Migrants fleeing Lebanon by sea accuse Greece of abusing migrants

Beirut, Lebanon – When Ahmad, a goldsmith in the Lebanese coastal town of al-Mina, could no longer operate his machines due to a prolonged power outage, he knew it was time to find a way out.

“I sold all my equipment and decided to leave,” the 25-year-old man from Lebanon told Al Jazeera. Some of his friends made the dangerous boat journey from the northern city of Tripoli to Italy. They convinced him to do the same.

three-quarters of the population living in poverty, fuel shortages are forcing power plants to close, currency devaluation has no end in sight, and more Lebanese and Syrians are resort to immigration.

Ahmed said he was one of 82 Lebanese and Syrians who boarded a fishing boat and set sail on October 26. But the group never reached their destination.

Al Jazeera interviewed three of the passengers, whose full names were withheld for fear of jeopardizing their chances of emigration.

They tell of being drawn into a network of illegal boycotts and arbitrary detentions, which human rights groups describe as an increasingly common tool to keep migrants out.

leave Lebanon

No smugglers were involved in planning this trip. The families sold their belongings or borrowed money to buy boats and food supplies.

“We are all friends, relatives and neighbors from the same area,” Ahmed said.

Another passenger, Armani, 36, has spent his life in al-Mina, an independent municipality often considered an extension of Tripoli’s port. She never imagined that one day she would sell her house and jewellery in an attempt to give her three children a “dignified life”.

“When my son was sick and I couldn’t find any medicine, I decided it was time to leave,” she told Al Jazeera.

Bilal, a 43-year-old Syrian from Idlib, has lived in Lebanon for nearly 30 years, working in a cafe and an ice cream parlour and married to a Lebanese woman.

“I work up to 18 hours a day to make enough money,” he said. Unable to get a raise due to inflation, he decided to sell his car, his wife’s jewelry – even his daughter’s earrings – and leave the country for good.

The group set sail on October 26, but were adrift at sea for three days after the storm damaged the engine.

They decided to try and dock on the Greek island of Kastellorizo​​ to repair the ship. “We contacted the Coast Guard and asked for permission,” Amani recalls. “They told us we were welcome and even asked if they could help us with anything.”

A few minutes later, a Greek coast guard ship approached the ship. According to witnesses, the officers wore black balaclavas to cover their faces.

“They dropped what looked like big balloons and hung our boat on their boat,” Amani said. “Then they ordered us to get on board.”

A passenger who had been talking to Greek officials in English was denied boarding. Witnesses said he was beaten and forced onto the boat.

The coast guard fired into the air to intimidate other passengers. “Then they took our mobile phones, money, clothes and bags,” Bilal said.

Passengers, cold and wet, asked staff to seat women and children indoors. “But we were taken to a very small room and they blasted the air conditioner at low temperatures,” Armani told Al Jazeera.

The men were beaten with stun sticks when they demanded to know where they were taken.

Greece’s Ministry of Maritime and Island Policy has denied any wrongdoing, saying its actions were consistent with international legal obligations and denying the use of force against migrants.

“We must stress that such actions have never been included in the operational practice of the Greek authorities,” the ministry said in a statement to Al Jazeera.

“That’s how Italy is”

Passengers were split into four life rafts after a night on a Coast Guard boat. “Each 12-person lifeboat has 20-25 people,” Ahmed said. “[The officers] Said ‘that’s how Italy is’ and left. “

Some people’s belongings were returned, while others were left with only the contents of their pockets.

“One man asked to get his phone back. The guards let him get on the raft or they would beat him up,” Amani recalls.

The team estimated that they had been on the raft from 5 a.m. to around 8 p.m. “The men were paddling with their hands, the children were screaming and crying, and we all thought we were going to die,” Armani said.

One of the passengers who still had a phone called an emergency number on the network. Someone answered, but not the Italian authorities.

“The Turks replied and told us that we were in their waters near Izmir,” Bilal said. “About four hours later, a Turkish barge arrived.”

The European Commission has asked Greece to create an independent mechanism to monitor and avoid obstruction by migrants at its borders.

Niamh Keady-Tabbal, a doctoral researcher at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, told Al Jazeera it was a “systematic policy of collective deportation”, with the Coast Guard routinely disabling migrant boats and sometimes confiscating identity documents, money, and individuals thing.

“They are often forced to board life rafts, abandoned and drifted to Turkey, in violation of international and European law,” Keady-Tabbal said.

Since March 2020, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has increasingly received Report Regarding the so-called resistance on land and at sea.

Earlier this week, Al Jazeera reported that at least 30 Cubans wishing to apply for asylum in Europe had been targeted by Greek authorities and forcibly deported to Turkey Crossed the land border late last year.

Strananu, a spokesman for the Greek refugee agency, told Al Jazeera that the boat was intercepted in Greek waters and had its engines destroyed before being towed into Turkish waters. In other incidents, refugees and migrants were taken back to sea after landing on the Greek island and drifted on life rafts without life jackets.

“UNHCR interviewed people who said they had been delayed, and many appeared to be deeply affected by this traumatic experience, which exacerbated the trauma of the situation they faced in their country of origin,” Nanu said.

“Women, men and children all displayed significant emotional distress when they told their experiences of seeking protection.”

In the same statement to Al Jazeera, the Greek Ministry of Maritime and Island Policy said, “Greek Coast Guard officers responsible for guarding the sea and land borders between Greece and Europe have been working hard for months, 24/7, with efficiency and a high sense of responsibility. , impeccable professionalism, patriotism, and respect for the life and human rights of every human being.”

Detained in Turkey

Turkish authorities took the exhausted families to an EU-funded relocation center in Aydin, southwest Turkey, where they were held for nearly a month until Nov. 28.

Turkey has the world’s first The largest immigration related The detention system, in addition to temporary detention facilities along the border, airport transit areas and police stations, operates 25 repatriation centres with a capacity of nearly 16,000 persons.

EU-Turkey 2016 refugee agreement The expansion of Turkey’s migrant repatriation system with the help of EU funding has led to an increase in the detention and summary deportation of refugees and asylum seekers, the Geneva-based research center’s Global Detention Project said.

“The EU is giving Turkey money as a buffer,” Michael Flynn, executive director of the Global Detention Project, told Al Jazeera.

In recent years, the EU has provided just over 87 million euros ($99 million) in funding to build eight relocation centers and refurbish 11 others in Turkey.

“The purpose of the EU’s support to the repatriation centres is to improve the reception standards for migrants who have made a decision to return, in accordance with the Turkish Aliens and International Protection Act,” a European Commission spokesman told Al Jazeera in an email.

A European delegation to Turkey in 2015 described Aydin’s conditions as “very good”.

However, those detained at the moving centre said their stay was not a pleasant one.

“It’s more like a prison,” Ahmed said. “We are among the drug smugglers and those accused of being linked to Daesh (ISIL).”

Translators were uncooperative and language barriers created tensions, Armani said. “We would try to communicate, but out of frustration, they would start yelling at us,” she recalls.

When a woman stumbled and hit her head, her head bled profusely, and the built-up tension erupted into a melee. “Some of the women panicked, cried and screamed. They thought she was dead,” Amani recalled.

Meanwhile, the man in the cell could only see the woman crying.

“We thought it was one of us who was injured, so we started arguing with the guards to get them out,” Ahmed said. “Then they came in and beat the four of us with batons.”

Turkey’s communications agency declined to comment when asked by Al Jazeera about the allegations of Lebanese and Syrians about their detention in Aydin.

Merve Sebnem Oruc, a columnist for the pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, told Al Jazeera that Turkish authorities are doing everything they can to respect the rights of migrants and refugees.

“The only deportees are those who entered the country illegally,” she said, adding that those who were in danger and at risk of persecution in their home countries were exempt.

“Syrians who apply to the government and declare themselves refugees will not be sent back to Syria because their lives are in danger.”

The migrants were flown back to Lebanon on the evening of November 29, but it is unclear who financed the flight. They said Turkish guards returned their belongings but kept cash, claiming it was for a flight home.

The European Commission did not confirm funding for the repatriation, but said it supported Turkey through two “Assisted Voluntary Return” projects.

An EU spokesman told Al Jazeera that migrants have a legal right to challenge their administrative detention and deportation, and to apply for international protection. However, those interviewed by Al Jazeera said they were not allowed access to lawyers or apply for asylum while in custody.

‘I will try again’

Back at al-Mina, relatives recalled the anxious wait for their loved ones to return home. Ahmed’s mother did not hear from her son for a whole week after he left. “I thought he was dead,” she said.

While in custody, the families staged several protests in Tripoli near the homes of Interior Minister Bassam Maulavi and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, demanding their relatives be released and brought home.

The Lebanese Interior Ministry issued a brief public statement saying it was following up with Turkish authorities and preparing the necessary paperwork.

At least three undocumented Syrians remained in Turkey and were released.

Those who returned to Lebanon found themselves worse off than before.

Ahmed’s mother told Al Jazeera she was worried he would try again. Her fears are not unfounded.

“If I have the chance, I will try again,” Ahmed said.

“Or a third, or even a fourth, until it works.”