“We are Turkish political asylum seekers. We fled persecution in Turkey and crossed Evros [River] on May 4 at 5am. We are hiding near Nea Vyssa in fear of push-back. We urge the United Nations and Greek authorities to protect us from being pushed back.”
These were the last words of Ayse Erdogan in a video she sent to a family member, hours before a group of Turkish migrants was violently sent back to Turkey by Greek police.
This came after she and two friends of her, Kamil Y. and Talip N., had crossed the border through northeastern Evros area and were taken into custody at Neo Cheimonio police station.
A total number of 82 political asylum seekers from Turkey have been sent back to Turkey by Greek border units through northeastern Evros since April 23, lawyers and family members told Euronews.
Witnesses claim various groups of masked men with military uniforms and in plain clothes collaborating with the police beat those who resisted being pushed back to Turkey.
The number of other nationals who were violently sent back after Greek police captured them is not clear.
Of the 82 Turkish national asylum seekers sent back, 41 were detained or arrested by Turkish authorities upon their return. They face terrorism charges over their alleged links to either the Gulen Movement or Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Ayse Erdogan’s brother Ihsan Erdogan, who is a registered asylum seeker in Greece, went to the police station together with a local lawyer where her phone gave the last signal, to be told that the three Turkish asylum seekers were not there. Actually, they had never been there, the police claimed.
It was on May 5 at around noon that the desperate brother had a phone call from his family stating that Ayse Erdogan was imprisoned by a court in Edirne.
Ihsan Erdogan learned from his family who had a phone call with his sister from prison that the group was handed over, along with a number of Syrians, to a group of masked men soon after they left the police station.
As Greek police seized their belongings, including Ayse Erdogan’s phone, Ayse last seemed to be at the police station according to the shared live location information.
A recently graduated Math teacher, she had spent 28 months in Sakran Prison of Izmir over her alleged affiliation with the Gulen Movement. The Turkish authorities have designated the group as an outlawed organization.
Following the failed coup of 2016, which the government ascribes to the Gulen group, tens of thousands of people in Turkey have been a target of a crackdown over dubious terrorism charges.
Ayse Erdogan was not the only political asylum seeker deported by Greek border security units, in clear violation of international asylum law, back to Turkey where political runaways could face possible persecution. The policy had precedents before.
On April 26, at Soufli, a border town near Evros River, another group of 11 people including three children, a pregnant woman, and a disabled woman were sent back to the river by masked men after they were beaten violently, according to a journalist in the group.
“Masked men beat us with batons. We are in a very dire situation. We are afraid to be pushed back again. We need help,” 28-year old T. Ozkan said, pleading for help to address their situation.
“I had forgotten of my pregnancy,” she said in disbelief, adding, “I tried to stop Greek police by moving ahead but they pushed me, too. It was unbelievable and unforgettable to see my husband beaten in front of my eyes.”
According to the account of the group, the police cooperated with a group of masked men who forced them to return to Turkey.
The refugee group managed to cross the border again the next day to be detained officially and to see a police officer who had pushed them back at the police station of Soufli.
They were released under the protection of a UNHCR officer on April 30.
Five Kurdish people, on May 5, too, were pushed back at Greek-Turkish border near Neo Cheimonio, after they were stopped by a Greek police car shown in the video they shared with a family member at night from the center of Kastanies.
F. Varol, A. Gonultas, M. Gonultas, A, Baran, and U. Sunger were last seen the next morning before they were put in a van with the plate number “OPZ 5983.”
The push-back, a practice to stop asylum seekers at the Greek border by force and then return them to Turkey, first came to media spotlight during the refugee influx in 2015.
More than a million refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan used Greece as a route to reach European Union countries for a better life.
The crossings mostly took place either through the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea or the land border between Greece and Turkey.
Some Greek NGOs published reports last year with testimonies from various nationalities who were allegedly sent back to Turkey via Evros after beaten by masked men.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe urged the Greek authorities to investigate those push-back reports and claims, ensuring migrants’ have the “right to apply for asylum.”
The reports of violent push-back operations at Evros River, have, however, continued, while none of them was officially acknowledged by Athens.
Greek police declined to comment regarding the latest push-back allegations.
A European Commission spokesperson answered the questions of Euronews and said they were aware of the recent push-back claims. “The Commission expects that the Greek authorities will follow up on the specific allegations and will continue to closely monitor the situation,” he said.
The latest treatment of Turkish refugees represents a break in the traditional Greek policy toward the Turkish nationals.
The recent tide of events fundamentally differs from the previous reports of push-back incidents against other nationalities. The majority of the Turks, who were intercepted and sent back to Turkey against their own will, recorded or documented encounters, something that was absent in previous cases.
Observers believe that this could serve as a blueprint for prosecutors and legal authorities to probe the claims and to find out who is responsible for repatriating refugees back to Turkey without the proper processes being followed.
Regarding previous incidents, an Athenian prosecutor launched an investigation earlier this year. His prosecution still seems to be in the preliminary phase, collecting testimonies from asylum seekers who were stopped and refused entry at the border.
*Reported by Zubeyir Koculu