Pushbacks: The eternal denial of the Greek government
With mounting evidence and growing allegations of illegal deportation operations along the Greek-Turkish border, the Greek government maintains “ignorance”.
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With mounting evidence and growing allegations of illegal deportation operations along the Greek-Turkish border, the Greek government maintains “ignorance”.
Driving to the Athens airport, early on the morning of May 26, 2020, Giorgos Tsiakalos was visibly moved.
Besides his wife, Sigrid, in the car with Tsiakalos was Khalil, whom the Emeritus Professor of Pedagogy at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki had met two years earlier, in May 2018, at the refugee shelter in Thermopylae.
Khalil, now 21-years-old, a Syrian of Kurdish descent, had left his country during the war in 2014, and after a brief stay in Istanbul, he lived in Greece and then went to Germany, where he was granted asylum in March 2016.
After receiving asylum, in September 2016, Khalil traveled to Greece to visit relatives in Thessaloniki and Didimoticho. But on the morning of his return trip, while en route to the station in Didimoticho to catch the train to Thessaloniki for his flight to Germany, he was stopped by two policemen.
According to Khalil, he was arrested and taken to the police station, where he was held for four days, his legal documents were taken from him, along with his cell phone and all the money he was carrying with him. Then, men who Khalil claims belonged to the Hellenic Police, transferred him to the other side of the border.
I had the chance to record Khalil’s story in May 2019, as did journalists from Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung.
There was strong evidence to support the credibility of his testimony: his travel documents and the documents of the Turkish authorities who registered him on the other side of the border on the date of his return. In addition, there are photographs of his face and back taken by Turkish journalists, which show the injuries Halil sustained from being beaten by the Greek Police, as he reported. There is also evidence from his stay in each country.
Khalil worked in Turkey until he could save money to pay smugglers, and was able to return to Greece. It was then, that he met Giorgos Tsiakalos and his wife, and the battle to return Khalil to Germany began.
In theory, it should have been a relatively simple process, guaranteed under international law, since Khalil had already been granted international protection by Germany. But the implementation of the “simple” process turned out to be a true feat, due to the inflexible attitude of the German Embassy, but also to the indifference of the Greek state.
“The German Consulates, using thousands of tricks and ploys, systematically refused to grant him temporary travel documents to return to Germany, even though it was their obligation. Greece was not interested and did not enforce the Dublin agreement and proceed with his transfer to Germany. In fact, he has effectively become a human protector of refugees, which Germany is interested in ‘parking’ in other countries,” Giorgos Tsiakalos stated on social media, and posted a series of photos, evidence of Khalil’s case, documenting the beginning of his odyssey to two and a half years later on May 26, 2020, when he finally landed at Frankfurt Airport.
On May 25, 2020, Tsiakalos was informed that Khalil could return to Germany with a refugee passport. On the same day, Tsiakalos and his wife visited Khalil to tell him the good news.
Since early March 2020, a new crisis appeared, adding to the already high tensions on the islands of the Eastern Aegean, which began in February, when incidents of uncontainable violence broke out and quickly increased.
The gathering of refugees and migrants at the Greek-Turkish land border in Evros (Meriç in Turkish) has been the focus of international interest, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declaring on February 29, 2020 that he will keep his border with the European Union open, until the EU keeps the promises it has made to Turkey.
However, incidents at the border are not a new occurrence.
Pushbacks of refugees and migrants have been happening since the 1990s. However, there are three new occurrences, which differ from the recent pushbacks, in comparison to what has been happening in previous years.
First, as in Khalil’s case, the pushbacks – through the random intervention of individuals, transfers to police stations and then to the border, and then being evicted to the other side – appear to be methodical and take place, based on recent allegations, in extended regions, that is, beyond the border areas.
“The borders (and therefore the activities that take place within them) have now reached Paranesti (near Kavala),” an employee of an NGO operating in northern Greece told Solomon MAG. He added that the people their programs aid, had been informed about the “blind” pushbacks of people from others in the interior, and have restricted their movements in order to remain unnoticed and under police radar.
Two independent enquiries, one by The Wall Street Journal and another joint investigation by Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, Trouw, and Deutsche Welle, reported on recent indications of operations which occurred in the Diavata shelter, where asylum seekers were forced to get into trucks and then, later on, they were found by journalists in Turkey.
The second difference is found in the registered countries of origin of refugees and migrants who, according to allegations, were pushed back to Turkey from the region of Evros.
In recent years, these cases have been mainly asylum seekers from countries such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. However Turkish dissidents have been added to this group, who have been leaving Turkey since 2016 onwards, after the coup attempt against Erdogan, often fleeing danger of long-term imprisonment.
Three years ago, in May 2017, the Hellenic League for Human Rights (HLHR) lodged allegations which presented a total of 14 cases where Turkish citizens (including journalists under fire by the regime) were pushed back to Turkey.
The evidence that HLHR presented, did not only list the names of the citizens and details regarding the operations carried out against them, but also the license plate of the Greek van that was involved in the operations.
The third and final point to be added to the evidence that distinguishes the recent illegal pushbacks from the ones of the past, has to do with the identity of those who are said to be involved in these operations.
Often, according to published testimonies, hooded men (wearing unmarked uniforms) appear to be speaking German or English, raising questions about the involvement of Frontex personnel in illegal pushback operations in the Evros region.
At the Evros River, from 2014 to date 55,566 arrivals have been recorded. According to the testimonies of refugees and migrants, this correlates to seven attempts by each asylum seeker who manages to successfully cross the river from the Turkish side to Greek territory.
In recent months, however, reports of pushbacks in the Aegean have also been on the rise − the largest number of arrivals of refugees and migrants have occurred in the Aegean, with almost 1.2 million arrivals recorded in the same period.
Investigations by The Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, Trouw and Deutsche Welle, which provided accurate data based on video and testimony, show that asylum seekers who had arrived on Samos by boat, were sent back to Turkey.
Bashar Deeb, who participated in the investigation, said to Solomon MAG:
“We investigated numerous pushback allegations, and we were able to prove in one case that 22 asylum seekers were pushed back from Samos on April 28th. In our reconstruction of this pushback event we analyzed three videos, one shows the asylum seekers inside an inflatable boat, heading toward Samos, a second one shows them on the shores near Agiou Isidorou area in Samos, and a third video showing the same group of people being rescued by Turkish Coast Guards the day after. We verified the videos using geolocation/chronolocation techniques in online testimonies from Samos locals who saw the refugees in Drakoi village. Eventually, we were also able to find and speak to two people from that group who sent us an additional picture from where they landed in the northern western of Agiou Isidorou area.”
As of March 23, 2020, at least 11 more cases have been reported, where asylum seekers have been sent back to Turkey in small boats that look like floating tents. This tactic has been reported on by several sources such as Greek newspaper Efimerida ton Syntakton, and a video by Aegean Boat Report (ABR), a Norwegian NGO which records the movements of boats in the Aegean.
Why are pushbacks illegal?
An international convention that has been in force for six decades, the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, stipulates (Article 33) that countries that have ratified the Convention, including Greece, prohibit the reinstatement of persons, regardless of their status in the (Greek) territory, to other unsafe countries.
In practice, this means that once you are on Greek soil, you have the right to apply for asylum and, until you receive a definitive response to your asylum request, you cannot be deported to another country.
According to the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 19.1), Greece is obliged to examine separately each case of a person who is within its territory and wishes to seek international protection.
However, despite the prohibition of such pushbacks by international law, the relevant allegations of illegal pushbacks in recent years are numerous, and have been published by the media and organizations both in Greece and abroad, reaching even the highest European institutions.
At least two cases have been reported where illegal pushbacks have led to the loss of life for people who were transported to the other side of the Evros River.
On May 24, 2020, the Movement United Against Racism and the Fascist Threat (KEERFA) reported on the case of a Bangladeshi man, Mohamed Rafik, who had lived in Greece for years and according to KEERFA, lost his life when he was pushed back to Turkey.
In December 2017, Turkish media reported the case of an 18-year-old Pakistani man who died of hypothermia when he fell into the water while being illegally pushed back to Turkey.
In December 2018, three organizations (Hellenic Council for Refugees, ARSIS, Human Rights 360) jointly published a report presenting 39 testimonies of individuals who attempted to enter Greece via the Evros River and “report that they were pushed back to Turkey in violation of the national, EU and international law.”
In the same month, Human Rights Watch also recorded “24 cases of pushbacks on the Evros River from Greece to Turkey.”
Over time, despite the changes in government (the political parties in power) and the existence of convincing evidence, such as photos, videos, documents and proof of precise location, successive Greek governments have maintained the same position on the issue: they categorically deny that there have been pushbacks along the Greek-Turkish border.
It is worth noting the following peculiar situation in which a political party denounces the pushbacks while it is in opposition, but then later denies this when they have come to power.
Let’s look at the following example:
On February 4, 2020, the Minister of Shipping, Giannis Plakiotakis (New Democracy), attempted to refute the allegations that the Coast Guard was carrying out pushbacks, noting that “there are specific rules for engagement at sea, the Coast Guard cannot engage in this and cannot proceed with pushbacks, as they have done at other times in the past.“
Commenting on Minister Plakiotakis’ statement, the head of SYRIZA’s Parliamentary Group on Shipping, Nektarios Santorinios, spoke of a “chilling admission that the government in power before SYRIZA, carried out illegal pushbacks in the Aegean in violation of international law and rules of engagement.”
But the period when SYRIZA – ANEL coalition came to power (2015-2019), has not been unaffected by allegations of pushbacks.
It is worth nothing that in June 2017, the head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Greece, Philippe Leclerc, stated he was “deeply concerned” about the allegations of pushbacks, while the Commission for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), an independent body of the Council of Europe, states in its report that the reports of pushbacks in Greece are “reliable”. As a government, however, SYRIZA denied them.
The then European Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, hads also expressed concern about the allegations, “urging the Greek authorities to cease immediately pushback operations”.
Thus, on June 7, 2017 in response to allegations of pushbacks that took place in Evros, government spokesman of the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, stated that “the Greek government does not carry out pushbacks,” although two days later 25 SYRIZA MPs demanded explanations from the relevant ministries regarding the deportation of Turkish citizens, and the former Minister of Education and SYRIZA MP Nikos Filis, noted that “the competent ministries have not offered convincing answers.”
Responding to new allegations on January 15, 2019, the Ministry of Civil Protection stated that “the deportations do not in any way exist as an operational strategy and practice by the personnel of the border control units.”
During the SYRIZA-ANEL government, in addition to the political party Potami (which submitted a relevant file to the Greek Justice Dept), New Democracy also demanded clear answers about the allegations of pushbacks.
On January 31, 2018, after the allegations about the illegal pushback of immigrants and refugees in the region of Evros were highly publicized, the head of New Democracy’s Immigration Policy, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, noted that the allegations “question our country’s international dignity, making it accountable for human rights and international conventions.”
He added that the government “seems to have chosen to circumvent international conventions and to show indifference to the human rights of immigrants.”
New Democracy’s fierce criticism of SYRIZA over the issue changed in July 2019, when it won the election and went from being the opposition to being the government in power.
New Democracy’s position then changed, which, now as the government in power, quickly found itself denying what it had made allegations of in the past.
“Allegations of human rights violations by Greek law enforcement personnel is fabricated, false and uncorroborated,” Citizen Protection Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos, stated in a recent joint investigation on pushbacks.
In March, the government strongly denied a New York Times article as “Turkish propaganda” – the article investigated the existence of a secret detention center in Evros, where immigrants and refugees are being held before being sent back to Turkey, without having the opportunity to apply for asylum.
In 2017, the Ombudsman announced that he was conducting an investigation based on the allegations made regarding pushbacks in Evros.
Also in 2017, a prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into the same case, while the Hellenic League for Human Rights and the Greek Refugee Council have filed indictments.
To date, however, no answers have been given, while the latest information which has been publicized only strengthens evidence that illegal pushbacks are being carried out, with the direct involvement of Greek authorities.
Just a day before publication of this article, new reports of pushbacks in Greek territorial waters of the Aegean Sea were made public.
This is happening NOW at Europe’s borders! Masked men attack people in distress in Greek waters, making waves before leaving again. Listen to their voices: ‘we will die’, ‘mama, mama’.
Shame on Europe! Stop the violence! Rescue now! @HCoastGuard @UNHCRGreece @EU_Commission pic.twitter.com/8fMNXxAnXX
— Alarm Phone (@alarm_phone) June 4, 2020
On June 4th, responding to a question by German MEP, Dietmar Köster, Director of Frontex, Fabrice Leggeri, basically confirmed that pushbacks have been taking place in the Aegean Sea, and attributes blame to the Greek authorities.
In the midst of his great misfortune, being pushed back to Turkey and forced to endure an “Odyssey” that lasted about two and a half years, Khalil was lucky enough to have people on his side who fought for his rights, and spent hundreds of hours on his case − reasserting what he, as a legal refugee, was entitled to.
But what happens to those who are not as lucky?
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