Greece: The refugees who didn’t exist

Status: 23.10.2021 10:58 a.m.

A group of refugees reached the coast of the Greek Peloponnese peninsula in September. Local residents took care of them. But for the Greek authorities, the migrants from Iraq never reached the coast.

By Verena Schälters, ARD-Studio Athens

Vassilis Lymberis squeezes through a hole in the chain link fence. Behind it is a piece of meadow, on the right a path between bushes and isolated olive trees leads down to the sea. “At this point they came up the path. They took off their clothes because they were probably wet,” says Lymberis.

A few items of clothing are scattered in the dry grass: black jeans, T-shirts, a shirt, a jacket. Lymberis walks a few meters down the path towards the sea and comes back shortly afterwards with a plastic bag in hand: “I also found some groceries here – biscuits, dates and some fruit.”

In fact, there are a few rotten oranges and unopened biscuit packs in the bag. The bag comes from a Turkish grocery store. The name is clearly visible and there is even a telephone number printed on it. Remnants of an event that never happened – at least according to the Greek authorities.

Refugee group from Iraq experiences nightmare in Greece

Anja Miller, ARD Rome, tagesthemen 21:45 Uhr, 23.10.2021

Damage to the ship forced refugees ashore

On September 22nd, 25 migrants landed near the village of Vasilitsi in the south of the Peloponnese peninsula. Kurds from Northern Iraq. They wanted to get to Italy via Turkey. They came here with a small white sailing boat, but it had a defect. They made it to a small bay, jumped into the water, and swam ashore. Several residents observed the migrants.

“Around four o’clock I received a call from a local resident. She told me that migrants had arrived in a sailing boat on a rocky bank,” says Nikostelios Tomaropanagos. He is the mayor of Vassilitsi and immediately set off after the call:

When I got there, I found the boys sitting here. The police and the coast guard were there too. I saw that they didn’t even have drinking water and went into the village, bought water and bags of groceries, and came back.

Lymberis, too, was alerted by a local resident who had observed what was happening and drove there immediately. He has heard many times that migrants just disappear like that, he says. That’s why he stayed with them all the time:

Their cell phones were taken away from them very quickly. But I had already taken photos. And then secretly gave them my cell phone. One after the other then talked to the family or relatives on the phone.

No migrants, no incident

Other villagers also came by to help – at least 15, remembers community leader Tomaropanagos. He and Lymberis stayed until after dark. But at some point they were asked to leave. They were told that a bus was on its way to take the people to Patras.

The next day Tomaropanagos wants to ask the coast guard about the refugees:

When I went to the port authorities, there were three officers there. I asked what happened to these people. At some point one of them spoke up and told me there are no people and no incident in Vasilitsi. The other two bowed their heads at the same time and weren’t even looking at me. ”

Only a few kilometers from Vasilitsi is the town of Koroni – and the responsible coast guard. A handsome man in uniform opens the door. He lacks the authority to give an interview. He knew that there had been an incident somewhere in the region, but perhaps the colleagues in the next largest city, Kalamata, could help. But there, too, there was no such thing. Instead, one refers to the responsible ministry in Athens.

Back to the sea

In addition to the various testimonies, videos and photos also prove that the people were here. But what happened to the young men from Iraq? We are launching an appeal on social media through a Kurdish community in Athens. Lazo Muhamad Hasan answers. He says that he was there for the incident. The descriptions of the 19-year-old coincide exactly with those of the residents of Vasilitsi.

Lazo reports that they were put back on their broken sailboat at night and pulled out to sea by a smaller boat. They were told they were waiting for a bigger ship to take them to Italy. Lazo recalls:

The new ship was a big ship. There were men in black clothes. They took our money and other valuable things we had with us. When we got on board, we saw that there were more than a hundred other migrants on this ship.

According to him, these were, among others, people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iran. Including women and children. They were all picked up in different places and brought onto this ship. After a few hours, they were placed in small lifeboats near a coast. There they were picked up by the Turkish coast guard and brought to Izmir.

Refugees picked up in the official version off Turkey

Five days after the incident in Vasilitsi, Greece, the Turkish coast guard released photos and a press release stating that 149 migrants were apprehended off the coast of Izmir. Lazo can be seen in one of the photos. The villagers of Vasilitsi also recognized several of the young men.

The Greek authorities have not commented on the case. In mid-October there was even a request in the Greek parliament. Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis replied: “This specific incident that you say happened in the Peloponnese – I cannot find anything about it in our files. I have no knowledge of this incident.”

But the villagers of Vasilitsi know what they saw. They still find it hard to believe what happened after that.

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