(Brussels) – Nationality-based restrictions at the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are preventing asylum seekers from reaching countries where they want to lodge protection claims.
Human Rights Watch witnessed dozens of returns from Macedonia to Greece at the Idomeni border crossing during a three-day visit in late January 2016. The people are returned to a border area with poor conditions, instead of a well-equipped transit camp set up by aid agencies. Unable to proceed legally, people are increasingly trying to cross the border informally, where they face violence from Macedonian guards. And criminal human smuggling rings are taking advantage of the migrants and asylum seekers trapped in Greece at the border and are committing abuses against them, Human Rights Watch said.
“The failure of the European Union to tackle the refugee crisis fairly and responsibly has led to cascading restrictions at borders, with asylum seekers and migrants facing greater risks of abuse and exploitation,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “Desperate people who are the wrong nationality are being denied the right to move on, beaten by border guards if they try to cross, and preyed upon by smugglers.” Greek authorities will not allow asylum seekers to cross into the no-man’s land to reach the Macedonia border post unless they are Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans who express the intention to seek asylum in Germany or Austria.
We were all caught by the Macedonian army. They called us terrorists. It was during the night. My friend Majid, he was beaten and they broke his nose and fractured his skull. Then they just dropped us back at the border and left us there. So we took him to the doctor, and he was sent to Athens for treatment. Some of the others were robbed, but not me and Majid. We heard them say that they had been robbed of their mobiles and money by the soldiers.
Samir, 23, a Moroccan migrant, said he had been beaten by Macedonian soldiers around January 26, when he and others crossed illegally into Macedonia and were caught, and that a week earlier, one of his friends was beaten so badly by Macedonian soldiers that his leg was broken:
We came to Greece in December, about a month ago. When we arrived at Moria registration camp, the authorities refused to register us, and some other Moroccans were arrested. After two weeks, a big group of us snuck onto the ferry to Athens, without tickets. We came to the border five days ago with a fake paper saying we were Iraqi – we met a guy in Athens who said he could sell us papers for 50 or 100 euro. But when we got here, the Greek police said it was fake.
So, two days ago, I tried to cross the border. We crossed the fence where it was cut open, at night, with nine people. We were soon caught by the Macedonian army, and they started beating us with their batons. When they were beating us, they were laughing at us, saying, ‘You are Moroccans and want to go to Germany?’ They hit me on the shoulder and then were kicking us until we were put on the truck. They didn’t rob us. They put us on the truck and brought us back to the border and made us go back to Greece.
One of my Moroccan friends had his leg broken 10 days ago in Macedonia. He crossed the fence into Macedonia and they were caught by the army and beaten. The soldiers ordered them to lay down on the ground. It was raining, and they kicked them hard and broke his leg. He is now in Athens in the hospital. His name is Khaled, he’s 24 years old.
An international observer at the border, who asked not to be identified so she could continue working there, confirmed that she regularly saw people returned from Macedonia to Greece by the Macedonian army, and that some of those returned showed clear injuries:
We regularly see people being returned at the border gate with serious injuries, including broken limbs. It is the Macedonian army who return these people directly to the border gate, and push them back to Greece. The Macedonian army vehicles are noisy, so when we hear the vehicles we go to the gate and see the returns ourselves. But often, the Greek police take custody of the victims and refuse to allow us to speak to them, putting them straight onto buses back to Athens.
Accounts of Abuses by Smugglers
Abbas Farhadi, 43, left Iran with his wife and three children, hoping to go to Germany, but found himself stuck in Greece because Iranians were not allowed to cross into Macedonia. He said he was approached by smugglers in Athens who persuaded him to pay them €4,500 to be smuggled to Belgrade, but then just disappeared:
We were in Victory Park in Athens, not knowing what to do. We were just sitting in the park, and these three Afghan guys came to us, and said, “Where do you want to go to? We can arrange it for you.” So we paid them 4,500 euro, 1,500 for each adult. They took us to a wooded area near the border, and then said to wait there, saying they were going to get food and supplies. But then they never came back, they just disappeared. So we walked for five hours to the border at Idomeni, so we can take a bus back to Athens.
Cyrus, 24, an Iranian asylum seeker, told Human Rights Watch that he and six other Iranians had paid a smuggler to be taken from Athens to Austria. Once he obtained the money, the smuggler failed to deliver on his promises. When the men complained, they were brutally beaten and kicked out of the smuggler’s safe house without their luggage:
We were seven people, and we paid the smuggler between 1,300 and 2,000 euro each to be smuggled out to Austria. Then, he just kicked us out, laughing at us and saying we should go complain to the police. We lost everything we had. I complained, and they beat me and broke my nose. My friend was also beaten. They had knives, and they beat us with their fists. My friend lost all of his possessions when they beat us and kicked us out of the house.