North Shore of Lesvos, The Aegean Sea, Greece: At 3.47am on 10th November 2017, the Refugee Rescue boat ‘Mo Chara’ received a request by the Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) to assist in transitioning an unconfirmed number of people to the port of Skala Sykamineas. This request was not unusual in itself, however, it came further to VHF communications whereby HCG had been overhead repeatedly ordering the Turkish Coast Guard (TCG) to leave Greek waters.

When Mo Chara arrived on scene, the crew were informed by the HCG that 17 people had been pulled from the sea and many were hypothermic. HCG had already administered emergency blankets but the people were in a state of distress. The Refugee Rescue crew subsequently transferred the new arrivals to Skala port, where they were met by on-shore landing teams. Two unaccompanied minors and five people requesting medical attention were identified amongst the arrivals.

All of the people who arrived were identified as being from Afghanistan or Iran. Several of the arrivals reported that their dinghy – originally been carrying 37 people – had been intercepted by the Turkish Coast Guard. It was alleged that a Turkish official fired multiple gun shots into the air before retreating, and then returned to fire shots into the water close to the dinghy, while ramming the boat with the TCG vessel on a number of occasions.

According to reports by the people who had been on board, when the Hellenic Coast Guard vessel arrived at the scene, Turkish authorities were asked to stop firing, while those in the HCG boat were reassured they were now safe and in Greek waters. 17 people jumped from their dinghy into the sea and swam to the HCG vessel for safety, reporting that the Turkish coast guard aggressively attempted to pull people from the water at this time. One of these men reportedly suffered a head wound as a result, and later received treatment at the transit camp of “Stage 2” in Skala.

Those that were not able to swim from the dinghy to the Hellenic coast guard – reportedly mainly women, children and the elderly – were loaded into the Turkish coast guard vessel and taken back to Turkey. Those who arrived in Skala reported that families were separated as part of this interception.

Richie Heard, Refugee Rescue:

“At 3.47 am, we launched our rescue boat. On location, a member of the coast guard greeted us and said: ‘What the Turkish did was horrendous. They are like animals, there was no reason for their brutality.’ I saw that two refugees indeed had injuries to their faces. After talking to several of the refugees we understood what had happened. Apparently, the Turkish Coast Guards approached the refugees’ dinghy, started shooting in the air and then rammed them. Soon, one of the Turkish Coast Guards himself used a hand gun to fire into the water around the dinghy. When the Greek Coast Guards arrived, they asked the Turkish Coast Guard to stop shooting and return to Turkish waters. At this moment, 17 refugees jumped out of the dinghy and started to swim towards the Greek ship. The Turkish Coast Guards tried to apprehend them and it seems like they were using a stick or something similar as several refugees had quite substantial cuts in their faces. The Turkish Coast Guards loaded the remaining people who could not swim, mainly women and children, on their boat and returned them to Turkey. I witnessed how stressed the Greek Coast Guards were about the incident. It’s just atrocious that Turkish authorities would do something like this. We call on the European Union to stop cooperating with Turkey as long as practices like these continue.”

These reports demonstrate several clear violations of international maritime law by the Turkish Coast Guard. Namely, Article 98 (1) of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) calls for every state to assist any person in distress at sea, and the Guidelines on the Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea (2004) calls for governments to provide safety to people recovered in their search and rescue territory (Resolution MSC.167 (78), para. 2.5). It appears that neither of these internationally binding regulations were upheld by the Turkish authorities in this case.

In a formal “Statement of Concern”, Lighthouse Relief and Refugee Rescue – as members of the North Shore Emergency Response group in Lesvos – urged the UN Refugee Agency to fully investigate this incident, as well as the broader trend of illegal pushbacks in Greek waters. They emphasised that the abdication of responsibility by the EU and its member states regarding to events on the Aegean Sea border had no basis in international law. A statement of concern regarding the incident was submitted to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on 12th November 2017. The UNCHR did not issue a response.

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