Since the spring, consistent and well-documented reports have shown masked men aggressively pursuing boats full of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea, before either destroying or off-loading the boats and initiating illegal return operations to Turkey.
One investigation which Josoor contributed to, analyzed a set of materials documenting masked men operating from an inflatable boat off the island of Lesvos in early June. Testimonies recorded on the BVMN database [June 5th; June 3rd] as well as other media reports describe a series of incidents where Hellenic Coast Guard [HCG] vessels approach boats carrying men, women and children in the Aegean between Turkey and Greece and variably drove them back, intimidated them, or destroyed and removed their engines. Several of these operations have been marked by direct physical violence at the hands of the HCG. A more recent report from the New York Times referenced at least 1,072 asylum seekers being abandoned at sea by Greek officials in at least 31 separate expulsions since March.
The consistency of these reports underscore a broader pattern of maritime pushbacks which, in many ways, mirrors the similarly illegal procedures which have become commonplace throughout Greece and along the Balkan Route.
Despite numerous witness testimonies of this behavior, direct evidence linking specific Hellenic Coast Guard Vessels to these illegal practices remain sparse. New video evidence obtained by the association Josoor [a BVMN-member based in Turkey] from an incident on July 11th, may provide a crucial new perspective in the analysis of this behavior.
Clip from one the investigation videos
In this investigation, we will focus on a series of four videos [Link to videos 1, 2, 3, & 4] filmed on July 11th and obtained on the same day, showing masked men on a medium-sized vessel approaching a dingy filled with women and children. The man who filmed this video sent the materials over to Josoor while still on the dinghy, after this he reported being returned to Turkey and held in detention for a period of two weeks. The purpose of this analysis is to better identify the individuals and the vessel involved in the operation which resulted in the pushback of the group.
Given the initial lack of a witness testimony for this event [which was unable to be obtained for several weeks due to the respondent’s detention in Turkey], we had limited material to work with. In order to address these shortcomings, we utilized various open-source techniques such as geolocating the video using topographic satellite renders, stitching together the scene with compiled images, and conducting research on the origins of the vessel carrying the masked men.
Geolocating of the 11 July Incident
An important part of this investigation was the geolocation of the incident in order to better understand the dynamics at play, and verify the pushback element.
A useful hint in geolocating these videos was the distinct mountain lines featured in the background in two of the clips. In order to do this, we first isolated the ridge-lines shown in the backgrounds of these two clips by using a photo-stitching technique to produce a panorama of the scene.
Using Google Earth’s topographic satellite renders of the Aegean Sea around the coastlines of Lesvos, we were then able to geolocate these two clips. In the background of the alleged pushback operation is the shore of Lesvos; Mytilini can be seen in the center right as the populated area in the background of the videos. This indicates that the dinghy was being chased east towards Diliki, Turkey as it was intercepted by the HCG vessel.
This geolocated area matches with information posted from Turkish Coast Guard of a rescue operation on July 11th at 10:00 am off the coast of Dikili, Turkey. This was their only reported rescue of that day.
Identification Of HCG Vessel Involved in the July 11th Incident
The vessel in question’s colour is light grey and features a white and blue striped symbol towards the bow on the starboard side: the symbol of the Hellenic Coast Guard.
Slightly farther towards the bow of the boat on its starboard side, the lettering marking the vehicle’s identification within the HCG can also be seen: ΛΣ-618
The boat in question is one of two Faiakas-class fast patrol crafts (FPCs) currently operated by the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) – this one being the ΛΣ-618 and the other being ΛΣ-617. Under a contract awarded by the HCG in April 2014, the Montmontaza-Greben shipyard, located on the island of Korcula, Croatia, was awarded a 13.3 million euro ($15.5 million) contract to supply six of these vessels which are listed as POB-24G.
The POB-24 vessels are 24.6 meters long, and are equipped with two diesel engines that enable a maximum speed of 30 knots and a range of 400 miles. The vessels are staffed by a crew of seven but can be augmented by up to 25 additional personnel if needed.
Importantly, the acquisition of these vessels by the HCG was majority financed via the European Commission’s External Borders Fund which provided for 75% of the cost, with the rest consisting of domestic funding. The first of POB-24G vessels, ΛΣ-617, was delivered in February 2015 whereas ΛΣ-618 was launched into service several months later in August 2015. These boats have enhanced the operational capacity of the HCG by relieving pressure from its aging Dilos-Class patrol vessels.
Identification of the officers present in the 11 July Incident
While the men seen approaching the dinghy on board the ΛΣ-618 took steps to conceal their identities, context clues within the videos allowed us to draw a better picture of who exactly they were and what their behavior was.
Six men can be counted standing on board the ΛΣ-618. The men wear dark colored clothing with short-sleeved shirts marked with a logo on their upper right torsos and have either dark colored shorts or long trousers on. All six have their faces covered with either black balaclava masks or neck gaiters – an important point to keep in mind when considering that in June, the Hellenic Coast Guard’s spokesperson stated that “under no circumstances do the officers of the Coast Guard wear full face masks during the performance of their duties”.
The men in the image above are wearing clothes which share similarities with the uniforms worn by the Hellenic Coast Guard, as the picture below shows.
The man closest to the bow of the boat holds a weapon which appears to be an FN FAL assault rifle whereas the man second from the stern looks at the group with either a camera or a pair of binoculars. FN-FAL rifles have been carried by Greek government forces since the 1970s, thus falling in line with the scene we are shown in the videos.
Treatment of the refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers on board the dingy
Our investigation of the events documented in this video, and what happened next to the refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers on board the dingy, prioritized a fact-finding search within the clips themselves. On the day of the incident, a Syrian man on board the dinghy sent four videos to Josoor. He claimed to have sent them from the dinghy as they were being approached by the vessels initially and then later after they were cast afloat into Turkish waters.
In one of the videos, at least 32 people on board the now motorless dingy can be seen floating in largely calm waters. The video shows a largely mixed passenger demographic with the men, women, and children on the boat having a varied representation of skin colors. Turkish Coast Guard records from their single intervention of the coast of Dikili on July 11th reports a group of 40 refugees assisted of which 21 were Syrian, 8 Congolese, 4 Somali, 3 Central African, 2 Palestinian, 1 Senegalese, and 1 Eritrean. Accounting for the boat passengers not shown within the video, these numbers correspond with the video footage inside the dinghy.
Giving his testimony of the event several weeks later to Josoor, the man who filmed these videos described that upon its initial approach of their dinghy, the AE-618 had a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) deployed next to it which approached them. Allegedly, one of the officers spoke in English to a member of the dinghy group, who expressed their intention to claim asylum. The officer responded negatively to this request and told them that because of COVID-19, they would not be allowed to enter the island and had to return to Turkey. The respondent described that at first, the driver of the dinghy did not follow that order and subsequently the officers destroyed the engine of the dinghy and beat its driver with batons. As other group members tried to protect the driver, they were also beaten with batons.
The officers subsequently dragged them to Turkish waters and then left the group floating there with the broken engine. After spending several more hours in the water, the Turkish Coast Guard arrived at the scene to rescue the passengers aboard the dingy. They took them to a quarantine detention center, from where they were released after 15 days.
With closer analysis, the video footage is able to corroborate this account. In the final video sent by the Syrian dinghy passenger, the dinghy is shown to be floating quietly in the ocean. There is no indication of the ΛΣ-618 being present at this point and the group inside the dinghy appears uncertain. At one point in the video, the cameraman pans towards the stern of the boat and briefly shows its motor. When comparing a still of the motor in the final video to a still from the dinghy’s motor during its initial flight from the ΛΣ-618, it becomes clear that it was tampered with in the intervening time. Given the many substantiated reports of boat motor destruction at the hands of the HCG, it is most likely that the balaclava-clad men on the ΛΣ-618 destroyed the dinghy’s motor before setting it adrift towards Turkey
Contextualizing the incident on 11 July
In contextualizing the incident of 11 July in the broader practices of the HCG in the Aegean, it is important to look at the documented history of aggression of the ΛΣ-618. On March 7th, 2020 the boat ΛΣ-618 was involved in an incident with a Turkish Coast Guard boat wherein the Greek boat entered Turkish waters and was chased in close proximity at high speeds by the Turkish boat. More recently, in the early morning hours of August 15th, the boat was documented participating in an incident along with Nato and Frontex vessels [and several helicopters], blocking a boat carrying women and children from entering into Greek waters.
Pushbacks in the Aegean Sea have been reported on a daily basis these past few months. Given the persistence of pushbacks in the area as well as the strong presence of Frontex vessels on the Aegean Sea, the tacit support that the European Union lends to the Hellenic Coastguard in these illegal practices must be considered. The EU-funded acquisition of the ΛΣ-618 represents just a portion of the close to 40 million euros which the EU has afforded the HCG to procure new vessels within the last five years. These boats, as it has been shown in this investigation, are being used to illegally push vulnerable people back to Turkish waters – a gross misuse of power.
HCG vessel ΛΣ-618 being chased in close proximity by a Turkish Coast Guard vessel in March, 2020 [Turkish Coast Guard]
This investigation began by analysing a series of four videos showing masked men in a vessel approaching a small dinghy filled with refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers on the Aegean Sea who later claimed to be pushed back to Turkey from Greek waters. Using Earth Studio and photo-stitching techniques, we were first able to geolocate the video to somewhere on the Aegean between Mytilini, Greece and Diliki, Turkey. We were then able to identify the vessel as the Hellenic Coast Guard’s ΛΣ-618 Faiakas-class fast patrol craft by highlighting the clear HCG emblem visible on its side and it’s ship identification number. This allowed us to make a strong conclusion that the masked men on this boat, who wore uniforms identical to those previously worn by the vessel’s crew-members, were acting in an official capacity. Finally, we were also able to contextualize the ΛΣ-618 documented history of aggressive pursuits of boats carrying refugees and asylum seekers in Greek waters and also highlighted the vessel’s EU-linked acquisition from a Croatian boatbuilder.
When put together, this analysis clearly links the materials shown in the videos to the well documented trend of maritime push-backs by the HCG in the last months. To be clear, the findings of this investigation directly contradicts the claims of the Hellenic Coast Guard’s spokesperson who recently stated that “under no circumstances do the officers of the Coast Guard wear full face masks during the performance of their duties”. Going even further, this investigation disproves the statement of Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas who told the New York Times in August that “Greek authorities do not engage in clandestine activities.” This investigation also further confirms the conclusion of previous investigations that the Hellenic Coastguard is engaging in pushbacks, casting strong doubt on Prime Minister Mitsotakis statement from August 19 that “it has not happened.”Pushbacks, whether they be on land or on sea, are illegal procedures, emboldened and made more efficient by EU funding mechanisms.