Beirut, Lebanon – When Ahmad, a goldsmith in Lebanon’s coastal town of al-Mina, could no longer operate his machines due to protracted electricity cuts, he knew it was time to find a way out.
“I sold all of my equipment and decided to leave,” the 25-year-old from Lebanon told Al Jazeera. Some of his friends had reached Italy by embarking on the perilous boat journey from the northern city of Tripoli. They persuaded him to do the same.
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With three-quarters of the population living in poverty, fuel shortages forcing power plants to shut and the value of the currency plunging with no end in sight, a growing number of Lebanese and Syrians are resorting to migration.
Ahmad said he was among 82 Lebanese and Syrians who boarded a fishing boat on October 26 and sailed far out to sea. But the group never reached its destination.
Al Jazeera spoke to three of the passengers, whose full names have been withheld as they feared jeopardising their chances of migrating.
They recount being caught in a web of illegal pushbacks and arbitrary detention that human rights organisations describe as an increasingly common tool to keep migrants out of Europe.
No smugglers were involved in planning the trip. The families sold their belongings or borrowed money to buy the boat and food supplies.
“We were all friends, relatives, and neighbours from the same area,” said Ahmad.
Another passenger, 36-year-old Amani, has spent her whole life in al-Mina, an independent municipality often considered an extension of Tripoli’s port. She never thought she would one day sell her home and jewellery to attempt to give her three children a “dignified life”.
“I decided it was time to leave when my son got ill and I couldn’t find any medicine,” she told Al Jazeera.
Bilal, a 43-year-old Syrian from Idlib, has lived in Lebanon for almost three decades, working at a cafe and an ice cream shop, and married a Lebanese woman.
“I worked up to 18 hours a day to earn enough money,” he said. Unable to make ends meet as inflation and he was unable to obtain a raise, he decided to sell his car, his wife’s jewellery – even his daughter’s earrings – and leave the country for good.
The group set sail on October 26 but drifted at sea for three days after a storm damaged the engine.
They decided to try to dock at the Greek island of Kastellorizo to fix the boat. “We contacted the coastguard and asked for permission,” recalled Amani. “They told us we were welcome and even asked if they could help us with anything.”
Several minutes later, a Hellenic Coast Guard ship approached the boat. According to witness accounts, the officers were wearing black balaclavas to conceal their faces.
“They dropped what looked like big balloons and hooked our boat to theirs,” said Amani. “Then, they ordered us to come on board.”
One passenger, who had been speaking to the Greek officers in English, refused to board. He was beaten and forced onboard, witnesses said.
The coastguard fired shots in the air to intimidate the rest of the passengers. “Then they took our phones, money, clothes, and bags,” Bilal said.
Cold and drenched, the passengers asked the officers to let the women and children sit indoors. “But we were taken to a very small room where they blasted the AC at a cold temperature,” Amani told Al Jazeera.
The men were beaten with stun batons when they demanded to know where they were being taken.
The Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy has denied any wrongdoing, saying that their actions are compliant with international legal obligations, and denied using force against the migrants.
“We must emphasise that the operation practices of the Greek authorities have never included such actions,” the ministry said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
‘Italy is this way’
After spending one night on the coastguard vessel, the passengers were divided between four life rafts. “There were 20-25 people for every lifeboat that fits a dozen people,” said Ahmad. “[The officers] said ‘Italy is this way’ and left.”
A few had their belongings returned, while others were only left with whatever had been in their pockets.
“One man asked to get his phone back. The guard told him to get on the raft or they’d beat him up,” Amani recalls.
The group estimated they remained in the rafts from about 5am to 8pm. “The men were paddling with their hands, the kids were screaming and crying, and we all thought we were going to die,” Amani said.
One of the passengers who still had a phone called an emergency number on the network. Someone picked up, but it was not the Italian authorities.
“The Turks answered and told us we were in their waters near Izmir,” Bilal said. “About four hours later, a Turkish barge arrived.”
The European Commission has asked Greece to set up an independent mechanism to monitor and avoid pushbacks of migrants at its border.
Niamh Keady-Tabbal, PhD Researcher at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, Galway told Al Jazeera that this is a “systematic policy of collective expulsions”, with the coastguard usually disabling migrant vessels and sometimes confiscating identification documents, money, and personal belongings.
“They are typically forced onto life rafts, abandoned and left to drift towards Turkey, in violation of international and European law,” Keady-Tabbal said.
Since March 2020, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has increasingly been receiving reports about alleged pushbacks, both at land and sea.
Earlier this week, Al Jazeera reported allegations that at least 30 Cubans, hoping to claim asylum in Europe, were subjected to abuse by the Greek authorities and forcibly expelled to Turkey across the land border late last year.
Stella Nanou, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Greece, told Al Jazeera that boats intercepted in Greek waters and have had their engines destroyed before being towed to Turkish waters. In other incidents, refugees and migrants were taken back to sea after landing on Greek islands and left adrift on life rafts without life jackets.
“UNHCR has interviewed persons who reported being pushed back and many appeared deeply affected by this traumatic experience, which has compounded the trauma they already carry from the situations they faced in their country of origin,” Nanou said.
“Women, men and children have displayed severe emotional distress while recounting experiences as they sought protection.”
The Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy said in the same statement to Al Jazeera, “The officers of the Hellenic Coast Guard who are responsible for guarding the Greek and European sea and land borders have for months maximised their efforts, operating around the clock with efficiency, a high sense of responsibility, perfect professionalism, patriotism, and also with respect for everyone’s life and human rights.”
Detained in Turkey
The Turkish authorities took the exhausted families to an EU-funded removal centre in Aydin, southwest Turkey, where they were held for almost a month, until November 28.
Turkey has one of the world’s largest migration-related detention systems, operating 25 removal centres with a capacity of nearly 16,000 in addition to ad hoc detention sites along its borders, airport transit zones, and police stations.
The 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal expanded Turkey’s migrant removal system with the help of EU funding, leading to an increase in detentions and summary deportations of refugees and asylum seekers, according to the Geneva-based research centre Global Detention Project.
“The European Union is giving money to Turkey to be a buffer,” Michael Flynn, executive director of the Global Detention Project, told Al Jazeera.
EU funding of just more than 87 million euros ($99m) has in recent years paid for the construction of eight removal centres, and the renovation of 11 others in Turkey.
“The purpose of the EU support to removal centres is to improve standards for the hosting of migrants for whom a removal decision has been taken, in line with the Law on Foreigners and International Protection of Turkey,” an EU Commission spokesperson told Al Jazeera by email.
Conditions in Aydin were described as “very good” by a European delegation visiting Turkey in 2015.
Yet, those held at the removal centre say their stay was far from pleasant.
“It was more like a prison,” said Ahmad. “We were among drug smugglers and people accused of being affiliated to Daesh (ISIL).”
Amani said translators were uncooperative and the language barrier created tensions. “We would try to communicate, and out of frustration they would start yelling at us,” she recalled.
When a woman tripped and hit her head, bleeding profusely, accumulated tensions broke out into scuffles. “Some of the women were panicking, crying, and screaming. They thought she was dead,” Amani recalled.
Meanwhile, the men from their cells could only see the women crying.
“We thought it was one of ours who was hurt, so we started arguing with the guards to be let out,” Ahmad said. “Then they came in and beat four of us with batons.”
Turkey’s Directorate of Communications declined to comment when Al Jazeera asked about the allegations Lebanese and Syrians made about their detention in Aydin.
Merve Sebnem Oruc, columnist at pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah, told Al Jazeera the Turkish authorities are doing all they can to respect the rights of migrants and refugees.
“The only ones deported are those who come into the country illegally,” she said, adding that exemptions are made for those who face danger and risk persecution in their home countries.
“Syrians who apply to the government and declare they are refugees are not sent back to Syria because their lives are in danger.”
The migrants were returned to Lebanon by plane on the night of November 29, though it is unclear who funded the flight. They said Turkish guards returned their belongings but kept the cash, claiming it was for the plane home.
The EU Commission did not confirm funding the repatriation but said it supported Turkey with two projects on “assisted voluntary return.”
The EU spokesperson told Al Jazeera that migrants have the legal right to challenge their administrative detention and deportation and apply for international protection. However, those interviewed by Al Jazeera said they were not granted access to a lawyer or able to file for asylum during the detention period.
‘I will try again’
Back in al-Mina, the relatives recalled the anxious wait for their loved ones to return home. Ahmad’s mother did not receive any news of her son for a whole week after his departure. “I thought he was dead,” she said.
During the detention period, the families held several protests in Tripoli, near the residences of Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, to demand that their relatives be released and brought home.
The Lebanese Interior Ministry issued brief public statements saying that it was following up with the Turkish authorities and preparing the necessary paperwork.
At least three undocumented Syrians have remained in Turkey and were released.
Those who are back in Lebanon find themselves worse off than before.
Ahmad’s mother told Al Jazeera that she fears he will try again. Her concerns are not unfounded.
“If I have the chance, I will try again for a second time,” Ahmad says.
“Or a third time, or even a fourth time, until it works.”