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Migrants left adrift at sea after boat pushback from Greek coast guard

Pro-refugee groups allege the Greek coast guard is endangering migrants in the Aegean Sea and breaching international law with a new aggressive migration policy that involves pushing them back towards Turkish waters. Critics also accuse the European Union of ignoring Greece’s behavior, six years into the migration crisis. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from the island of Samos.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Greece has been accused of breaching international law with a new aggressive migration policy.

    Pro-refugee groups alleged that the Greek Coast Guard is endangering the lives of migrants in the Aegean Sea by pushing the back towards Turkish waters. Critics also accuse the European Union of ignoring Greece's behavior six years into the migration crisis.

    We sent special correspondent Malcolm Brabant to the Greek island of Samos to investigate this latest snapshot of the desperate journey at the extreme edge of the European Union.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This is the Greek island of Samos. The mountains, a mile away across the sea, are in Turkey.

    Appearances are deceptive. These are not gentle waters. This is an alleged attempted pushback by Greece's Hellenic Coast Guard in June. The migrants told a Norwegian nonprofit called the Aegean Boat Report that the Greeks removed the dinghy's engine and left, expecting them to float back to Turkey.

  • Man (through translator):

    Pregnant woman, you are killing her in the end. Yes, look at her. And this morning keep her here in the sun. No water. No nothing. She will die with the baby. And you will be happy.

    And you have family? And God will bless you because of your good job.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    After the dinghy drifted for 17 hours, the Greeks relented and took the migrants ashore.

    It's very rare to get the chance to talk to a pushback victim in Greece, for the very reason that they have been pushed back. But we're on our way to see a pushback victim who's come from Central Africa. I'm going down a very bumpy road. She was pushed back to Turkey, and then she managed to make her way back across the Aegean Sea here to Samos.

    We're going to see her outside the Samos refugee camp, which is extremely squalid, and it's guarded by police who are very hostile to journalists and their cameras.

    Turkish Coast Guard footage shows a group of migrants, including the Central African woman, landing in Turkey after being rescued. This and other geolocated photographs prove she was on the Greek island of Lesbos.

    Our interviewee, who escaped conflict in her home country, doesn't want to be identified, for fear of retribution. She picks up the story.

  • Woman (through translator):

    They took us up through mountains and all around, until we came to a port. We saw the big boat. And we said, oh, lord, we're going back to Turkey. They put us on the boat. There were too many waves.

    They made us wear life jackets and said they might hit us again if we didn't get on the big boat. They threw us little crates of oranges. That was when Turkey came to rescue us.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The pushback happened under the cover of darkness. The woman and fellow migrants were taken eastwards from Lesbos and abandoned near Turkish waters in this dinghy, filmed by the Turkish Coast Guard.

  • Woman (through translator):

    We were in the raft for a long time. There were too many waves. People were screaming. It really affected me. I couldn't talk, I was too dehydrated.

    They abused us. They didn't respect us or anyone's human rights. I thought that, if you come here to their country to request asylum, they will listen to you. But they killed that.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This is what it's like to be cast adrift. Under international law, nations are obliged to help those in peril on the sea. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seekers should not be expelled if their lives or freedom are threatened.

  • Nick Waters:

    The life rafts that we have seen have no means of propulsion, and are often hugely overloaded, to the point where it's dangerous for them to be in those life rafts.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Former British army officer Nick Waters is a digital analyst with Bellingcat, a Web site using open source information from the Internet to expose international wrongdoing.

    Here, a Turkish drone captures a life raft apparently being pushed back by a vessel from Greece's Hellenic Coast Guard.

  • Nick Waters:

    There is no way for them to be crossing the Aegean in those kind of life rafts. And we believe that they are being put in those life rafts by the Hellenic Coast Guard.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Samos lawyer Dimitris Choulis represents asylum seekers. He accuses Greece of doing the European Union's dirty work.

  • Dimitris Choulis:

    They left them with no water, with babies. They put their lives in danger.

    Our Hellenic Coast Guard, that they are the people that do these crimes. Until two years ago, they were heroes. They were diving in the sea to save babies. We have seen the photos. They saved a lot of people.

    And, suddenly, the same people, they are doing the worst thing that they can do for Greece.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Listen to the screams, and then the warning shots from the Greek patrol boat.

    This Turkish footage is part of a propaganda war against Greece. The two countries have been adversaries for centuries. Greece's migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, declined to be interviewed, but, in response to persistent allegations about pushbacks, he issued a video statement.

  • Notis Mitarachi:

    Turkey is a safe country and can provide, where needed, appropriate international protection.

    Sadly, instead of Turkey preventing a lawful departure, it is often too busy filming them.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Six years into Europe's migration crisis, Greece is exasperated that the asylum seekers just keep coming. But what about the pushbacks?

  • Notis Mitarachi:

    Allegations affecting Greece are clearly unfounded, rely on footage or testimonials provided for from the country of departure.

  • Nick Waters:

    To be frank, some of the Greek government denials about events have been bordering on absurdity. It is inconsistent with the evidence that is available.

    I think it's worth noting that this is what we'd expect from a government like Russia, for example, but not from a — the government of a European country.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Greece is currently home for an estimated 120,000 asylum seekers. Most would prefer to be elsewhere, but are stuck here because the E.U. sealed its borders in 2015, after more than a million migrants managed to enter.

    Last week, center-right Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis justified his tough migration policy.

  • Kyriakos Mitsotakis:

    Greece is committed to protecting its borders, which are also the borders of the European Union, while always, always ensuring full respect for human rights.

    And this, of course, includes intercepting attempted illegal crossings at sea.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Asylum seekers are well aware of Greece's stance, but appear undeterred by the threat of pushbacks or the living conditions on the Greek islands. This video appeal was sent to a pro-refugee nonprofit on Saturday.

  • Man:

    Hello. I would like to tell you that we have reached Samos Island. We have these kids, children. We are three adults, I and my wife, these children. Just we are calling you to save us as soon as possible, because these children are facing a problem since last night.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    He wasn't the only one sheltering in the undergrowth.

    We're still on Samos, and we're on our way to see a Palestinian called Mohammed who's hiding out. Now, this young man, who is 25 years old, apparently swam all the way from Turkey to Samos over the weekend.

    But, because it's the weekend, he can't get officially registered by the authorities. And he's afraid, as are nonprofits, that he might be picked up and pushed back.

    Mohammed, a telecoms specialist from Gaza, took eight hours to swim across. He showed us bites he suffered while hiding in a forest.

  • Mohammed (through translator):

    I heard from a lot of people and friends that the Greek Coast Guard will catch them, put them back on the ship and return them to the Turkish regional waters. They don't allow them to apply as refugees and don't grant them their legal rights.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Mohammed laid low until Monday, when, under the protection of the U.N. Refugees Agency, he was formally registered and was admitted to the refugee camp.

    From there, the Central African pushback victim urged the European Union to force Greece to adhere to the E.U.'s core values.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Things have to change. There just needs to be an attempt to save people. There is too much risk on the water. It's not easy. They need to listen to people. They need to accept people, instead of throwing them into the sea.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    She has nothing to go back to. Her parents were killed, and her African home was destroyed. Asylum is her only hope, but it's not guaranteed.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant on Samos.

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