‘The Greek coastguards took us back out to sea – then hurled all three of us overboard. I was the only one able to swim to safety..’ That’s the horrifying testimony of an African migrant on the frontline of Europe’s crisis

The story of Ibrahim, the migrant from Cameroon, is perhaps the most shocking. He arrived on the idyllic Greek island of Samos from nearby Turkey in a small boat, hoping to register as an asylum seeker.

‘We had barely docked, and then police approached,’ he says. ‘There were two policemen dressed in black, and three others in civilian clothes. They were masked, you could only see their eyes.’

What happened next to him and two other migrants — one also from Cameroon and another from the Ivory Coast — beggars belief. He claims all three were put on a Greek coastguard boat and taken out to sea. There, they were thrown overboard.

Greek coastguards say they have rescued more than 250,000 migrants since 2015 but tragically some face worse

Desperate refugees get off a small boat after crossing the Aegean

Desperate refugees get off a small boat after crossing the Aegean

‘They started with the [other] Cameroonian. They threw him in the water…’ Ibrahim says. Next, they threw the man from the Ivory Coast overboard.

‘The Ivorian man said [to me]: ‘Save me, I don’t want to die’… and then eventually only his hand was above the water, and his body below. Slowly his hand slipped under, and the water engulfed him.’

The masked policemen turned to him next, and started beating him. ‘Punches were raining down on my head. It was like they were punching an animal.’

After that, they pushed him into the water, too — without a life jacket.

Ibrahim managed to reach another part of the shore — he was a strong swimmer who had once served in the Cameroon Navy — but the bodies of Sidy Keita, 36, and Didier Martial Kouamou, 33, were later recovered on the Turkish coastline.

This horrific account, which reportedly took place in 2021, is far from the only case of the Greek authorities allegedly killing migrants.

A BBC documentary Dead Calm: Killing In The Med?, claimed this week that the coastguard was behind the deaths of 43 migrants between 2020 and 2023, including nine who were deliberately thrown into the water. All had been forced out of Greek waters, and many had been taken back out to sea after reaching islands like Samos.

Frank from Nigeria, who arrived on the island of Samos by boat

Frank from Nigeria, who arrived on the island of Samos by boat

Syrian family Basil Khalouf Al-Hajem, wife Nour Al-Hassan Al-Abdullah and their children. 'We came in a rubber boat with 30 people from Izmir in Turkey,' said Nour

Syrian family Basil Khalouf Al-Hajem, wife Nour Al-Hassan Al-Abdullah and their children. ‘We came in a rubber boat with 30 people from Izmir in Turkey,’ said Nour

Lapped by the blue and green hues of the Aegean, Samos is undoubtedly among the prettiest of the Greek islands. In the charming town of Pythagoreio on the southern coast, where the ancient mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras was born in the 6th-century BC, luxury yachts line the waterfront and holidaymakers relax in family-friendly tavernas.

A nine-mile drive north lies Vathy, the capital, offering stunning views from its harbourside restaurants of the surrounding green mountains. It is the perfect spot to unwind and enjoy the views.

But it is also just a 90-minute ferry trip away from Turkey — which explains a very different aspect of the island from the one shown in the brochures.

Hidden from sight in a remote spot beyond the brow of those mountains at Zervou, is the 154-acre Closed Control Access Centre (CCAC) built by the EU at a cost of €43 million (£36 million).

The sprawling migrant camp opened in 2021 and is surrounded by a high razor-wire fence and security lights and is patrolled by security guards.

Inside, in grey containers, live those desperate souls who have taken a far more precarious route to this heavenly island than its tourist visitors: asylum seekers who pay human traffickers for berths in inflatable dinghies.

It has been reported that Greek coastguards have been turning boats away at sea

It has been reported that Greek coastguards have been turning boats away at sea

Migrants getting out of a boat after arriving at Skala Sikaminias, in the island of Lesbos, Greece, in 2020

Migrants getting out of a boat after arriving at Skala Sikaminias, in the island of Lesbos, Greece, in 2020

 

Migrants, including children, are forced on to a boat on Lesbos by Greek coastguards

Migrants, including children, are forced on to a boat on Lesbos by Greek coastguards

When the Mail visited Samos this week, the two disparate worlds most visibly collided at around 1pm on Wednesday in the 34C (93F) heat after the first of several daily buses (except Sundays) bringing refugees from the camp to Vathy arrived after winding its way down the steep, twisty, four-mile road that connects the two.

They are allowed out between 9am and 9pm, and many — who claim the food at the camp is poor — head straight to the supermarket.

In a café near the bus station Basil Khalouf Al-Hajim, who was a soldier in Syria, and his wife Nour were eating cheese sandwiches with their two young children.

‘We came in a rubber boat with 30 people from Izmir in Turkey. We paid €6,000 and were at sea for ten hours.

‘We came here to escape the war in Syria and racism in Turkey,’ said Mrs Al-Hajim.

‘We’ve been here for eight months, the procedures are very bad. We come here to eat because the food in the camp is not good.’

Then she weeps as she pulls up a photograph on her mobile phone of a corpse.

‘Ten days ago my brother was killed by terrorists in Syria. They took his organs and threw his body in the street,’ she said.

‘We’ve heard a lot about people trying to come here in boats like us and even being handed back to the Turkish authorities before they get to the camp.’

Sitting nearby was Frank, a 21-year-old welder from Delta State, Nigeria. He fled his African homeland in July 2023, taking a flight to Turkey before joining 17 others in another small inflatable boat, which left from Izmir in December last year.

‘It took eight hours and it was terrible. The sea was very rough with big waves and I don’t know how to swim.

‘We were all crammed in with people sitting on each other’s laps. A pregnant woman from Cameroon was with her two-year-old child and was crying,’ he said.

‘I left Nigeria because my life was at risk. The people that killed my dad [members of an extremist Muslim militia] took my sister and mum.’

Frank, who’s awaiting the outcome of his asylum claim, added: ‘I was lucky, I got here on my first try. Some people I’ve met in the camp have said they tried seven times to get here but got pushed back.

‘They told me that sometimes the Greek police would take them halfway back to Turkey and remove the engine from their boat and then leave them there for the Turkish to pick up.’

The Greek government has long been accused of ‘forced returns’ — pushing people back towards Turkey, where they have crossed from, which is illegal under international law.

But the accusations in the BBC documentary are on another scale altogether.

The documentary included images of a group of 12 including two children being taken from the island of Lesbos to be put in a dinghy and left out at sea.

They were later rescued by the Turkish coastguard.

When the footage was showed to Dimitris Baltakos, the former head of special operations with the Greek coastguard, he denied the Greek coastguard would ever do anything illegal and refused to speculate on what it showed. But during a break, he was recorded telling someone out of camera-shot in Greek: ‘I haven’t told them much, right? It’s very clear, isn’t it. It’s not nuclear physics. I don’t know why they did it in broad daylight… It’s… obviously illegal. It’s an international crime.’

Greece’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy said the footage is currently being investigated by the country’s independent National Transparency Authority.

Kokkari village on the idyllic holiday spot of Samos in Greece

Kokkari village on the idyllic holiday spot of Samos in Greece

The Hellenic Coast Guard said it has rescued 251,543 migrants at sea between 2015 and 2024, adding that its staff worked ‘tirelessly with the utmost professionalism, a strong sense of responsibility and respect for human life and fundamental rights.’

It rejected ‘any allegation of illegal activity of any kind’.

Asked about the documentary, a Greek government spokesman said in a press briefing this week: ‘What is mentioned is not proven.

‘And, in fact, it is worth pointing out that in the last year, thanks to the good cooperation between the Greek and Turkish authorities, a significant number of traffickers have been dismantled, so illegal immigration can be fought at its root.’

G reece is, of course, an entry point into Europe for migrants, and Samos — at the edge of the European Union and at its nearest point just a mile away from Turkey — is on the front line.

According to latest figures from Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian NGO which monitors and reports on crossings, in the week June 10-16, 78 boats carrying migrants started their trip towards islands in the Aegean carrying a total of 2,184 people. Forty-nine of the boats were stopped or pushed back, it says.

The Greeks often dismiss reports of pushbacks as fake news. But the Aegean Boat Report remains adamant that they regularly occur.

A spokesman said 14,824 people have been registered as ‘arrived’ on the Greek islands on 490 boats so far in 2024 but ‘this should have been much higher, due to pushbacks performed by the Hellenic Coast Guard.’

There is no doubt that feelings run high among the local population which resents the huge influx of foreign visitors. Before the EU refugee camp opened at Zervou, around 8,000 migrants lived in a tent-city near Vathy — without lights, hot water or sanitation, and plagued by rats. It was bulldozed and most of the inhabitants sent to Athens.

Recalling those times, one restaurant boss in Vathy told the Mail this week: ‘Refugees could be destructive, before them we rarely had break-ins or thefts. When they lived in the town they caused many problems.

‘It is better now they are in the camp. But it is not good for Samos and it’s not good for the refugees.

‘The EU gave so much money to build it but it’s like living like a dog. They should do more in Turkey to stop them coming.’

The new camp was the first of its kind, and there are now similar CCACs on Lesbos, Chios, and two other Greek islands, Leros and Kos. The Samos camp’s opening — which attracted international attention and high-profile visitors including the-then Home Secretary Priti Patel — was hailed by EU officials as a ‘new generation’ of refugee camp.

But it was swiftly condemned by aid agencies for resembling a prison and NGOs continue to call for its closure, saying the refugees live in disgraceful conditions.

A spokesman for the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said: ‘The camp’s remote location makes it difficult for asylum seekers to access medical services, shops and to foster peaceful co-existence or inclusion. But food distribution has been modified to address some complaints.’

The UNHCR says there are 2,406 people in the camp, which has a capacity of 3,650 — if full it would amount to more than 10 per cent of the island’s 35,000 population.

A member of a diving team that helps the port police recover the bodies of those who have drowned, said many were unhappy with the situation: ‘I’d prefer this camp to be somewhere else because I live here, but it’s better than when they were living under trees.

‘The problem is that it’s big business for the people that organise the boats to get them here, and that’s what people should be trying to stop.’

Depi Halzimihalaki, 52, who runs a luggage shop in Vathy, said: ‘I wish they could stop the little boats coming. ‘It’s nice to know which people are coming into your country. If you change the population on an island, the island changes. It would be nice if the camp hadn’t been built, but now I think it’s here to stay.’

As for those who are the nearest neighbours to the camp, in the half dozen or so houses along the road that leads to it, they have long lost sympathy for the incomers.

A t the home of Maria Galanas, 83, who was born and raised on Samos, we were given a warm welcome this week and a gift of figs in her garden overlooking the camp.

‘It’s a nice, quiet beautiful island.

‘People here are not very happy about the camp. It makes me feel a bit frightened,’ said Mrs Galanas.

Her daughter Angela, a former window dresser, agrees: ‘People are annoyed about them going onto their plots and taking fruit.’

The nearby home of Nick Kariotake, 84, and his wife Poppy, 78, is surrounded by fence topped with barbed wire.

Mr Kariotake said: ‘I lived here for years with no fences. But they came and stole the fruit, plums, figs, and potatoes, even flowers from the garden. So I put the fences up.

‘I want them all to leave and not one person to stay in the camp.’

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