On August 15, 2022, a group of 38 Syrian and Palestinian men, women and children were picked up by Greek authorities in the Evros region on the Greek-Turkish border and taken to a nearby refugee center for processing. Their rescue marked the end of an internationally-reported, weekslong ordeal during which the asylum-seekers said they had been stranded on a small, unnamed islet in the Evros River — the natural border between Greece and Turkey.
The islet, which is located near the Greek village of Kissari, is in a restricted military zone that is inaccessible to civilians. While stranded, some of the asylum-seekers were in contact with civil society groups and journalists, sending their GPS coordinates and pleas for help.
For weeks, those attempting to help from afar provided the Greek police with GPS coordinates, which were confirmed by live locations and metadata in photos and other material the asylum-seekers had sent. Greek authorities released media statements saying that they had made "successive investigations, with every suitable technical means," but had been unable to locate the group.
Greek and international media outlets reported that a young Syrian girl traveling with the group died while awaiting rescue. Officials from the center-right administration of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis have questioned the story of the young girl's death and maintained that Greece responded to the incident in accordance with EU and international law.
Could the asylum-seekers have been rescued sooner?
Less than two kilometers (about a mile) away from the group's shared location, on a hill overlooking sunflower and wheat fields and the road that runs parallel to the islet, stands a surveillance pylon equipped with radar, heat sensors and cameras. This tech-laden pylon is believed to be part of the newly-expanded surveillance system that Greek police could have used to locate the asylum-seekers on the islet.
In recent years, Greece has poured millions into high-tech systems — including drones, sensors and cameras — aimed at tracking down and deterring migrants attempting to enter the country irregularly. Although parts of the Automated Border Surveillance System (ABSS) have existed for years, Greek authorities, with funding from the EU, recently undertook a €15 million project (just under $15 million) to expand the system in the Evros border region.
An investigation by DW, in cooperation with independent researchers who exclusively shared material and findings with DW, strongly suggests that a prompt rescue of the group could have been possible with Greece's newly-expanded state-of-the-art surveillance system. This would contradict police statements on this and similar search-and-rescue missions in the region.
Did Greek authorities know where the asylum-seekers were?
"It's absurd that the Greek police and government in this incident, and similar ones earlier this year, say that they cannot locate people on islets. They have the technology, and the area is heavily patrolled by both police and army," said Lena Karamanidou, an Evros native with an in-depth knowledge of the region and an expert in asylum policies, who spent months mapping the previously undisclosed locations of the pylons that make up the ABSS.
Karamanidou — formerly affiliated with Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland and currently an independent researcher — has contributed to several major journalistic investigations and reports on alleged human rights abuses in Evros.
As part of the mapping effort, Karamanidou reviewed historical satellite imagery together with Phevos Simeonidis, an independent researcher whose work often features in media reports, and Laszlo Kovacs, who works with border monitor groups on a voluntary basis. Karamanidou verified the existence of the pylons during field research in the region, using images of pylons publicized in the Greek media as a reference.
Surveillance pylons close to the islet where asylum-seekers were stranded
DW confirmed the location of several pylons when reporting from the region in April and July of this year. DW also analyzed historical satellite imagery, reviewed dozens of Greek and EU records — some obtained through public records requests — and conducted on-the-ground field work over several months in Evros as part of the investigation.
A measurement — which factors-in elevation levels — of the distance between one of the identified pylons and the islet in question, paired with an analysis of publicly-available technical specifications contained in police documents, suggests that the system should have been able to detect the refugees and ensure their prompt rescue.
DW contacted Space Hellas S.A., the Greek private company contracted to expand the ABSS, to ask whether the system delivered to Greek police matches technical descriptions in police documents and in Greek media reports. The company declined to comment, citing confidentiality.
The total 'sealing of the Evros border'
Covering what they described as the ABSS's completion with much fanfare last fall, Greek media noted that it marked the total "sealing of the Evros border." The all-seeing system, they proclaimed, can even spot activity several kilometers into Turkish territory, a capability also described in technical police documents.
The Greek Police were repeatedly contacted by DW and invited to comment on the findings of the investigation over the course of more than two weeks. A police spokesperson pointed DW to press releases, which did not specifically address the questions asked.
The revamped system, according to Greek police documents, gives Greek authorities the ability to stay "informed in real time" and "with great accuracy" on the "conditions in the field for the entire length of our country's river border with Turkey."
Data from the pylons, including video streams and radar tracks, are fed to local and regional monitoring centers, which are staffed to survey the footage round the clock. Information is ultimately fed to the National Coordination Center in Athens that is part of the European Border Surveillance Network (EUROSUR), an EU project aimed at facilitating information-sharing between border management authorities and Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.
The stated aim of the surveillance infrastructure of which the ABSS is a part, which is laid out in formal documents, is to "prevent and combat illegal crossings" into Greece and to ensure "the protection and saving of migrants' lives."
Minister claims no surveillance data on the stranded asylum-seekers
During an August 30 meeting in parliament, Civil Protection Minister Takis Theodorikakos appeared to suggest that the ABSS had been used in the search-and-rescue operation but said that there was "no data on the electronic surveillance system that people were [on the islet]." He provided no further details, and his office did not respond to emails seeking clarification.
At the same time, Theodorikakos said, the system had been successfully deployed in multi-pronged deterrence efforts to stop 36,000 people from entering Greece through the Evros border in August alone.
Ministry says Greece fulfilled its humanitarian duty quickly
The Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum directed DW's queries on the ABSS to the Greek police. "It is evident that our country quickly fulfilled its humanitarian duty, offering health care and the possibility of submitting an asylum request to the group of 38 migrants as soon as they entered Greek territory," the migration ministry wrote to DW in an e-mail through the government's foreign media office.
Frontex has no access to the ABSS
When asked about the search-and-rescue mission and the ABSS system, Frontex wrote in an e-mail to DW: "We offered our support to Greek authorities but were assured that they had the situation under control." Frontex has been rocked by a series of media investigations alleging that the agency was aware of illegal pushbacks by Greek authorities and was even able to monitor some of incidents from its own surveillance systems. Greece has strongly denied allegations that its forces are involved in pushbacks.
"The Automated Border Surveillance System in Evros is operated by Hellenic Police and Frontex has no direct access to it," a Frontex spokesperson wrote, adding that the agency would only be deployed to assist authorities based on observations made by the national coordination center in Athens, rather than the local and regional centers in the Evros region.
EU Commission regrets loss of life
DW contacted the European Commission regarding the findings of this investigation.
"The EU Commission regrets any loss of lives and we recall the fundamental importance of ensuring all measures are taken to prevent such tragedies, as on the Evros river islet," an EU Commission Spokesperson for HOME Affairs wrote in response to a request for comment on DW's findings that the ABSS could have been used for a prompt rescue. "We welcome the efforts carried out by Greek authorities locating 38 people and providing aid while transferring them to a temporary accommodation. We have been in contact with the Greek authorities to stress the importance of taking the necessary measures to find appropriate solutions in the case at stake."
Member States must ensure principles are respected
75% of the expansion of the ABSS was financed through the EU's internal security fund.
The EU spokesperson said that any activity financed by the EU budget must be implemented in full compliance with international law and the EU charter of fundamental rights. "In cases of identified non-compliance, the EU Commission can reject requests for cost reimbursement declared in relation to the respective activity," the spokesperson wrote, adding that it is up to Member States to ensure that principles are respected and to carry out investigations following allegations of non-compliance.
Surveillance in the Evros region
"The Evros region is one of the most high-risk, unregulated testing grounds for new border technologies. Ranging from sound cannons to aerial surveillance to high-tech fencing, these technologies are sharpening the already violent Greece-Turkey border," said Petra Molnar, associate director of the Refugee Law Lab at York University who studies the impact of border technologies on people on the move.
Stepping up surveillance and security in the Evros region has risen as a priority for Greece and the EU since the events of March 2020, when thousands of people, many at the encouragement of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came to the Evros border and attempted to enter Greece to seek asylum.
Greece accused its neighbor of orchestrating the ordeal to put pressure on the EU. During a visit to Evros at the time, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen thanked Greece for being "our European shield."
Precarious situation for asylum-seekers
The case comes at a time of heightened tension between Greece and Turkey and a time when human rights groups and journalists are reporting an increasingly precarious situation for asylum-seekers and refugees in Turkey.
Greece and Turkey accuse each other of political foul play at the expense of asylum-seekers. Human rights organizations and international media have been reporting on systematic pushbacks for years and the fact that asylum-seekers are deprived of their right to apply for asylum in Europe after irregularly crossing the Greek-Turkish border. Greek authorities accuse the Turkish side of violently pushing asylum-seekers towards Greece. The group of asylum-seekers recently stranded on the Evros islet also alleges that it was pushed back and forth between the countries several times.
Greece is obligated to help
The Greek authorities, after claiming that they were not able to locate the group, later announced that the asylum-seekers were on Turkish territory, and that the corresponding authorities had been informed. While the group was stranded in July, lawyers petitioned the European Court of Human Rights, which issued temporary measures ordering Greek authorities to rescue the people and give them access to the asylum procedure. Greek authorities failed to comply, despite appeals from Greek and international civil society groups.
"If the state is aware of a risk to an individual and it can reasonably act to prevent the risk, then it is obligated to do so," said Omer Shatz, a lecturer in international law at Science Po Paris and legal director of the NGO Front-LEX. "Even if the group was on Turkish territory but the Greek authorities watched their situation through cameras [and other technology], they were obliged to take the necessary measures to save the child's life and secure the safety of others."
Asylum-seekers claim illegal pushbacks
Since March, the European Court of Human Rights has issued at least 17 interim measures ordering Greek authorities to rescue people in distress in Evros. Greek police have complied with fewer than half. In some of these cases, asylum-seekers allege that they were illegally pushed back to Turkey.
In recent days, the rescue of the group has unleashed a fresh wave of familiar rhetoric from Greek government officials, who blame Turkey for forcing asylum-seekers onto Greece's doorstep in order to antagonize the country and the European Union.
Athens suggests Turkey behind wave of asylum-seekers
"In Evros, a new wave of invasion is already being planned, under a supposedly humanitarian mask," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said during a parliamentary debate in August.
Appearing on Greek TV, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said Turkey is violently forcing asylum-seekers to the Greek border in the expectation that civil society organizations, journalists and the European Court of Human Rights will intervene to compel Greece to rescue people. This, Mitarachi said, was a new tactic with which Turkey was weaponizing asylum-seekers to create a "backdoor" into Europe, and test Greece's improved deterrence capacities.
In response, Mitarachi said, Greece would further step up security in the Evros region by expanding a border fence and upgrading surveillance systems, including drones, cameras and other equipment in the area.
This investigation was made possible with the help of funding from the Pulitzer Center.
Correction, September 10, 2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Pulitzer Center. DW apologizes for the error.
Edited by: Keno Verseck and Aingeal Flanagan