Masked Assailants Attack, Disable Boats, Abuse Passengers
“(Athens) – Armed masked men have been disabling boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea and pushing them back to Turkish waters, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch spoke to nine witnesses who described eight incidents in which masked assailants – often armed – intercepted and disabled the boats carrying asylum seekers and migrants from Turkey toward the Greek islands, most recently on October 7 and 9,2015. The witnesses said that the assailants deliberately disabled their boats by damaging or removing the engines or their fuel, or puncturing the hulls of inflatable boats. In some cases, the boats were towed to Turkish waters.
“Disabling boats in the Aegean makes an already dangerous journey even more likely to result in death,” said Eva Cosse, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “These criminal actions require an urgent response from the Greek authorities.”
Human Rights Watch also found new cases in which Greek border guards summarily returned migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey across the land border at Evros.
On October 9, Human Rights Watch staff witnessed an overloaded inflatable rubber boat adrift in the waters between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos for more than an hour, until a group of Spanish lifeguard volunteers set off on their own boat to rescue them. Right after the rescue, 17-year-old Ali from Afghanistan told Human Rights Watch that their boat had taken off eight hours earlier for Lesbos from the Turkish shore at Assos, packed with men, women, and children. But 30 minutes into their journey, a speedboat suddenly rammed their rubber dinghy. On board were five men dressed in black, their faces covered with balaclavas, armed with handguns.
Ali, a 17-year-old Afghan asylum seeker stands wrapped in an emergency thermal blanket on the shore of Lesbos island, having being rescued from an overcrowded rubber boat which was attacked by masked, uniformed men and had its engine removed and thrown into the sea.
“At first when they approached, we thought they had come to help us,” Ali told Human Rights Watch. “But by the way they acted, we realized they hadn’t come to help. They were so aggressive. They didn’t come on board our boat, but they took our boat’s engine and then sped away.”
The masked men attacked three other boats in quick succession before speeding off toward the Greek coast, Ali said. The boats were packed with asylum seekers mostly from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. The men wore no insignia on their black clothing. “They spoke a language we didn’t know, but it definitely was not Turkish, as we Afghans can understand a bit of Turkish,” Ali said.
Ali said a Turkish coast guard boat approached and took the three women and six children from the rubber dinghy, promising to return for the men on board. But the Turkish coast guard did not return. Human Rights Watch staff also watched a Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) boat approach Ali’s rubber boat and circle around before speeding away. People on a second boat with Afghans that arrived in Lesbos the next day confirmed to Human Rights Watch that they were on one of the other three other boats attacked on the previous day.
Three of the incidents described to Human Rights Watch involved more than one witness. The accounts bore many similarities. In two instances, people described seeing the boat with the masked men being lowered from a bigger ship. In three of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, the people interviewed said they had seen the Greek flag on the boat carrying the masked men. In six cases, witnesses said the masked men disabled or removed the engine or its fuel. In two cases, the masked men punctured the boat. In three, they towed the migrants and asylum seekers back toward the Turkish coast. In all the cases, the stricken boats were abandoned without any certainty that the occupants were safe. In four cases, migrants and asylum seekers were beaten or otherwise subjected to violence.”