Asylum-seekers arriving in Greece face physical violence including being beaten and sent back to sea, Doctors without Borders said on Thursday, calling on Greece to increase migrant search and rescue operations at sea.

Greece, one of the main gateways into the European Union for refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, has long been accused by aid groups and the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR of forcibly ejecting migrants at its sea and land borders, also known as “pushbacks,” an illegal practice.

In a report citing testimonies of its patients on the islands of Lesbos and Samos, Doctors without Borders said asylum-seekers faced “physical violence, including being beaten, handcuffed, strip-searched, having their possessions confiscated, and forcibly sent back to sea.”

Some patients said that after arriving on the islands, uniformed individuals or unidentified masked men intercepted and subjected them to “degrading and violent treatment”, including being handcuffed with plastic cable ties and being beaten with batons and sticks.

“We urge the Greek government and European leaders to take immediate measures to ensure that individuals seeking protection in Greece are treated with humanity and dignity,” Doctors without Borders international president Christos Christou said.

Greece’s government, which describes its migration policy as “tough but fair”, has repeatedly denied pushbacks, saying it intercepts boats within the framework of international law.

The government was not immediately available for comment.

Doctors without Borders based its report on the testimonies of 56 patients and information gathered between August 2021 and July 2023 on Lesbos and Samos.

It said many of its patients described being trapped in “vicious cycles of violence, pushbacks and repetitive dangerous sea crossings.” Around 2,000 people who had reportedly arrived on the islands were never found by Doctors without Borders teams, it added.

“As soon as we entered Greek waters, a small grey boat came in our direction,” it quotes a woman named Fatima as saying.

“A man dressed in all black with a covered face jumped on our boat. He had a stick in his hand and started beating the person in front of him. Then he pulled off the engine and dropped it in the water. We were left in the middle of the sea with no engine,” she said.

Another woman named Elizabeth said people in her group, including a pregnant woman, were handcuffed and beaten.

“They even stepped on the other lady’s stomach, beating her,” she said.

Others said they had their phones, money and medications confiscated before being forced onto boats, taken out to sea and transferred onto life rafts.