Greece has long been accused of carrying out pushbacks. Amnesty concluded in a report that asylum seekers are systematically returned by force, without being given the chance to apply for asylum. This is contrary to international treaties and European legislation. “People seeking safety in Greece are being brutally arrested, imprisoned, mistreated and then returned across the river,” said Amnesty’s Adriana Tidona. Migrants are also sometimes arrested in other places in Greece, such as in the city of Thessaloniki, and driven to the border.
Natalie Gruber of the Austrian aid organization Josoor collects testimonials from victims. She sees an increase in the number of pushbacks from Greece, as well as in the violence involved. She also hears more and more often that Turkish border guards do not want to take people back. “That has changed. Previously, people were given water and taken to the bus stop. Now we see that Turkish border guards sometimes force people to go back to the Greek side just as harshly. For example, people are ping-ponged back and forth several times.”
Turkish human rights lawyer Vedat Çartekin represents Saad Ali’s Syrian group. They demand an investigation into the Turkish soldiers accused of throwing a total of 45 people into the river. He says the Turkish border guard’s behavior is likely a reaction to that of their Greek counterparts on the other side.
“The Greeks commit gross crimes against human rights. That Greek approach is now affecting the Turkish attitude at the border. Turkey is saying: if you don’t accept them, then we don’t have to do it anymore.” He sees his clients as pawns in a political game between Turkey and Greece.
The Turkish government regularly accuses Greece of violating the human rights of migrants. Turkish state media publish photos of injuries sustained by migrants returning from Greece, and spread images of pushbacks at sea. The Greeks accuse Turkey of helping people smugglers and spreading fake news.
no mans land
A new trend is for people to be dumped in the river on small islands, Gruber says. “Those islands are no man’s land. On both sides of the river are armed border guards who try to prevent people from landing. We have 25 detailed testimonies of people who were trapped on such an island for days, often without water and food, in the cold.”
A large proportion of the people trying to cross the Greek-Turkish border have lived in Turkey for years. Turkey is hosting nearly 4 million Syrians, but economic uncertainty is fueling growing anti-refugee sentiment there. Many Syrians also fear that they will be sent back to Syria.
The same goes for Saad Ali. When he fled to Turkey in 2016, he thought it was temporary. “I thought that after two years peace would return to Syria, that I would go back. But the war lasted longer. That is why I decided to go to Europe. I want to study to become a nurse. In Turkey I get no help, in Germany or maybe the Netherlands.”
Both the Greek and Turkish authorities have not responded to questions from the NOS.