In 2015, a large number of refugees, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, began to arrive in Greece, seeking asylum in Europe. The influx of refugees created a humanitarian crisis, and Greece struggled to cope with the situation. Hundreds of thousands of refugees entered Greece through Turkey, making dangerous sea crossings in overcrowded boats. In March 2016, the European Union and Turkey reached an agreement known as the EU-Turkey Statement. Under this agreement, Turkey agreed to take back refugees and migrants who arrived in Greece irregularly, in exchange for financial aid, visa liberalisation for Turkish citizens, and progress in EU membership negotiations for Turkey. The aim was to discourage irregular migration and human trafficking.
In the years following the EU-Turkey Statement, increasingly exclusionary migration policies have been put in place at Greece’s border with Turkey, both legalised and clandestine, further limiting people’s ability to migrate to Europe.
Starting in 2020, a systematic policy of summary, violent, and illegal collective expulsions of migrants from Greece to Turkey (otherwise known as “pushbacks”) emerged in the Aegean region. Human rights organisations, UN agencies, and politicians have documented and denounced thousands of cases of pushback. Despite all of this evidence, Greece continues to deny the practice.
The Legal Centre Lesvos has been collecting testimonies of survivors of this practice since March 2020, producing several comprehensive reports, and litigating several cases before the European Court of Human Rights. One of these cases is the case of S.A.A. and others versus Greece.
In S.A.A. v. Greece, the Legal Centre Lesvos’ lawyers represent 11 Syrian nationals who were part of a group of 180-200 people violently expelled from Greece to Turkey on 20-21 October 2020.
The group left Turkey on board a fishing boat on 19 October 2020, with the intention of seeking asylum in Italy. The fishing boat was taken into a strong storm on the way and fell into distress at sea while navigating at the latitude of the Greek island of Crete, prompting the group to call for rescue from the Greek authorities and the UNHCR. Under the instruction of the Hellenic Coast Guard, their fishing boat entered Greek territorial waters where it was approached by several vessels of the Hellenic Coast Guard, including a Search and Rescue vessel, and stopped to wait for over 5 hours at sea with the promise of being rescued and assisted.
As shown in video footage taken on the fishing boat, far from being rescued or provided with food, water, or safety equipment, the group was instead violently attacked, by surprise, at nightfall, by masked ‘Commandos’ in black uniform without insignia, operating from Hellenic Coast Guard vessels, who assaulted them, stole their belongings, and threatened them with further violence if they attempted to return to Greece. The group was then forcibly divided and transferred to two different Hellenic Coast Guard vessels on which they were forced to spend the night outdoors, without food, water, access to toilets, or any assistance, before being thrown the next day into several orange motorless, unseaworthy, life rafts and abandoned adrift, without safety equipment or means to call for rescue, near Turkish territorial waters.
The case was reported on social media at the time and includes extensive evidence corroborating survivors’ testimonies, such as GPS locations, media reports, photographs, and video footage of the pushback operations. Particularly striking, in this case, is the insidious and apparently premeditated nature of the collective expulsion, as well as the levels of violence as well as physical and psychological humiliation involved and used over extended periods of time against the survivors, who retain long-lasting traumas, psychological disorders, and physical damages from this experience. The number of staff, vessels, equipment, and coordination mobilised by the authorities during this incident is also extraordinary, including at least 5 official vessels of the Hellenic Coast Guard, among which a Search and Rescue vessel, deployed near Crete to coordinate a long, violent and massive pushback in which approximately 200 people were expelled simultaneously over 200 km in the Mediterranean Sea back to Turkish territorial waters in two separate operations.
S.A.A. and Others v Greece is the fifth legal action filed by LCL lawyers before the ECtHR, representing survivors of illegal and violent expulsions from Greece. It is among 32 pushback cases communicated to Greece in December 2021, by the ECtHR, all of which concern migrants who had arrived in Greece with the intention to seek asylum and were instead met with violence, humiliation, and torture at the hands of Greek authorities, before being abandoned at sea or violently returned to Turkey via the Evros border.
To establish the facts in the case of S.A.A. v. Greece, the Legal Centre Lesvos commissioned an independent research team to produce a reconstruction of the events leading to the expulsion of the nearly 200 people who were attempting to reach Europe. The research team held interviews with survivors of the pushback, analysed testimonies and available evidence of the pushback, and produced a reconstruction video of the events of 20-21 October 2020, which was published in January 2023. In addition to being published, the reconstruction of the pushback of S.A.A. v. Greece has been submitted to ECtHR as evidence, in ongoing proceedings. The video demonstrates that the Hellenic Coast Guard, instead of rescuing the approximately 200 people who were in distress at sea, violently attacked, detained, and ultimately abandoned them at sea in a massive coordinated, and illegal pushback operation.
The reconstruction video not only illustrates that the Greek authorities conducted this violent pushback and therefore are liable for the associated human rights violations but also that this operation was consistent with the Greek authorities’ systematic practice of collective expulsions that has been extensively documented and reported – both before and since the time of the events in question. The video also shows that Turkey and the EU share the responsibility for what happens in the Aegean Sea, thus, revealing that they too avoid accountability. Moreover, the video established the Aegean Sea as a memory space for those killed during the push-backs. The constant denial of frequent push-backs at sea prevents remembering the events that led to the killings of migrants, and more importantly, memorializing the lives of those lost at sea. By reconstructing the push-backs, the project visualizes the events that are denied and silenced by states. The video also helps the greater public to visualize the details and realities of the push-backs that they have not had a chance to observe.
A decision is still pending at the European Court of Human Rights in the case of S.A.A. v. Greece, therefore the effect of this report on the proceedings has yet to be seen. However, as additional evidence continues to be revealed regarding the violent and coordinated practices of the Greek state at its sea border with Turkey, this reconstruction will add to the historical record of crimes being carried out against migrants, in order to uphold Fortress Europe.
The reconstruction has also appeared on various public platforms such as the Guardian, the European Parliament, and Refugee Observatory. By revealing the silenced facts and making them public, the reconstruction highlights that the pushbacks resulted from long-term transnational politics of abandonment and dispossession of refugees. In other words, the pushbacks can be seen as one of the catastrophic results of the EU-Turkey Statement in 2016 via which Turkey became an open-air prison for refugees. As the perilous sea migration route became one of the few viable options for crossing into the EU borders from Turkey.
To date, the Greek authorities deny conducting pushbacks. The forensic reconstruction of the S.A.A. v Greece case shows the depth and the organised nature of these collective and violent expulsions that have been practised by the Greek authorities, and are a violation of human rights. The evidence, including the forensic reconstruction video, not only illustrates that the Greek authorities conducted this violent pushback and therefore are liable for the associated human rights violations but also that this operation was consistent with the Greek authorities’ systematic practice of collective expulsions that has been extensively documented and reported – both before and since the time of the events in question. Additionally, bringing the work of different organisations and individuals to spatially construct the truth is indeed difficult, however necessary.