Greek authorities are said to be expelling refugees across the border with Turkey, without observing legal procedures. DW, along with international partners, identified and interviewed some of the victims of these clandestine actions. “Come with us and we will issue new papers for you,” a Greek policeman told Bakhtyar on a Wednesday morning in late April. The 22-year-old Afghan believed that the offer was the key to fulfilling his dream of starting a new life in Europe. However, he suffered a severe blow.
Two months earlier, Bakhtyar had crossed the river Evros, on the border between Turkey and Greece, an important route for refugees seeking to reach the European Union. He continued on towards Diavata, the official refugee camp established on the outskirts of Greece’s second largest city, Thessalonica.
Upon arriving, he was careful to register with the Greek police, a condition for requesting international protection – and a first step in the asylum process. A photograph of his document shows the date of February 12, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic caused most public services to be closed, and Bakhtyar said he was looking forward to the reopening so he could make an official asylum application. He wouldn’t have a chance to do so.
Recalling his meeting with the police in April, Bakhtyar says he was put in a white van and taken to a police station in the center of Thessaloniki. Instead of receiving the promised documents, Bakhtyar says the police confiscated all of his belongings, including his cell phone. Later, he was transferred to another police station where, according to him, the police slapped him and kicked him before putting him in the back of a truck. Bakhtyar recalls that a sheet was used to prevent anyone from seeing who was inside the truck. He did not notice it at the time, but the car was heading east – remaking its arduous journey back to Turkey.
When the truck stopped, Bakhtyar realized that he was not alone. Other asylum seekers like him were lined up along the banks of the river Evros. He remembers seeing young people being put on boats, ten at a time. The boatman, according to Bakhtyar, spoke Greek to people he supposed to be policemen and spoke to asylum seekers in his native language, Dari. DW was unable to independently verify whether the men were Greek police officers. Bakhtyar says he is sure that it was not the first crossing that boatman made to Turkey.
The border between Greece and Turkey is closed due to the pandemic. All official deportation procedures have been suspended. When Bakhtyar and other asylum seekers reached the opposite bank on the Turkish side, there was nothing and no one waiting for them. When the DW report met Bakhtyar, he was in Istanbul’s Esenler neighborhood, which has a high share of Afghans among its inhabitants.
The city was in lockdown at the time, and it was difficult to move. Wearing a red T-shirt with the inscription “New York” on the front, Bakhtyar looked sad and upset. He wants to return to Greece as soon as possible to pursue his dream of living in Europe.
Bakhtyar’s experience is not an isolated story. In an investigation carried out in a partnership between DW and the Dutch newspaper Trouw, the non-profit network specializing in investigative journalism Lighthouse Reports and the independent verification collective Bellingcat, it was possible to locate Bakhtyar and other young people in Turkey and verify that they were forcibly returned after being in Greece.
Their testimonies, all given separately, set a clear standard: men, under 30 and traveling alone. Most of them are from Afghanistan, some from Pakistan and North Africa. They were arrested in the Greek camp at Diavata or picked up by the local police, apparently at random, in the vicinity of the camp.
DW interviewed, together with reporting partners, several witnesses in Greece and Turkey. Greek police documents were collected to establish a chain of evidence, from the refugee camp in Diavata to the streets of Istanbul. Publicly available data were used, including posts on the refugees’ social networks, which had records of the date and time they were posted, showing photographs of sights in Greece that could be located geographically. Thus, it was possible to confirm the main elements of the testimonies.
In total, the report talked to six people in Istanbul who reported their experiences with “pushbacks” – as the forced returns of refugees and migrants across the border are called – and located four others in other parts of Turkey who could prove they had previously been in Greece.
Pushbacks are deportations carried out without considering individual circumstances and without allowing people to file for asylum or to appeal against measures taken, in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Another person located in Istanbul is Rashid, who fled his native Afghanistan three years ago and went to Turkey. He worked as a packer and transporter in Ankara, the Turkish capital, before going to Istanbul, where he found work as a welder. He has temporary protection status in Turkey, but does not receive medical assistance or housing.
“In Turkey, life is full of uncertainty for young Afghans who do not have access to basic health and social services,” Zakira Hekmat, co-founder of the Association for Solidarity with Afghan Refugees in Turkey, tells DW. “They are precariously employed, in low-paid jobs and without official permission. It is modern slavery.” Afghan men in Turkey get jobs mainly in the underground economy, in heavy physical work in the areas of construction, transportation or in the textile industry.
In the hope of a better future, Rashid headed from Turkey to Greece in early 2020. He remembers crossing the Evros river with about 20 other people on a boat. He says he stayed in a tent for about two months next to the refugee camp in Diavata. But everything changed for him in late March, when he returned from Friday prayers.
Rashid says he was stopped by the Greek police, who told him to wait. He then described how a white van stopped and armed men without a uniform appeared. They told him to come in. Rashid says he didn’t even know who the men were and that he didn’t find out later that they were working with the Greek police after he was taken to a police station. DW was unable to verify the connection between the men and the police.
His Greek documents, originally valid for a month, had expired, but renewal during the coronavirus outbreak was not possible when immigration offices were closed. At the police station, according to Rashid, the police confiscated all of his belongings.
“They didn’t even give me a glass of water at the police station,” he recalls. Rashid was not asked to sign any documents by the Greek authorities. He says he was later driven for hours in a van by Greece and then forced into a small boat to cross the river Evros back to Turkey.
There are many reports of alleged “pushbacks”, especially at the Evros border. The testimonies gathered by the report corroborate the reports of human rights organizations that work with the Border Violence Monitoring Network, an independent database. They indicate that there were at least five police operations carried out in the Diavata camp between March 31 and May 5, resulting in the apparently illegal deportation of dozens of migrants. In almost all cases, the police appear to be targeting young singles from Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Africa.
Vassilis Papadopoulos, president of the Greek Refugee Council and a migration official under a previous government, sees a clear pattern in the “pushbacks”. “Police vans arrive at the camp, and the police do a brief check of people who are not yet registered. They ask for their papers,” he says. “They detain them and say they will be taken to the police station, either to check documents or to supply new documents and, instead, according to the complaints, they are returned to Turkey,” he adds.
“What is important and unprecedented in these accusations, if proven true, is that we are talking about ‘pushbacks’ from within the country and even then from a camp, without any formal deportation procedure being followed,” said Papadopoulos.
Greece’s Deputy Migration Minister, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, denied the accusations, when questioned by DW. “The allegations about human rights violations by the Greek police are fabricated, false and not corroborated,” he replied.
Greece has been under intense pressure on its borders since the end of February, when Turkey signaled the end of its 2016 agreement with the EU on restricting the flow of refugees and migrants. Ankara encouraged migrants to move to land and sea borders with Greece.
Athens responded by closing its borders and suspended the right to seek asylum in March. When the asylum system was officially resumed in April, the number of arrivals was 97% below the levels of April last year, according to statistics from the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.
In early May, the Greek press reported that the government was seeking to promote “aggressive surveillance” to prevent the arrival of refugees. The government has not specified what this implies.
DW contacted the Ministry of Migration and Asylum for more details on the extent of government activities. Koumoutsakos said that “the measures taken so far have been proportionate to the seriousness of the situation and have pursued legitimate objectives, such as, in particular, the protection of national security, public order and public health”.
Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, defended the government’s toughest line on asylum and migration. “There was no arrival in our country in April 2020 thanks to the great efforts made by our security forces,” he told the state television station during a visit to Samos on April 28.
On the same day, however, residents of that Aegean island reported in the local media and on Facebook that they had seen immigrants arriving in the village of Drakei. Video footage analyzed by Lighthouse Reports and Bellingcat shows a boat with 22 refugees in a cove in Samos at about 7:30 am that same day.
Retreated from the island of Samos, Jouma was among the refugees who climbed the steep path from the remote cove to the village. It was the fourth time that the young man from Damascus, Syria, had tried to reach Greece. For a few hours, on the morning of April 28, he believed he had finally made it.
In a detailed account, Jouma recalls what he experienced after the refugees arrived in Samos. He says a girl in the group who spoke a little English asked a local to notify the Greek police that they had arrived. The newcomers expected to be taken to the Samos refugee camp. Instead, the police stopped them and confiscated their cell phones. They were taken to a port, where they were distributed on several boats before being loaded into a black and orange lifeboat without an engine or oars.
Jouma says they were towed to Turkish waters. The ferry was put adrift in the open sea, with the waves pushing them back to Greece. A Greek vessel then took them towards Turkey.
The worst thing, says Jouma, was a Greek motorboat maneuvering around them trying to push them into Turkish waters, while the Turkish Coast Guard just watched the situation. “The Greek Coast Guard withdrew, to make room for their Turkish colleagues to come and pick us up, but they did not come, and that went on all night,” he says.
The group ended up being picked up at noon the next day by the Turks. Samos port authorities told DW that there were no asylum seekers arriving on the island on April 28. The apparent use of orange lifeboats in previous operations was reported by the Greek newspaper Efimerida Ton Syntakton on April 7.
“Pushbacks” and EU laws
Greece, like other EU border states, like Croatia, has long been accused of carrying out “pushbacks”. Dimitris Christopoulos, who until recently was president of the International Federation for Human Rights, says the new intensity of incidents and the number of witnesses raises questions about the extent to which the Greek authorities have authorized these pushbacks and the extent to which the EU is aware of what is happening on the Greek border.
“Obviously, these tactics are in violation of the Greek Constitution and customary international law, but they seem to be tolerated by the EU, as they serve the purpose of preventing others from crossing the Aegean or the Evros river into Europe,” says Christopoulos.
When DW again questioned the Ministry of Migration and Asylum about the legality of the government’s tactics, Deputy Minister Koumoutsakos categorically denied that such operations are taking place. “Greece has fulfilled and will continue to fulfill its obligations under international law, including all relevant human rights treaties of which it is a party, also paying attention to its obligations under the EU legal framework on borders, migration and asylum, as enshrined in the Treaties of the European Union. “
Jürgen Bast, professor of European law at the University of Giessen in Germany, calls this strategy “pushback” a clear violation of the law. “This goes against everything that European law stipulates,” he says.
“These actions, as described by the refugees, violate all the rules of the official return directive,” says Bast, referring to the orderly procedure involving an asylum claim, including a personal interview and the individual’s right to remain in Greece until a decision to be made. “The country of destination must also be informed and may have the right to refuse asylum seekers rejected by third countries.”
None of the young people interviewed by DW said they had been notified in advance that they would have to leave Greece; nor did they appear to have been informed of their legal rights. In
instead, the experiences reported by Bakhtyar, Jouma, Rashid and the other interviewees suggest that these forced returns on the border between Greece and Turkey have become an increasingly common pattern.
Desperate to reach Europe Rashid now lives in a cramped Istanbul apartment with 10 other young Afghans. As an undocumented migrant in Turkey, he faces the threat of being deported back to Afghanistan.
According to official statistics, 302,278 Afghans have been arrested by Turkish security forces in the past two years. Since 2018, it has become extremely difficult for Afghans to apply for asylum in Turkey.
Rashid is desperately looking for a way to get back to Europe because he considers himself a dead end in Turkey. “I don’t know what I’m going to do here. We are not guilty. I will try to cross the border again. I need to.”
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Deutsche Welle is Germany’s international broadcaster and produces independent journalism in 30 languages.