“We were all forced on to the boat. If we looked up they shouted at us and hit us in the head. Then they stopped at a place in the sea where there were no other boats, they left us.”
Mustafa, his wife and two young children had only been on the Greek island of Lesbos a few hours when, they say, they were driven in a van to the coast, beaten by masked men and then taken out to sea on a raft and abandoned there.
Their story is one of many and lies at the heart of what rights groups, the UN and the EU are warning is a crisis for the right to asylum at Europe’s borders – with “pushbacks” so persistent and severe they are leading to a huge drop in arrivals across the sea into Greece.
The UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) recently warned that many EU borders – from Greece to the Balkans to France – are increasingly impossible to pass for vulnerable asylum-seeking families such as Mustafa’s. There was a
85% drop in arrivals by sea to Greece in 2020 compared with 2019 and Notis Mitarachi, the country’s migration minister, has repeatedly pointed to the reduction in “flows” of asylum seekers to the Aegean islands.
Mustafa’s own journey began in northern Afghanistan. The family travelled through Turkey and crossed on a small boat with 12 others. They had paid €1,200 (£1,030) each for the journey, selling almost all their possessions to fund it after a militant group had threatened Mustafa’s life.
After stumbling on to the beach, a local NGO, Aegean Boat Report, helped them find the camp where they hoped to claim asylum. Instead, they say when they got there, they were met by police.
Mustafa’s family in the container they were held in before being removed from Lesbos. Photograph: Courtesy of Aegean Boat Report
“There were two police officers and they said, ‘wait there whilst we call [someone] in a higher position’,” Mustafa said. Still wet from the sea, other asylum seekers in the camp gave them clothes and food.
When the police said the family and the other migrants who had arrived with them would be taken to get a Covid test, Mustafa became worried, he said. “I started to have a feeling of fear that maybe they are going to push us and send us back to Turkey.”
Instead of being taken for a test, the group were taken to a container. “The police then came and gave us directions to a container nearby. They then shouted at us to get in the container,” Mustafa recalled.
At the container, terrifyingly for the family, four masked men arrived and searched the group for phones and personal items while people faced the wall.
A child in the container the asylum seekers were held in on Lesbos. Photograph: Courtesy of Aegean Boat Report
“Four guys came, their whole face was covered. They woke us up and took all the phones from the rest of the group. They couldn’t find my phone because it was wrapped in a blanket under where my son was sleeping. They searched everywhere, even in the nappies of the children. It’s not nice for me to talk about,” Mustafa said.
At various points in the ordeal, he added, the children started crying. They were then forced to get into the back of a van. “There were no seats inside, it looked like a van for animals.”
After around an hour they stopped and the men forced them to board a small boat. Mustafa said he was afraid to board, but the men hit and kicked him until he did.
“I thought that these men were going to drown us,” he said. “Everyone was afraid and shouting that they didn’t want to get inside the boat. But they kicked me so that I got on.”
Messages sent to the Aegean Boat Report NGO including a video of the family in the container. Photograph: Courtesy of Aegean Boat Report
The group were then pushed into an orange life raft and “left in the sea, where the waters are Turkish”. They sent a video pleading for help to Aegean Boat Report at 1.30am, nearly six hours after they had first asked the group for help when they arrived on Lesbos.
They were eventually picked up by the Turkish coast guard and are now back in Turkey, staying at a friend’s flat. With all their money having been spent on the journey, they are nearly destitute.
“We tried to get to Europe for the future of our children,” Mustafa said, “because there is no war there.”
The Greek coast guard said it has no record of the incident Mustafa described. In a statement it said it acted according to Greece’s international obligations and all relevant international treaties and with respect for human rights. “The Hellenic coast guard takes all necessary measures to effectively monitor and protect both Greece’s and the EU’s sea borders,” it said.
“In our effort to protect our country’s rights as well as the lives of refugees which are put to danger, some media and NGOs target the Hellenic coast guard with publicity based on untrue, unverified claims.”
Mireille Girard, acting representative for the UNHCR in Greece, told the Guardian they were aware of the incident and had eyewitnesses who had seen the people arrive in the Megala Therma quarantine camp.
“We are following this case very closely,” she said. “We were alerted by local residents and the residents in the Megala Therma [camp]. There were 29 asylum seekers inside the facility that night so they saw the group arriving.”
Girard said asylum procedures should be followed. “Clearly there was a group that had landed inside Greece and, more than that, they had gone inside the facility of the government,” she said. “So it’s very important for the authorities to look into this and see what happened.”
Mustafa’s name has been changed to protect his identity.