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Greece illegally sends 194 asylum seekers back to Turkey, monitoring group says

Greece has illegally sent some 194 asylum seekers back to Turkey in the past month, a rights organization claimed on Tuesday. 

The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), an organization surveying the illegal pushbacks and police violence by EU member countries, made the claim in a press statement.

It’s Greek members, Mobile Info Team (MIT) and Wave-Thessaloniki documented the incidents along Greece’s 200 km land border with Turkey.

“We are releasing first-hand testimony and photographic evidence indicating the existence of violent collective expulsion,” said the monitoring network.

The report comes after Turkey opened its borders with neighboring Greece in February and encouraged migrants to leave for Europe in an effort to threaten EU countries with the movement of nearly 3.7 million refugees living in Turkey.

Many saw the move by Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan as a bid to force European powers to give it more financial support for the refugees within Turkey and backing for its military offensive in northern Syria, where dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed during Syrian airstrikes.

Following the opening of the Turkish border, thousands of asylum seekers headed to the Turkish-Greek border, but Athens closed its borders and vowed to expel those managed to cross.

Thousands waited on the Turkish side of the border in the hope of entering the European Union, of which Greece is a part. However, Ankara evacuated the area in late March as part of its pandemic precautions after several coronavirus cases erupted in the country.

“We had to do it, but no one should feel at ease, we will not be saying no to those who want to cross the border again after this pandemic risk is over,” said Turkey’s interior minister Suleyman Soylu at the time.

The Conservative government of Greece subsequently declared that it would protect “the Europen Union borders” from any refugee movement. It then announced a controversial decision to suspend asylum claims for one month.

Taken from camp

The Border Violence Monitoring Network’s latest report claims that the Greek authorities pushed 194 people back into Turkey between March 28 and April 28 from the refugee camp in Diavata and Drama Paranesti Pre-removal Detention Centre located in Greece’s Evros region.

Several groups of asylum seekers were removed from the center by the police, according to the findings of the group:

“They shared experiences of being beaten, robbed, and detained before being driven to the border area where military personnel used boats to return them to Turkey across the Evros river.”

Illegal pushbacks at the Evros border is a regular practice, according to the group, but it is rare to see the asylum seekers removed from inner-city camps.

“Within the existing closure of the Greek asylum office and restriction measures due to COVID-19, the repression of asylum seekers and wider transit community looks to have reached a zenith in these cases,” read the report.

A 25-years-old asylum seeker told the monitoring group that security officers used violence against the migrants both in a detention center and before they loaded them onto boats by the Maritsa river on April 16. “There, the Greek military officers removed them from the vans and forced them to strip near the bank of the river. The authorities beat the group again with batons, leaving visible bruising,” the report says.

The network claims several Greek police officers, some uniformed and others in plainclothes and masks, were in some cases involved in the pushbacks, during which beatings with batons took place. Some asylum seekers were kicked and forced to undress while their personal belongings were seized.

In the latest incident the MIT claims 30 people from Afghanistan, Syria, Morocco, Algeria were violently sent back to Turkey on April 28.

Testimony of a 19-year old

According to the testimony of a 19-year-old Afghan man, police forced him, together with ten other residents of the Diavata camp near Thessaloniki, early in the morning into a van, although he had his valid official document proving that he had previously requested asylum.

“They reassured him that they would only issue him a new document. After a short ride, he arrived at a police station. In the yard of the station, there were around 30 people who had been picked up from the camp. The policemen proceeded to perform body searches and confiscated all their belongings: phones, money, shoelaces, belts, and others. He states that the policemen were cruel and were hitting people. Ten minutes later, everyone was loaded into a bigger bus.”

The young asylum seeker told MIT that after three hours on the bus, police officers unloaded the group and took them to the river bank. The officers kept hitting while the group was being loaded in boats, according to the report.

“In ten minutes they took all people to Turkey. If I knew they were going to deport me, I would have killed myself,” the young man was quoted as saying.

The monitoring groups stated in some other cases that the Turkish security officers refused to offer any help after they collected the asylum seekers following the pushback.

They gave them two options, according to the testimonies: Cross the river back into Greece or walk 230km to Istanbul.

“The Turkish officials made them wait and said they would bring the men a boat for them to cross back. The respondent and others then ran away from the river to avoid this, and eventually found their way to Istanbul,” the monitoring network said in the report.

Denial

Athens has denied the claims of systematic pushback both at its land and sea borders with Turkey. It blames Ankara for exploiting the plight of asylum seekers to use them as political bargaining chips.

Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called Turkey as the “world’s biggest smuggler” and has asserted his country was facing an “invasion of people of unknown origin.”

Despite the increasing anti-refugee rhetoric in the country, no one could have predicted that Greece would remove asylum seekers from within the country, organize special buses to drive them to the borders and force them back, Alexandra Bogos, Advocacy Officer at Mobile Info Team told IPA.

“We could also have not predicted that they would be picking up arrivals from the islands, place them on a boat, and drag them back into Turkish waters,” she adds and asks: Indeed, is it becoming the new norm?

*Writing by Zubeyir Koculu, Editing by Giordano Stolley

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