Christmas Eve 2020; 12:30 p.m. 34 migrants set off in two dinghies from the Turkish coast of Ayvacik, off the island of Lesbos, in the hope of reaching European soil. As the depot’s fuel runs out, the Greek coast guards appear, maneuvering dangerously alongside the dilapidated boats. There are gunshots and finally the migrants board the patrol boat. Once on board, the officers, far from heading for a safe port, forced the group to “strip their belongings”. Perplexed, they are forced into other smaller – and motorless – boats which are then forcibly towed into Turkish waters, where they are abandoned and “hopeless” in the Aegean Sea.
The above is one of 295 cases of deportations at the border – now called repressions (setbacks)- in the Aegean Sea which the Turkish authorities blame on the Greek police and which they documented through videos, photographs and interviews with the victims between February 28, 2020 and January 6, 2021. All these cases are based now on USB. EL PAÍS had access to the description of the contents of the device that Frontex analyzed through its Control and Inspection Office (ICO), since Europol, the European police, refused to collaborate with Frontex to verify this content classified as “sensitive”.
On February 17, Turkey, through its embassy in Warsaw (Poland), headquarters of Frontex, sent an envelope with the famous device to the office of the executive director of the European agency, the Frenchman Fabrice Leggeri, accompanied by ‘a letter in which they warned him against situations of “violation of human rights and [omisión de] international protection obligations in the Aegean Sea”. It is a bad patch for the reputation of the community agency: several NGOs, international organizations and articles in the written press are already beginning to criticize the bad practice in the Aegean Sea and to denounce episodes of human rights violations in which Frontex agents, mostly from the Greek Coast Guard, have been implicated.
“Frontex abandons [el lugar del incidente en el Egeo] without making a rescue”, “You can see how the Hellenic Coastguard is coming back hot [a aguas turcas] a boat”, “they remove the engine”, “they perforate the boat”, “they take [a los migrantes] their valuables”… These are phrases that are repeated throughout the 31 pages of the document which details – with military time, geolocation and type of vessel, among others – what happened at 295 repressions which, according to the Turkish authorities, was carried out by the Greek police thanks also to the blind eye of Frontex.
08:58 on May 23, 2020. Saturday. “It was reported that there was a group of irregular migrants in four lifeboats that were pushed back into Turkish territorial waters by the Greek Coast Guard. 72 people were rescued after spending 5 to 6 hours at sea. Their belongings were taken away,” says another episode.
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Despite the fact that the Community institutions (the Parliament and the Commission) had known of the existence – and not the contents – of the USB key since last spring, and despite repeated insistence by Immigration officials to Leggeri that sends a copy to Brussels, it was only on 5 July that Leggeri first disclosed to the Frontex executive committee the “sensitive” contents of the USB key, which was downloaded onto computers at Warsaw on March 29, according to the letters to which he had access to the newspaper. Shortly after, on July 14, when the investigation by the European Parliament which somehow exempted Frontex from “direct responsibility” for the hot returns was made public, the agency finally shared the mechanism with the Community institutions. The ICO admits in the document that Frontex is “indirectly involved” in the videos as it provides human resources (agents) and technical equipment to the Greek Coast Guard to support its operations in the Aegean Sea.
“Videos [por cómo están montados] they have been manipulated and so we have to be careful,” Leggeri warned in a letter to members of the Frontex leadership on 5 July. The USB key contains images of deportations at the border corresponding for the most part to the summer of 2020. And the modus operandi that Ankara attributes to the Greek coastguard is practically the same in almost all cases: inflatable boats with dozens of people (groups of 13, 28, 40, 70, sometimes 130 maximum) are intercepted by Greek agents – sometimes assisted by Frontex – migrants are Safe then transferred to smaller motorless boats which, sometimes violently, are towed by the patrol boat to Turkish waters, where the migrants are “abandoned”.
One of the most extreme situations, according to the document, occurred on December 19. At dawn, the Community Coastguards received the notice that a group of migrants had left the business of Izmir (Turkey) and that they were drifting at that time distributed in three inflatable boats. A rescue operation was launched and 31 migrants were saved. However, according to their testimonies which are included in the USB, “they were beaten by Greek agents” and “their valuables were seized”. The 31 people rescued by the Coast Guard were then put on another smaller inflatable boat which was towed and abandoned in Turkish waters. However, this case was complicated. Five migrants fell into the sea after officers punctured the boat. “Three [migrantes] they lost their lives,” says the document that reproduces the contents of the USB key.
On July 14, a European Parliament inquiry concluded the agency was not “directly responsible” for the dozens of hot deportations between Greece and Turkey, but said there were “gaps” in the protection of human rights in joint operations with other Member States, with clear reference to Greece and the episodes of repressions which, almost daily, occurred throughout 2020 and early 2021. According to experts, with the movement restrictions imposed around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic, this type of return to the high seas is one of the reasons why official figures of the migratory flow along this route – which was one of the busiest – fell by 58% in the first half of 2021, according to Frontex data.