A Greek activist fighting for the rights of migrants and refugees receives death threats and has been accused by the prime minister’s office of “insulting Greece” for speaking out about asylum-seekers being illegally pushed back from Greece’s borders.
As the British media outlet The Guardian reported, Iasonas Apostolopoulos was once celebrated for his efforts in rescuing refugees off the Greek coast and was due to be awarded a medal by the Greek presidency for his efforts.
Shortly before the ceremony which was supposed to take place last year, he was informed in a late-night telephone call from the Greek Foreign Ministry that his award had been canceled. Apostolopoulos was never given a reason but media reports at the time suggested pressure had been exerted by the government to withdraw the honor.
“If the love of country means accepting the killing of refugees on our border, then I’m proud to be a traitor,” he told The Guardian and added: "If you speak out against pushbacks, you’re an ‘enemy of Greece’ – this is the narrative.”
He has criticized the Greek government’s migration policy and highlighted news reports of asylum-seekers being robbed, beaten and pushed back across land and sea borders by the Greek authorities.
Apostolopoulos, who trained as a civil engineer, initially learned the ropes of search and rescue in Lesbos in 2015 from Greek fishers and has since been on numerous missions with aid organizations to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean.
“Pushbacks are designed to stay invisible. I think the only way to stop this crime is to give visibility to it,” he said.
Human rights advocates and leading media outlets have frequently reported illegal pushbacks and other rights breaches by Greek authorities that have violated European Union and international law.
Greece intercepts boats transporting migrants and asylum-seekers heading to its eastern islands from the nearby coast of Türkiye. Human rights organizations allege the country carries out summary deportations, known as pushbacks, which the Greek government denies.
In February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it had noted almost 540 reports of “informal returns” of asylum-seekers across the borders since 2020 but the Greek authorities continue to rebut allegations of lawbreaking.
In addition to seaborne pushbacks, Greek border forces are also accused of apprehending and forcibly expelling migrants who cross into the country by land.
In February, at least 19 migrants were found frozen to death near the Turkish-Greek border after being pushed back to Türkiye by Greece.
Officials in Ankara have criticized Athens for the inhumane and degrading treatment of irregular migrants, saying those who were found dead had been stripped of their clothes and shoes by the Greek border guards. Greece has denied any involvement and has consistently denied the allegations of pushbacks.
The European Union's border agency, Frontex, has deliberately and systematically cooperated with Greece in illegal pushbacks of asylum-seekers to Turkish waters in the Aegean Sea, a joint investigation revealed recently.
A 129-page investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) found that Frontex, under former executive director Fabrice Leggeri, was complicit in Greek efforts to force migrants and asylum-seekers crossing the Aegean Sea to return to Türkiye, German magazine Der Spiegel wrote.
The confidential report was also seen by France's Le Monde newspaper and investigative outfit Lighthouse Reports. It follows repeated allegations by aid groups that Frontex was turning a blind eye to Greek human rights violations at sea.
The report said that Frontex, under the administration of Frenchman Leggeri, who quit in April under pressure from the European Parliament and rights groups, covered up pushbacks by Greece, deliberately lied to the European Parliament and covered up the fact that European taxpayers' money was used to finance the pushbacks.
"Instead of preventing the pushbacks, Leggeri and his people covered them up. They lied to the EU Parliament and concealed the fact that the agency even supported some pushbacks with European taxpayers' money," Spiegel wrote.
The report exposed that Frontex officers did not report the actions in an attempt to avoid provoking reactions from Greek officials even when they became aware or witnessed illegal pushbacks.
"Incidents were not reported through official channels as Frontex-deployed staff feared retaliation from Greek authorities," it said.
Meanwhile, some survivors continue their legal struggles against Greece and Frontex.
A Syrian who says he was illegally pushed back into Türkiye by Greek authorities has sued the EU border agency Frontex for alleged complicity.
The plaintiff, Alaa Hamoudi, is claiming 500,000 euros ($550,000) from Frontex over action he says the Greek coast guard took on April 28-29, 2020, according to the Front-Lex legal association representing him.
Front-Lex said that, after Hamoudi arrived on the Greek island of Samos with around 20 other asylum-seekers, they were loaded by Greek authorities onto a crowded inflatable dinghy and abandoned at sea for 17 hours.
A Frontex plane surveilled the situation at the time, alleged Hamoudi, who now resides in Türkiye after being rescued by Turkish coast guards in the Aegean Sea.
“I thought I wouldn’t survive, I was close to death,” the 22-year-old Syrian said.