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

Since the first part of this two-part series, journalists captured violent footage of pushbacks in Croatia, and the EU parliament asked to freeze part of Frontex’ budget until the agency improves the monitoring of human rights. Meanwhile, new allegations of pushbacks in several EU countries keep coming in, and Greece keeps denying the allegations.

Of the multiple alleged incidents investigated, 11 are covered and verified in this blog. For every incident, individuals in footage of rescues on sea released by Turkish Coast Guard (TCG) also appear in imagery geolocated to Greek territorial waters, or in seven cases, Greek islands. All cases indicate intervention by the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG), with a few cases where the pushback was captured on footage.

Part I of this blog covered incidents 1-3, that took place in April. Part two documents another eight incidents, that took place between May and September. Just like Part I, it looks at the alleged boarding crossing and indications of intervention by authorities for each incident. For practical reasons, hyperlinks on this page to information the Turkish Coast Guard Command always link to pages with limited information, while additional imagery was downloaded here.

Incident 4 — Samos, 16 May 2021

Aegean Boat Report (ABR) reported this incident on Facebook on May 20, later followed by a more detailed blog post. According to ABR, 32 people, including 9 children, landed on Samos at 07:30 in the morning on May 16. Shortly after landing, police arrived and transported the group to one of Samos’ ports, where a boat was waiting to send them back to Turkish waters.

Imagery published by ABR all originate from occupants of a black dinghy on the open sea. Additional imagery comes from the Turkish Coast Guard (TCG), who released an aerial video showing an HCG SAR boat abandoning people in life rafts on the open sea.

The second part of the same video shows TCG personnel hauling in children from life rafts that look similar to the ones visible on aerial footage. While the adults are hardly recognizable in the TCG video, two children taken on board of the TCG boat appear more clearly. One of them wears pants with a distinctive patch that is also visible in the dinghy video.

Image 1

Left: still images from a video recorded before the alleged pushback | Right: cropped still images from the TCG rescue video | Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

The shoreline that is getting closer and closer, visible in the background of the videos taken by dinghy occupants, is the Northern part of Samos, near Ag. Nikolaos.

Image 2

Top: cropped still images from the ABR video | Bottom: terrain view in Google Earth at the same location
| Aegean Boat Report / Maxar / TerraMetrics

No evidence of the arrival on land exists apart from the testimonies reported by ABR, but the vicinity of the shoreline makes it a credible claim. Either way, the video confirms a maritime border crossing, as the contours of the coastline correspond with a distance from the coast of approximately 1 nautical mile (37°49'44.4"N 26°46'04.8"E).

The shoreline looks much different from the sea border at about 7 NM, closer to how it looks in the still images seen left and centre in the comparison above. Thus confirming the border crossing.

Image 3

Cropped still image with matching shoreline profile in Peak Visor | Peak Visor / Aegean Boat Report

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

A aerial footage released by TCG, shows an HCG SAR vessel through a recorded observation screen. The SAR boat is visible with life rafts with occupants at its stern, before sailing away and leaving the rafts behind. Information on the display shows a date of May 16, and coordinates (37°57'52.0"N 26°49'30.0"E) of a location a few miles on the other side of the maritime border from the location of the dinghy video. Even though it’s important to note that TCG releases in this context should be received with scepticism.

Image 4

Date, time, and coordinates magnified on cropped still image | Turkish Coast Guard Command

The life rafts visible on aerial footage visually match with the life rafts that appear in the second part of the TCG video, apparently recorded from the TCG vessel.

Image 5

The life rafts seen on TCG footage, from the air and sea | Turkish Coast Guard Command

The imagery supports the testimony — capture by police shortly after arrival around 07:30 plus two hours for the ride to the port and boat — that was drawn up by ABR. A quick calculation doesn’t add up at first sight, as 07:30 plus two hours doesn’t fit with the 08:46 mark visible in the TCG video. In reality, however, the drive to Vathy port — the probable port as an HCG SAR vessel is often anchored there — is about 40 minutes, and the distance from Vathy to the location with the coordinates from the TCG video is only 15 NM, a distance that should take the SAR vessel less than an hour.

Incident 5 — Kos, 10 June 2021

On June 10, dinghy occupants videotaped a pushback almost from start to end, and one of the 31 asylum seekers testified. In addition, TCG also recorded part of the incident. The abundance of recordings makes it easy to match the dinghy occupants on video for verification.

Image 6

Top: stitched panorama from video by dinghy occupant | Bottom: cropped still image from TCG footage
| Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Syncing part of the video from the dinghy occupant with the TCG video also confirms that the videos relate to the same incident.

Gif 1

Synchronized video clips. Note the hand movements of the men on the Greek boat.
Top: TCG video | Bottom: dinghy occupant video | Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

As with incident 4, the date on the TCG display supports the reporting.

Image 7

Cropped still image from TCG video. Magnification by the author | Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

The camera’s perspective in the first part of the video is less than half a nautical mile from Kos’ shoreline, near 36°51'21.72"N, 27°21'47.86"E. As the shoreline looks much different viewed from the sea border about 3 NM back from the place of recording, it can be assumed that the dinghy was in Greek waters.

Image 8

Top: stitched panorama from dinghy occupant video | Bottom: terrain view in Google Earth at the same location
| Aegean Boat Report / Maxar

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

At least five different HCG vessels manoeuvre around the dinghy on video, making waves to stop the dinghy and push it back from the Greek shore. Last month, a consortium of media outlets pointed out that at least three men on these vessels are members of an HCG elite unit.

Image 9

Cropped still images from dinghy occupant video | Aegean Boat Report

Incident 6 — Fragkos, 26 June 2021

In the days leading up to June 26, a large group of between 61-65 asylum seekers reportedly stranded on the islet Fragkos (Φράγκος). A few days later, TCG announced the rescue of two life rafts and another group that was picked up by a Turkish fishing vessel, in the afternoon of June 26.

The poor quality of imagery and censoring of faces by ABR makes verification challenging in this case. One individual was nevertheless identified on both the imagery on Fragkos and TCG footage, indicating this being the same person and group.

Image 10

Left: cropped image of an individual on geolocated imagery | Right: cropped still image from TCG rescue video
| Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

A video of the incident that was published by ABR can be geolocated to the East side of Fragkos (37°15'26.1"N 26°43'09.1"E) confirming that the group was on Greek soil.

Image 11

Top: stitched panorama from video | Bottom: terrain view in Google Earth at the same location
| Aegean Boat Report / CNES / Airbus

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

Both ABR and Alarm Phone informed HCG, which responded that they could not find the people on the island. As with several other incidents, TCG announced a rescue days later, where the group appears in imagery of inflatable life rafts drifting on sea.

Incident 7 — Lesbos, 2 July 2021

Different media outlets have reported on the pushback of a group of 30 Afghan asylum seekers, several children included, on the 2nd of July. The group supposedly arrived with two boats on Lesbos that day. One of the boats arrived at southern Lesbos at 08:30, where journalist Hami Roshan documented their presence.

Many individuals can be identified on both the images released by ABR and the TCG press release footage of their rescue in the night of 2 and 3 July [1] [2] [3].

Image 12

Left: cropped still images of the group on Lesbos
Right: cropped still images taken from a TCG vessel at night on 2 and 3 July
| Hami Roshan / Politico / Yusuke Takano / Asahi Digital / Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

A stack of images from the group in Tsilia, southern Lesbos, was recorded by both members of the group and by freelance journalist Hami Roshan. This includes videos taken at landmark Church St. Nikolas, close to Tsilia beach.

Image 13

Left: church of St. Nikolas (Tsilia, Lesbos) | Centre: panorama stitched from church video
Right: Part of the group in front of the Church | Google Maps / Aegean Boat Report

The mountains visible in the background also match with the view from Tsilia, at 38°58'51.5"N 26°30'53.2"E.

Image 14

Stitched panorama in Peak Visor | Hami Roshan / Aegean Boat Report / PeakVisor

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

Testimonies of several refugees — including individuals identified in geolocated imagery — support the claims. In addition, Greek locals confirm on record that the group was present on Lesbos, one of them testifying the handing out of orange juice, which can also be seen on the published imagery.

A publication by Japanese newspaper Asahi Digital includes more useful details. One of their journalist apparently recorded a thermal image with one of the life rafts on display, while on the TCG vessel. An adjacent screen reveals coordinates: 38°54'932"N, 26°43'504"E.

Image 23

Cropped still image from Asahi footage revealing coordinates, verified by viewing multiple frames
| Yusuke Takano / Asahi Digital

The location corresponding with these coordinates is just over the maritime border, close to the place on Lesbos where the group was captured on camera. TCG footage confirms this was the location TCG rescued the group, as city lights visible in the background form a shape that corresponds with the urban areas on the coast of Izmir, at Denizköy.

Image 24

Top: terrain view of the coast with highlighted urban areas in white | Centre & Bottom Right: cropped still image from recording from TCG vessel. Bottom Left: satellite image of the same area.
| Sinergise d.o.o. / Leo Tolari (script) / Asahi Digital / Yusuke Takano / Maxar / TerraMetrics

Incident 8 — Antikythera, 5 July 2021

Another group of migrants disappeared on Monday, July 5 from Antikythera, a Greek island at the edge of the Aegean Sea, northwest of Crete. Local sources reported that the group stranded on the island on their way to Italy on July 4.

According to a testimony documented by Greek newspaper Efsyn, the group called the police after being stuck on the island due to engine trouble on their way to Italy. They were picked up by police shortly after and put in life rafts six hours later by masked men near Smyrna, Turkey. The timeline derived from this testimony is consistent with a TCG publication on July 6, announcing a rescue of 35 migrants.

Two videos allegedly recorded by the group of 35 on the island were shared on Facebook on the 5th, and later on the YouTube channel of Kythera News (1) (2). At least two individuals appear in both the video allegedly recorded on Antikythera and TCG footage of the rescue on sea.

Image 23

Left: cropped still images from videos recorded on Antikythera | Right: cropped still images from TCG footage
| Facebook / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

The videos allegedly recorded on Antikythera are very limited in detail, requiring multiple layers of verification to make a solid geolocation. To start with, the rock formations seen facing north and south bear much resemblance with a part of the shoreline north from the alleged bay of arrival reported by Greek media.

Image 28

Top: cropped still images from video recorded on Antikythera, facing North and South
Bottom: terrain view in Google Earth at the same location | Facebook / TerraMetrics

Zooming in on this part of the coast, comparing the pattern of vegetation on the rocks with satellite imagery provides additional verification, although the comparison is moderately reliable due to outdated satellite imagery. There’s still one location, around 35°50'52.7"N 23°19'35.1"E, where the vegetation looking both uphill and downhill is very similar to the vegetation on satellite.

Gif 3

Still image looking uphill positioned in Google Earth's terrain view
| Facebook / TerraMetrics

Similarities between the vegetation on video and satellite imagery looking downhill are easier to see.

Gif 2

Panorama from still images looking downhill positioned in Google Earth's terrain view
| Facebook / TerraMetrics

The views in all wind directions have now been matched. The exact location makes it possible to match details: the rocks in the image above on the right-hand side are also visible on satellite imagery.

Image 15

Left: rock formation detail on satellite image | Right: cropped still image from video | Facebook / TerraMetrics

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

In addition to the testimony, locals saw HCG boats and helicopters on the island on Sunday and Monday, a claim supported by a photo published by Kythera News that shows HCG patrol vessels docked in the port of Antikythera, said to be taken those days.

In addition, TCG footage shows the group in inflatable life rafts.

Image 24

HCG vessels docked in the port of Antikythera | Kythera News / Adelin FM

Incident 9 — Ikaria, 5 August 2021

According to Greek authorities, 12 migrants arrived at Eastern Aegean Islands on August 5. This appears to be the group that reportedly arrived at Ikaria that day, and subsequently transferred with the help of the municipality.

ABR, however, pointed out that the group was larger than 12, a claim that is supported by the video published, as at least 20 people appear in the dinghy at the alleged arrival. A TCG report from the day after, on August 6, shows several individuals who match with individuals in ABR imagery.

Image 16

Left: cropped still images from the recording of the alleged arrival at Ikaria | Right: cropped still images from TCG release.
| Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

The dinghy video can be geolocated to a bay on the north side of the island (37°41'13.71" N 26°21'07.86" E), close to Ikaria National Airport.

Image 17

Cropped still image from the recording of the alleged arrival at Ikaria in Peak Visor at the same location.
| Aegean Boat Report / Peak Visor

The backdrop in one image from ABR’s blog is an aircraft taking-off from Ikaria National Airport. Only one aircraft of the two airliners operating from that airport matches the profile and livery seen in the photo: an Olympic Air operated De Havilland Dash 8. If the reporting on this incident is correct, the image timestamp is 09:12 in the morning, the only time an Olympic Air airliner took off that morning from Ikaria.

Image 18

Top: flight history of flight OA99 from August 5 | Centre left: image of an Olympic Air Dash 8 for comparison
Bottom Left: terrain view in Google Earth at the same location | Right: image from migrants with the Olympic Air airliner taking off from Ikaria National Airport (horizontally flipped by author)
| Flightradar24 / Key.aero / CNES / Airbus / Aegean Boat Report

The shadows in the images point to the runway, while shadows at this location are moving close to parallel to the runway at noon and are moving towards the opposite direction in the afternoon. Corroborating the shadows in the images with the Olympic Air historical flight data reduces the time window, and therefore, further supports the claims.

Image 25

Left: imagery seemingly taken around the time of the aircraft take-off | Right: Shadow azimuth at 09:15 on August 5 (The length of the shadow is only for illustration purposes). | Aegean Boat Report / Suncalc

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

ABR reported that locals informed the police shortly after arrival, which is not inconceivable as images show the group posing for several cars that appear to be parked at the beach. Either way, part of the group appears in an inflatable life raft on TCG footage released a day later, while they arrived at Ikaria with a dinghy.

Incident 10 — Samos, 17 August 2021

Another report ABR posted is a video on their Facebook page on August 18, that involves 19 asylum seekers who arrived at Samos the day before. They were allegedly pushed back and rescued by TCG on the same day. Two individuals can be matched in both ABR imagery and TCG imagery.

Image 19

Left: cropped still images from video recorded on Samos and from the life raft (bottom centre)
Right: cropped still images from imagery released by TCG.
| Aegean Boat Report / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

ABR already gives away the location of the recording; nearby Pythagoreio, coordinates 37°41'46.0"N 26°56'00.1"E. This can be verified with satellite imagery.

Image 20

Centre & Top Left: panorama of still images from ABR video | Top Right & Bottom: terrain view and satellite imagery at the same location | Aegean Boat Report / Maxar / TerraMetrics

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

Like with several other incidents, the group appears in inflatable life rafts, both in a video recorded by themselves as well as in TCG footage of their rescue.

Incident 11 — Kythira, 1 September 2021

Between August 28 and September 1, Kythera News reported three times of arrivals of Kurdish refugees. At different days and places, but all on Kythira — an island that lies between the Greek mainland and Crete.

On Saturday the 28th, a large group of migrants was discovered on the island and seen boarding HCG patrol boats in the evening. Another group of 37 followed on Sunday, at Lykodimos. The third time Kythera News reported on an arrival was when a group of 10 to 20 refugees was present on a beach called Sparagario on Wednesday, September 1.

The publication from Wednesday included several images and videos of men in uniform — some with balaclavas — around people sitting on the beach. Multiple images of HCG boats were posted on Facebook, and some released by local media.

Two individuals who appear in the imagery, also appear in imagery attached to a Turkish Coast Guard release of a rescue of 83 migrants a day after the incident on Sparagario beach.

Image 21

Left: cropped images published by Kythera News | Centre & Right: cropped still images from TCG released imagery
| Kythera News / Turkish Coast Guard Command

Did the refugees cross the border?

Putting together the zoomed in imagery shows that the beach on display is Sparagario, a small beach nearby Kapsali, Kythira.

Image 22

Left & Bottom: images published on September 1 | Top Right: terrain view at the same location in Google Earth
| Kythera News / Landsat / Copernicus

Besides the pile of bags on the beach, something else stands out. Social media images posted around the time of events provide a better view on what appear to be a man-made pile and a ring, both made of stones, with a traffic sign standing upright at the border of the ring that catches the eye. Such works of art are unlikely long-lived on a regularly visited beach, and not visible on imagery from Sparagario beach taken much earlier or later. This makes the date of September 1 plausible.

Image 27

Left & Top Right: cropped imagery published September 1 | Bottom Right: cropped image posted on Facebook on August 28, a few days before the incident | Kythera News / Facebook

What are the indications of involvement of authorities?

The available imagery can be divided into three parts that all contain direct or indirect indications of intervention by Greek authorities. First, on the beach, there is a Rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) visible together with uniformed men — some of them wearing balaclavas. The men seem to bear no visible insignia, but the RHIB can be identified as an HCG operated MST Patrol 750 boat. And men in similar clothing — balaclavas sometimes included — are reported or seen more often with pushbacks.

Image 27

Left & Center: cropped imagery published September 1 | Right: MST Patrol 750 boat in the launching ramp of an HCG P355 patrol vessel | Kythera News / Naval Analyses

The second part is a 18 seconds long video. The video is for the most part zoomed in on a RHIB closing in on an HCG CNV P355 patrol vessel, a type of vessel that appears in multiple images supposedly taken that day. While a few bricks are only briefly visible at the beginning of the video, these bricks confirm that the location of the recording is the abandoned house on the hill next to the beach, as an image from Instagram posted almost three months before shows the bricks in the same position in that house.

Image 26

Left: vertical panorama from still images | Top Right: camera perspective with wall detail | Bottom right: reference image from Instagram | Kythera News / CNES / Airbus / Instagram

The patrol vessel is about in the same position as it is on another image posted that day. The RHIB approaching the vessel has the same characteristics as the MST Patrol boat at the beach, just as occupants with orange vest can also be seen.

Image 27

Left: cropped still image with magnified RHIB | Right: cropped imagery published September 1
| Kythera News / Facebook / militaire.gr

The last part that indicate intervention by Greek authorities is again the rescue footage from TCG, on which two large lift rafts with 83 migrants are visible. As shown earlier, at least two occupants of these life rafts do also appear in imagery of Sparagario beach.

Image 27

Image of the TCG rescue | Turkish Coast Guard Command

Denial of something that appears to be policy

From pushback incidents that took place between April and September, this series presents 11 incidents with visual evidence of asylum seekers that crossed the Turkish-Greek border. In three cases, people on the move appear in Greek territorial waters before they are pushed back, and in the other eight incidents, migrants landed on Greek islands. In total, authorities pushed back more than 350 individuals in these incidents alone, many women and children included. Three of these cases include clear visual evidence of the Hellenic Coast Guard conducting the pushback, another three include imagery with HCG assets close to the location of the pushback. In cases that lack direct visual evidence of intervention by Greek authorities, indirect evidence is available, like the use of inflatable life rafts and testimony.

This series doesn’t provide conclusive evidence for each of the 11 incidents presented, but the investigation as a whole embedded in the known facts — a frightening piece published this week by Spiegel International sums up part of it — makes an indisputable case. This series makes an attempt to confront the denials, by verifying some of these incidents, and thereby demonstrating the systematic nature of something that appears to be policy.