Greek border forces are violently and illegally detaining groups of refugees and migrants before summarily returning them to Turkey, contravening the country’s human rights obligations under EU and international law, according to a report by Amnesty International published on Wednesday.
The report, titled Greece: Violence, lies and pushbacks, focuses primarily on unlawful operations in the Evros region, at the land border between Greece and Turkey. According to Amnesty, the report contains new evidence of torture, ill-treatment and illegal pushbacks of refugees and migrants.
Amnesty says the pushbacks are not limited to border areas. People are also being apprehended and detained far into the Greek mainland before being transported to the Evros region to be illegally returned to Turkey.
According to the report people apprehended and detained as far as 700 kilometers from the border had been transferred to the border area and returned to Turkey.
In February and March 2020, Greece violently pushed back refugees and migrants in response to Turkey’s unilateral opening of the land borders. Documenting incidents from June to December 2020, the new report demonstrates that human rights violations at Greece’s borders have become an entrenched practice.
“Our research shows that violent pushbacks have become the de facto Greek border control policy in the Evros region. The level of organization needed to execute these returns, which affected around 1000 people in the incidents we documented, some numerous times and sometimes via unofficial detention sites, shows just how far Greece is going to illegally return people and cover it up,” Amnesty said.
Amnesty spoke to victims who reported that they had experienced or witnessed violence, including blows with sticks or truncheons, kicks, punches, slaps and pushes, from people they described as uniformed Greek officials as well as men in civilian clothing.
Men were often subjected to humiliating and aggressive naked searches, sometimes in the sight of women and children, Amnesty said.
Accounts of pushbacks
Saif, a 25-year-old Syrian man pushed back four times in August 2020, told Amnesty that the group he was traveling with was ambushed by “soldiers” in black gear and balaclavas and transferred to the banks of the Evros River. Two people in the group tried to escape but were stopped and ruthlessly beaten by one of the soldiers. Saif, who suspected that the man’s spine had been broken, told Amnesty, “He could not move at all, he could not even move his hands.”
One individual told Amnesty that during one of the return operations, he and his group were forced off the boat and into the water near an islet in the middle of the Evros River, where they remained stranded for days. A man who was forced off the boat could not swim and screamed for help as he bobbed up and down in the water and was swept away by the current.
Registered asylum seekers, recognized refugees are among the victims
A recognized refugee and a registered asylum seeker who had been living in mainland Greece for almost a year were among the people arbitrarily apprehended and detained in areas of northern Greece and ultimately pushed back to Turkey in larger groups, according to Amnesty’s report.
Nabil (name changed to protect his identity), a 31-year-old Syrian man and registered asylum-seeker in Greece, told Amnesty that he was arrested at the port in the city of Igoumenitsa, in northwestern Greece. Police told him he would be transferred to Athens and released; however, he was then transferred to a second detention site closer to the Evros land border, beaten and ultimately pushed back in a group of 70 people, including children. He told Amnesty, “Before I entered the bus, I showed the police my asylum card, but they took it from me, shredded it and told me to get into the bus.”
Pushbacks of Turkish dissidents fleeing prosecution
Turkish migrants fleeing Ankara’s crackdown on dissent have also given detailed accounts of pushbacks on Greek soil.
The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, of orchestrating an abortive putsch in July 2016. Gülen and the movement members deny any involvement.
Ankara embarked on a wide-scale crackdown on dissent after the coup, dismissing more than 150,000 from their jobs via emergency decree-laws and arresting tens of thousands over alleged affiliation with the Gülen group and the pro-Kurdish opposition.
In addition to the thousands who were jailed, scores of other Gülen movement followers and Kurdish activists had to flee Turkey to avoid the government crackdown.
Ertan R., a former employee of state television channel TRT who was dismissed over alleged Gülen links, was one of the latest victims of pushback as he tried to flee prosecution but faced ill-treatment on Greek soil.
According to the NTV news website, after being pushed back by Greek police and detained by Turkish law enforcement, Ertan said in his testimony that Greek policemen had taken his personal belongings and held his group for hours, denying them basic needs.
“I have no regrets about attempting to flee. What I’m sorry about is the ill-treatment I faced on Greek soil. The Greeks have not proceeded with anything official about us. They illegally sent us back to Turkey. They took our belongings. They strip-searched the women who were with us. We stayed there for hours,” Ertan was quoted as saying.
“The police had their faces covered. We couldn’t see their faces,” he added.
The Ankara 22nd High Criminal Court has ordered Ertan’s arrest.
The threat that awaits dissidents in Turkey who sought safe haven in Europe renders the alleged conduct by Greek officials a violation of the principle of nonrefoulement, enshrined in Article 33(1) of the 1951 UN Convention.
“No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his [or her] life or freedom would be threatened on account of his [or her] race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” the article stipulates.
Greece has toughened its migration policy since conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis came to power in 2019.
Border patrols have increased, asylum processes have been quickened and benefits have been slashed, even for refugees who are granted asylum.
The country has been accused by rights groups of repeatedly pushing back migrants in violation of international law. Government officials have denied the claims.