Refugees on the Greek island of Symi – Danger of Push-Back

03.12.2014 / 10:17 / Symi island Greece

Watch The Med Alarm Phone Report – 21st-23rd of October 2014

Case name: 2014_10_21-Symi
Situation: Arrival of Refugees on the Greek island Symi – Danger of Push-Back
Status of WTM Investigation: Ongoing (Last update: 23rd of October 2014)
Time and Place of Incident: 21st-23rd of October 2014, Aegean Sea and Symi

Brief Summary of the Case: Up to 75 Syrian refugees arrived on the Greek island of Symi on the 21st of October 2014. They might have been in distress at sea and in a precarious situation after reaching land, without food, water and orientation. They were afraid of being pushed-back by Greek authorities. The shift teams of the Alarm Phone were able to establish direct contact with them, followed their movements where possible and notified several actors/organisations. The group of refugees was found on the 22nd of October and detained at the local police station.

Summary of the Case: On the 21st of October 2014, one of the Watch The Med Alarm Phone shift teams was notified of a case in the Aegean Sea where a vessel with about 75 Syrian passengers on board was potentially in a situation of distress. The vessel was located near the island of Symi, in the South-East of Greece, North of Rhodos. At first, there was no direct contact between the people on the vessel and the shift team. The shift team notified the Greek coastguards on Rhodos who forwarded contact details of the coast guards/port authorities of the island of Symi. The shift team was able to obtain contact details of the refugees through other contact persons. When they called them, the refugees had arrived on Symi but were afraid of being pushed-back. The shift team wrote an email to the Greek UNHCR, informing them about the situation on Symi.

On the 22nd of October, the shift team was able to reach one member of the group of refugees who spoke English. He stated that they were 63 people and had spent the night on a mountain or hill without water, food and shelter. Pregnant women and elderly persons were amongst the group. At the time of the phone call, they were trying to find a town. When the refugees asked to inform the police to search for them, the shift team tried to contact a local police station but could not communicate as the personnel there did not speak English. Instead, they reached the port authorities who claimed that they were aware of the group and were looking for them. They stated that the group was dispersed so that some but not all had already been encountered by the police. Later on the same day, the shift team reached the refugees again by phone. They had found a road and were walking towards a town. The shift team passed this information on to the police but the police made clear that they would not organise transport, food or water for the refugees. The shift team then reached out to the Red Cross and the UNHCR.

On the 23rd of October, the shift team was unable to reach the refugees. The Symi port authorities claimed that they had found everybody (76 people) and had brought them to a “secured place” where they would spend 2-3 days before being released and able to move freely. They stated that all of the refugees were in good health condition. However, the facility used to detain people on Symi seems to be the local police station with no adequate facilities to address the needs of such a big group of people requiring care. The UNHCR later sent a local team to be present there and were then in direct contact with the refugees.

The Role of the Alarm Phone: In cases such as the ‘Symi case’, where a group of refugees had already reached European mainland, the interventions of the Watch The Med Alarm Phone are important for several interrelated reasons. Illegal push-back operations by Greek coastguards frequently occur when refugees and migrants are still on vessels trying to reach Greek shores (as documented by the Alarm Phone in another case only a few days later: While the risk is the most acute during sea journeys, the risk of being pushed-back is given even after arrival on Greek mainland. With regards to the ‘Symi case’, the direct contact to the refugees established by the Alarm Phone allowed to gain insights into their location, the size of the group, and their well-being. The shift teams were also able to offer some initial advice. Regular calls to the local police and port authority demonstrated the Alarm Phone’s awareness of the situation, thereby reducing the risk of a subsequent push-back operation. Furthermore, the Alarm Phone teams informed other actors and drew the attention of several individuals, groups and organisations (UNHCR, Red Cross) to the case.
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Layers »
  • Border police patrols
    While the exact location of patrols is of course constantly changing, this line indicates the approximate boundary routinely patrolled by border guards’ naval assets. In the open sea, it usually correspond to the outer extent of the contiguous zone, the area in which “State may exercise the control necessary to prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws” (UNCLOS, art. 33). Data source: interviews with border police officials.
  • Coastal radars
    Approximate radar beam range covered by coastal radars operating in the frame of national marine traffic monitoring systems. The actual beam depends from several different parameters (including the type of object to be detected). Data source: Finmeccanica.
  • Exclusive Economic Zone
    Maritime area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea in which the coastal state exercises sovereign rights for the purposes of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, the seabed and its subsoil and the superjacent waters. Its breadth is 200 nautical miles from the straight baselines from which the territorial sea is measured (UNCLOS, Arts. 55, 56 and 57). Data source: Juan Luis Suárez de Vivero, Atlas of the European Seas and Oceans
  • Frontex operations
    Frontex has, in the past few years, carried out several sea operations at the maritime borders of the EU. The blue shapes indicate the approximate extend of these operations. Data source: Migreurop Altas.
  • Mobile phone coverage
    Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network coverage. Data source: Collins Mobile Coverage.
  • Oil and gas platforms
    Oil and gas platforms in the Mediterranean. Data source:
  • Search and Rescue Zone
    An area of defined dimensions within which a given state is has the responsibility to co-ordinate Search and Rescue operations, i.e. the search for, and provision of aid to, persons, ships or other craft which are, or are feared to be, in distress or imminent danger. Data source: IMO availability of search and rescue (SAR) services - SAR.8/Circ.3, 17 June 2011.
  • Territorial Waters
    A belt of sea (usually extending up to 12 nautical miles) upon which the sovereignty of a coastal State extends (UNCLOS, Art. 2). Data source: Juan Luis Suárez de Vivero, Atlas of the European Seas and Oceans

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