in these operations. Der Spiegel underlined that “instead of preventing these pushbacks, former boss Fabrice Leggeri and his staff covered them up. They lied to the European Parliament and hid the fact that the agency supported some pushbacks with European taxpayers’ money“. 

All the above revelations also finally led the European Parliament to block the FRONTEX budget in May 2022 by 492 votes in favour, 145 against and eight abstentions.

The recently published Forensic Architecture platform also shows, once more, the clear and direct involvement of Frontex, the European Border Coast Guard Agency in those illegal practices, and concludes that the agency “was found to have been directly involved in 122 cases, while it has acknowledged of 417, having logged them into their own operational archives codified and masked as ‘preventions of entry’. In 3 cases, the German NATO warship FGS Berlin was present on the scene.” 

Mounting political pressure

Political pressure is mounting in the last months as evidence of Greece’s crimes continues to be exposed. The EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson warned Greece on 30 June 2022, that “violent and illegal deportations of migrants must stop, now”. The United Kingdom Minister for the Armed Forces, testifying in the Defence Committee of UK Parliament on 12 July 2022, referenced the “successful employment of pushback tactics” in Greece, which the UK rejected because it considered that every migrant boat entering UK waters is a boat in distress that the UK is obligated by law to rescue.

Additionally, on 7 July 2022, Greece was unanimously condemned by the European Court of European Rights in the tragic case of Safi and Others v. Greece (application no. 5418/15), regarding the sinking on 20 January 2014 of a boat transporting 27 migrants in the Aegean Sea, off the Greek island of Farmakonisi, resulting in the death of 11 people. According to the applicants, the Greek coast guard vessel caused the fishing boat to capsize by travelling at very high speed in order to push the migrants back towards Turkish waters. The Court condemned Greece for, among others – not having “done all that could reasonably be expected of them” to actively protect their lives, in violation of Article 2 of the Convention. This case confirms the inherently dangerous character of any pushbacks at sea, which always  causes a risk to people’s lives.

It is worth noting that the European Court of Human Rights does not operate in isolation, and the issuing of this condemnation of Greece now, for a case filed over seven years ago, comes at the same time as the increased condemnation of Greece’s violent border policies by European institutions.  

Despite the overwhelming and compounded evidence of Greece’s systemic policy of forcing migrants back across the border and abandoning them at sea – the official stance of the Greek State continues to be one of categorical denial. Even after the publication on this report, Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi commented that the OLAF report, “does not directly blame Greece”, while adding “we have the right to protect our borders”.

As those who have suffered pushbacks know best, pushbacks are happening. There is no room for denial, inaction, or shifting of responsibility. We hope that the recent revelations, condemnations, and advancement of court cases will lead to a change in policy in Greece and the numerous other borders where pushbacks are carried out. However, we are well aware that the current wave of condemnation from European institutions happened only after organised and persistent efforts by political movements, human rights and grassroots organisations. 

While we will continue to pursue accountability through the European Court of Human Rights, we will not wait for a decision that could take years to come, and whose outcome we cannot predict. Until there is a change in policy, more must be done now to stop the pushbacks that are still happening, often in plain sight, or only a few kilometres from city centres. As Legal Centre Lesvos, we will continue to work with other organisations and movements to document, denounce, and advocate to stop violence against migrants at Europes’ borders, and we will continue to directly intervene to prevent pushbacks, by provide emergency legal support to migrants who arrived in Greece, defending their basic human rights to be free from this cruel and deadly policy, to access critically needed medical care and to access the asylum procedure. 


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