Hunted and thrown into the sea: Greece’s deadly deterrence policy

Hunted and thrown into the sea: Greece’s deadly deterrence policy

  • Published on
    June 17, 2024
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Controlling the flow of migrants trying to apply for asylum in Europe is top of the agenda for governments across the European Union despite evidence that this is plays right into the hand of traffickers. A new investigation by the BBC published just days before World Refugee Day found that Europe’s strategy of prioritizing border control over sea rescue has taken a deadly turn. Over a three-year period, the Greek coastguard has caused the deaths of dozens of migrants including some who were simply thrown directly back into the sea.

The harrowing accounts make it clear: current E.U. migration policies are failing migrants by putting them at risk of not just exploitation, but also death.

Death as a deterrent for migrants seeking asylum

In recent years, European governments have pursued tough immigration policies designed to deter people from coming to their countries to live. In 2022, Human Rights Watch described the EU’s migration policy as “deterrence by drowning and dehydration”. And it seems the situation has only gotten worse since then. Every day people put their lives on the line, setting out to sea on unfit boats despite knowing how dangerous the journey will be because of a lack of safer options.

Government officials have justified these policies as necessary for fighting trafficking and disrupting the business model of human traffickers. But the opposite is true. These policies are driving exploitation. When people feel the need to leave their country, but have no safe way to do so, they are at much higher risk of exploitation. 

The Greek government already stands accused of forced returns, which is illegal under international law. But the investigation revealed that Greek authorities are not just pushing people back towards Turkey, where most have crossed from. They are actively hunting down migrants who arrive on the Greek shores and forcing them into unsafe boats, sometimes just dumping them directly into the sea.

One migrant from Cameroon described how the police came right after they docked, masked so he could only see their eyes. The police forced the migrants to board a Greek coastguard boat to be taken back out to sea.

Describing what happened next, he said:

“They started with the [other] Cameroonian. They threw (us) in the water. The Ivorian man said: ‘Save me, I don’t want to die’…eventually only his hand was above water, his body was below. Slowly his hand slipped under, and the water engulfed him.”

A Somali migrant caught by the Greek army on arrival and handed to the Greek coastguard said they zip-tied him and his fellow migrants’ hands behind their backs. Then, with their hands tied, they were thrown into the sea. The Somali migrant told interviewers, “They wanted me to die.” Amazingly he was able to survive by floating on his back until one of his hands came free and he managed to swim to shore. The other migrants thrown in with him were not so lucky.

Tough immigration policies lead to inhumane and illegal outcomes

Back in 2016, in return for €9 billion from the E.U., Turkey signed an agreement to stop migrants crossing from Turkey into Greece. But in 2020 Turkey said it could no longer enforce the deal. So, for the last four years, the Greek coastguard has been using illegal and extreme measures to try and stop the migrants. On paper, Greek law allows any migrant who seeks asylum to register their claim at various designated centers. However, migrants reported that non-uniformed, often masked, men apprehended them before they could reach these centers.

Another migrant from Syria said he and his family, including several young children, boarded a boat, returned to Turkish waters, and were put in a life raft. However, the raft’s valve was improperly closed and they immediately began to sink. He said the coastguard heard them screaming and saw the raft sinking but still left them.

He recalls:

“The first child who died was my cousin’s son… After that it was one by one. Another child, another child, then my cousin himself disappeared. My kids didn’t die until the morning… right before the Turkish coastguard arrived.”

Nowhere to hide, even from themselves

As part of the investigation, the BBC spoke to the former head of special operations with the Greek coastguard who said the Greek government would never require them to do anything illegal. But after being shown a video of the Greek coastguard putting immigrants on a boat, he later spoke to someone on the phone, saying:

It’s very clear…it’s not nuclear physics. I don’t know why they (the coastguard) did it in broad daylight… It’s… obviously illegal. It’s an international crime.”

A member of the Greek special forces told an investigative journalist off the record that when his forces spot a refugee boat, they must “drive them back”, the orders were “from the minister”, and that if they failed to stop a boat, they would be punished.

It’s time to stop this shockingly cruel policy of letting people drown at sea or pushing them back into a situation of dangerous vulnerability to modern slavery. A lack of access to safe and legal channels to asylum coupled with ongoing conflict, human rights violations, and grinding poverty continues to push people to flee using unsafe channels.

The Freedom United community demands governments around the world immediately introduce immigration policies and legislation that protect people from violence and exploitation rather than putting them at greater risk of losing their freedom and their lives. Join us today and tell the Greek government and the E.U. that deterrence by drowning is a no-go!


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18 days ago

The comment related to animals is unbelievably correct. In the United States alone, people spend more on indulging their pets rather than being aware of child trafficking – which includes sex trafficking, organ harvesting, maiming and selling and so much more. People choose not to hear anything which, to them, either disrupts their way of life or makes them unhappy. We are becoming less-than-human every single day.

Kris Gray
Kris Gray
22 days ago

So no freedom on speech on Freedom United.

Maria Manuela Lima Viegas Caeiro Caeiro
Maria Manuela Lima Viegas Caeiro Caeiro
22 days ago

Why human being is so cruel? Sometimes I think it would be better to be an animal…

Helen Hansen
Helen Hansen
22 days ago

Forcing desperate people to drown in the Mediterranean is terrible and cruel. Member countries of the EU and NATO should speak up loudly to condemn this Greek practice AND should be prepared to intervene with our own troops.

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