Verifying the pattern of pushbacks in the Aegean Sea — Part I

“[T]he Hellenic coastguard has often become the object of systematic and methodical targeting on social media, in some media, but also from some NGOs. The vast majority of these posts/information are based on unsubstantiated reports and unconfirmed or unreliable sources, that cannot be identified.” This quote comes from Hellenic coastguard’s response to reports of an incident where people on the move were pushed back over the border in April this year. Unlike this response, verification of this particular incident and others show that these reports are anything but unsubstantiated.

Greek authorities strongly deny the allegations. And while pushbacks are a violation of international law, they do not give the impression that any investigation into reported violence will be opened. EU’s watchdog urge to halt this practice doesn’t seem to change their tactics either.

Pushbacks have been reported by media and NGO’s for years. Still, the nature of these pushbacks is being questioned. Are these incidental or structural? This blog investigates pushbacks that allegedly took place over the last couple of months to verify the claims.

The first part of this blog, covers three incidents from April this year. To verify a pushback, two questions need to be answered for every incident. First, did the migrants or refugees already cross the Greek-Turkish border? And second, are there any indications of involvement of authorities?

Incident 1 — Lesbos, 14 April 2021

On April 15, The Turkish coastguard (TCG) reported a pushback of 51 migrants the previous day. On the day itself, Aegean Boat Report (ABR) and Alarm Phone, respectively a Norwegian NGO and a hotline for refugees in distress ran by volunteers, post testimonies and images of the alleged pushback. A more detailed blog post by ABR appears on May 2.

All the released imagery seems to relate to the same incident, as details such as the dinghy and its occupants, the visible surroundings and the positioning of boats and occupants can all be matched. Weather and shadows also corroborate the date and time reported by the two NGOs.

Image 1

Left: cropped still images from a video taken from the dinghy before the alleged pushback.
Right: cropped image stills from TCG footage.
| Aegean Boat Report / Alarm Phone / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

One screenshot from ABR’s blog shows a shared location over WhatsApp, less than 1 NM from the Lesbos coast. An image taken around the same time supports that claim according to ABR, as it would show the shoreline of Lesbos visible from that location. This approximate location can be verified by matching the shoreline in the background with that part of the northeastern Lesbos shoreline in Google Earth.

Image 2

Top & Bottom Right: image taken from dinghy with the Lesbos shoreline in the background | Bottom left: terrain view at the same location in Google Earth | Alarm Phone / Maxar / CNES / Airbus

It is important to determine the distance this image was taken from the coast. Disputes about the Greek-Turkish maritime border occasionally happen, and the distance confirms if and how far the boat went into Greek territorial waters.

A solid estimation can be done by matching the shoreline silhouette in the image as closely as possible in PeakVisor - a tool that renders mountain panorama’s from a given location. This results in a distance that is close to the shared location from ABR, about 1 NM from the coast. The view is considerably different from the view from the internationally recognized maritime border, which shows the border crossing was significant.

The maritime border is about 5 nautical miles from this part of the coast, making the border crossing of the dinghy about 4 nautical miles, far enough to take away any doubt.

Image 3

Comparison between the view from the maritime border and 1 NM from the shoreline
| Alarm Phone / PeakVisor / PeakFinder / Maxar / CNES / Airbus

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

While the two vessels that appear in the TCG video marked as Greek assets are hard to verify, the HCG Lambro-57 patrol boat is easily identified on several images and video footage.

Image 4

Note the man on both the left and the right, seemingly the same person, is wearing a balaclava
| Alarm Phone / Aegean Boat Report

An indication of a forced pushback by HCG comes from the video published by ABR, which consists of three parts. In the first part, the dinghy drifts next to the Greek patrol boat. In the second part, the dinghy is found on sea with the HCG boat with its stern towards the camera, apparently sailing away.

Image 5

Part two of the video | Aegean Boat Report

The last part of the video is key, as it almost seamlessly transitions to the footage released by TCG. Both the video taken by one of the occupants in the dinghy and the TCG video can be geolocated to the same area on the other side of the maritime border, off the coast of Turkey’s Ayvacık district. In both of these videos, the shoreline of Lesbos is visible on the left side, and what appears to be the shoreline of the Ayvacık district on the right.

The video recorded from the dinghy shows a vessel on the right coming from the Turkish coast, possibly the TCG boat on its way to the dinghy. On the left, towards Greek territorial waters, a boat is visible that looks like the Greek patrol boat. Several vessels, of which two are marked as Greek assets, appear near that location in the TCG video.

Image 6

Top: stitched panorama from the ABR video. The insert shows the shoreline behind the occupant with the life jacket on the right side, which does not become contiguously visible in the video but only at the end.
Centre: view looking east from 39°28'19.08"N, 26°21'56.35"E, with the silhouettes of Lesbos and Ayvacık district on both sides | Bottom: still from TCG video
| Aegean Boat Report / PeakFinder / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Incident 2 — Samos, 21 April 2021

Aisha*, a Palestinian mother of three kids hid in the Samos mountains for several days after knocking on the door of an immigration lawyer on Samos the 26th of April. She said to have arrived together with a group of 28 other refugees a few days before. But confirmation of this arrival was never received. According to the Samos Times, authorities even pressed island residents that saw the group on the island into saying that the group “never existed”.

TCG reported a rescue of 28 refugees on a lifeboat at the night of April 22.

Image 7

The rear part of the boat the group allegedly arrived with, on a beach near Kampos Marathokampou. The boat itself was allegedly torn into pieces, except for the heavy wooden rear part. | Samos Times

Did the refugees cross the border?

The UN refugee agency UNHCR received a message that the group had arrived on Samos, and ABR reported the arrival of a group of 32 on their Facebook page. Even though it is possible that some messages could have been removed, there are still reports from local journalists found on Facebook.

Image 18

Coverage of the incident by local journalists on April 21.

It would not only be an extraordinary claim to say that Aisha crossed the sea alone with her kids, she also appears with her kids and several other individuals on pictures allegedly taken short after their arrival. The image can be geolocated near the beach where the group reportedly landed.

Image 8

Image from ABR in which 'Aisha' and her kids appear together with others on Samos. The background matches with the view in PeakVisor at 37°42'16.1"N 26°38'31.3"E looking west. Bottom right: Terrain view in Google Earth at the same location. | Aegean Boat Report / Maxar / CNES / Airbus

The pictures of the group that were allegedly taken on Samos don’t paint a clear picture like the first incident did. The other images can’t be geolocated, and the overlap of individuals in images is less clear, although the original uncensored images could prove otherwise. Still, the individuals who appear in one of the images can be matched with the refugees that appear in the images released by TCG.

Image 9

Left: Image of the group, reportedly taken on Samos | Right: Image of the rescue released by TCG
| Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

A fact that further supports Aisha’s story is that the official administration by Greek authorities doesn’t show new arrivals of migrants, neither the 21st nor the 22nd. Even the remaining days of the month show no arrivals at all.

Image 10

Arrivals on Samos, April 21 and 22 | National Coordination Center For Border Control, Immigration and Asylum.

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

The video that was released with the report by TCG contains a part where a screen with thermal imaging is observed. The crosshairs zoom in on a vessel, marked with ‘life raft’ by the editor of the video. Then the image pans to the right, until another vessel appears in the thermal image.

Gif 1

Trimmed version of video released by TCG. Additional editing was done by the author to highlight the date and coordinates on the screen. The red markings have been added by TCG. | Turkish Coast Guard Command

The date of 22 April 2021 and coordinates 37°41'16.14"N, 27° 0'30.69"E are visible on the thermal image screen. The shoreline that is visible in the thermal image matches with the view from the location at those coordinates, verifying that the video was recorded at that location. The visible shoreline is the coast of southern Samos, near Pythagoreio, and is the closest Greek-Turkish maritime border from the place the group reportedly went ashore.

Image 12

Bottom: stitched panorama from TCG footage | Right: View in Peak Finder at 37°41'16.14"N, 27° 0'30.69"E
| Turkish Coast Guard Command / Peak Finder

The image of the first vessel that is observed in the thermal image, on the Turkish side, is consistent with the appearance of the life raft that is shown later in the TCG video.

Image 11

The image of the life raft on the thermal camera and another still image of the life raft from TCG footage
| Turkish Coast Guard Command

The vessel on the Greek side appears to be an HCG Halmatic 60 SAR boat. The distinctive bow and stern are easy to discern in the thermal image. A closer look reveals something on the stern that looks like the crane that is mounted on the stern of the SAR boats.

Image 13

Thermal image of the vessel that appears on Greek side and a photo of one of the HCG SAR boats docked in Piraeus for comparison. | Turkish Coast Guard Command / 2007, K.Krallis SV1XV

Except for the matching visual appearance, HCG SAR boats are often present on Samos, as can be seen on satellite imagery.

Image 14

An HCG SAR boat in the port of Vathy, Samos on February 21 and May 5, 2021 | Maxar

Social media images make it plausible that one HCG SAR boat was present on Samos on the 21st of April. Several images of the port of Vathy, Samos, were posted on social media that day. In these images, an HCG SAR boat seems to be visibly moored in the harbour. Although the resolution is low, a vessel with an orange paint scheme can be distinguished, docked at the same place where the boat was captured on satellite imagery.

It’s uncertain if the images were taken the same day as they were posted, but there’s no visual conflict in the pictures, the profiles are posting independently of each other and the weather conditions are consistent with the weather that day. This makes it likely that some or all of the images were taken that day.

The presence of an HCG SAR boat on Samos doesn’t confirm it’s the same boat as the one that appears in the TCG thermal image, but it shows that SAR boats are frequently present on Samos, and likely on the 21st, the day before the night of the alleged pushback.

Image 15

Images posted on Facebook, February 21, 2021.

Incident 3 — Lesbos, 26 April 2021

Another incident allegedly took place on the 26th of April, involving a large group of 51 or 53 refugees, including many women and children. As with the other incidents, there’s imagery from the refugees that arrived on the island, and footage released by TCG. One thing that stands out in the TCG rescue video is that none of the refugees seem to wear life jackets, not even the children.

Like with the first incident, individuals can be matched throughout the images, showing that the recordings relate to the same incident.

Image 14

Left: Images shared by ABR | Right: Imagery released by TCG | Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

The arrival on Lesbos was documented by ABR and consists of testimonies, audio, video, many images, and screenshots of location sharing through WhatsApp, all allegedly shared by this group of refugees.

A large part of this footage was taken on a typical terraced landscape. The angles differ, but the individuals, their position on the terraces and the surroundings match, confirming that the images were taken around the same time and place. The view from the terrace can be geolocated. It shows that the terrace is on Lesbos, on a place along the path that is shown in the story documented by ABR.

Image 15

Geolocation of imagery released by ABR. The terrace where the images were taken is in the vicinity of 39°22'24.42"N, 26°20'46.62"E | Aegean Boat Report / Maxar / CNES / Airbus

Zooming in on the road with the s-curve further confirms the location. The trees on the verge of the s-curve match exactly.

Image 16

Detail from the imagery released by ABR compared with Google Earth's terrain view.
| Aegean Boat Report / Maxar / CNES / Airbus

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

While Greek authorities don’t appear in the visual evidence, there are still indications pointing to involvement from HCG. First, there are the testimonies as recorded by ABR. The group reported being taken to a port and being forced on a grey military vessel by men wearing balaclavas.

The second indication is the large life raft where TCG found the people drifting in. ABR’s blog post includes a video that was seemingly taken during the crossing of the group to Lesbos, before their arrival on the island. The video shows two men who also seem to appear in other imagery, sitting near the engine of a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) on the open sea. The silhouette of Lesbos is visible in the background, and the weather is consistent with the weather on the 26th.

In the TCG footage though, the group appears in a large life raft. How do 53 refugees, women and children included, end up in a large life raft in the Aegean Sea after first arriving arriving on Lesbos in a RHIB? This requires an organization on Lesbos not only capable of conducting such operations, but also has a life raft like this at their disposal.

Image 18

Left: still image from video of the alleged arrival of the group | Right: the group in a large life raft in TCG footage
| Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

In addition, stills from a live cam with a view on the Molyvos harbour — a harbour in the north of Lesbos which is relatively close to the last shared location of the group — possibly fits the story of the group. It shows that at least one grey HCG patrol boat was active between the 26th and 27th. Two patrol boats are moored in the harbour on the 26th, but one of the two boats is not at the same place the next day. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these boats were involved. It does show however that an actor, capable of performing an operation like this and being caught in the past for doing so, was present and active around the time the incident apparently took place.

Image 17

Snapshots from a live cam with a view on the harbour of Molyvos on April 26 and 27. The bottom image is added for comparison. | Skyline webcams / Νapoleonia Apeltsotou / Google Maps

The pattern continues

Single pushback incidents do not always draft clear pictures of what happened, but multiple incidents reveal a pattern. In all three of the investigated incidents, it can be verified that refugees crossed the Greek-Turkish border, and even landed on Greek soil in two of the cases. Visual evidence indicates involvement from Hellenic coastguard in two of the cases.

Verification of the timing of events is often hard with imagery like this, leaving some room for discussion of other hypotheses. There are however reasons to believe that the assumed timing of events is correct. Firstly, the face masks and lush green scenery visible in several images reduces the possibilities to roughly spring 2020 and spring 2021. In addition, many details align with the reports, such as the weather conditions, visible time stamps on TCG footage, screenshots from ABR, and different actors reporting the same timeline.

Furthermore, these findings are consistent with the many pushbacks that have been documented before.

* Name taken from the report in the Guardian, which was changed for privacy reasons.