Asylum seekers reaching Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey are being illegally pushed back through the use of high degrees of violence and force, a new report by the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) has found.
Pushbacks, which are illegal under international law, involve informally and forcefully removing people out of the country’s territory without assessing their claims for entry or protection.
Such operations in Greece have increased “significantly” in the past two years, and have involved use of arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as verbal, physical and sexual violence, says the GCR, an Athens-based NGO that campaigns in defence of the rights of refugees.
Its report says pushbacks of asylum seekers take place mostly in the Evros region and the Aegean Islands. It describes 11 cases using witness testimony.
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In one case, the report says, 37 Syrians, including 17 children, were stranded on an Evros islet without water or food. Among the group was a pregnant woman and a child with serious respiratory problems who was being supported by an oxygen tank.
The asylum seekers contacted GCR, which says it informed authorities and requested assistance for rescue and processing. However, according to the asylum seekers’ testimonies, four men in military uniforms and masks appeared on the islet carrying weapons and began “pointing guns” at them.
The men confiscated their mobile phones, money and other valuable items such as watches and jewellery, the asylum seekers said. They also said men and women in their group were sexually assaulted during the operation.
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During the informal detention period, the asylum seekers claimed they were “mocked and harassed” and “ordered to take off their clothes, underwear and shoes”.
The GCR said it later discovered that the asylum seekers had been pushed back to Turkey some days later.
During 2020-2021, the UN refugees body, the UNHCR, says it recorded 539 incidents of “informal enforced return” at Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, involving at least 17,000 people, during which potential violations of a number of rights were reported.
Dr Aideen Elliott, senior policy, and research co-ordinator with Oxfam Ireland, said pushbacks had “significantly increased” since March 2020 and were a “symptom of a larger problem with Europe’s asylum policy”.
In another case described in the report, a four-year-old boy died during a pushback operation involving 30 Syrians who entered Greece in March 2022. The group had been confined for seven days on the Evros islet after being placed there by the Greek authorities without access to water, food or items to keep them warm, the GCR report said.
The group drank water from the river and ate “old pieces of bread and dates that had been left there by the people previously on the islet”. Adults and children suffered food poisoning.
The group were informally arrested by men dressed in black and wearing full face masks. Some asylum seekers claimed they were “beaten and kicked” at the detention site and had their money taken from them “under the threat of knives” as they entered the boat to be brought to the islet.
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Alkistis Agrafioti Chatzigianni, advocacy officer and lawyer with GCR, told The Irish Times the findings of the report demonstrated that pushbacks were “a systemic, planned and comprehensive policy of the Greek state”.
“Pushbacks are not a recent phenomenon. However, the number of cases of reported pushbacks at the land and sea borders of Greece with Turkey has significantly increased,” he said.
An investigation by the Greek National Transparency Authority rejected the allegations of pushbacks. The NTA investigation was conducted over a period of several months between November 2021 and February 2022. It included visits to the eastern islands where migrant boats from Turkey arrive, and to the north-eastern land border.
The NTA said it conducted interviews with Greek security services, residents, and asylum seekers, and examined videos and photos with help from the police, but it found that “no supporting evidence emerged” and allegations of pushbacks were “not confirmed”.
The Greek government has also consistently denied that pushbacks occur.