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(Athens) – The first round of European Union-sanctioned deportations of 66 people from the Greek island of Chios to Turkey on April 4, 2016 was rushed, chaotic, and violated the rights of those deported, Human Rights Watch said today. In Turkey, the detained deportees lost contact with family and friends held in Greece, and Turkish authorities have not allowed visits by rights groups or the United Nations.

“In the mad dash to start the deportations deal with Turkey, the European Union and Greece tossed rights to the wind, including for people who wanted to seek asylum,” said Fred Abrahams, Human Rights Watch associate director for program. “The abusive deportations expose the fundamental flaws in the EU’s expedited mass returns to a country that cannot be considered safe.”

Officials from the EU border agency Frontex on a boat between Lesbos, Greece and Dikili, Turkey, deporting migrants on April 4, 2016. © 2016 Getty

In visits to the VIAL detention center on Chios on April 7 and 8, Human Rights Watch spoke with 12 friends and one relative of 19 Afghans who were deported from Chios on April 4. Based on those interviews and text messages exchanged between those interviewed and the deportees, Human Rights Watch documented an array of irregularities and violations. The authorities did not inform people that they were going to be deported, did not tell them where they were being taken, and did not allow some of them to take their personal possessions. According to the UN Refugee Agency, thirteen of those deported from Chios had expressed a desire to seek asylum in Greece, and that number could be higher, Human Rights Watch said.

The Greek authorities appear to have hurried the forced returns from Chios, and the 136 other deportations that day from the nearby island of Lesbos, to meet a publicized deadline for the start of returns under the ill-conceived EU-Turkey deal that went into effect on March 20, 2016. That deal allows the return of asylum seekers to Turkey on the presumption that Turkey is safe for asylum seekers and refugees.

The legal basis for the return to Turkey of migrants who are not seeking asylum is a Greece-Turkey readmission agreement from 2001. An EU-Turkey readmission agreement to allow similar deportations from all 28 EU member states will go into effect in June.
The back of Tabakika, an abandoned factory in Chios, Greece, where the police held 66 deportees on the night of April 3-4, 2016.   © 2016 Human Rights Watch

The deportations from Chios and Lesbos were carried out by Greek police with 180 “escort officers” from the EU border agency, Frontex. The Greek government and Frontex said that most of the deportees were from Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Afghanistan, and that none of the people returned to Turkey had wanted to seek asylum in Greece.

On April 8, Greece deported a second round of 124 people from Lesbos, primarily from Pakistan and Afghanistan, assisted by 144 Frontex officers. The next day, Greece announced that it would suspend deportations to Turkey for at least two weeks to improve the process, though Greece and Turkey have indicated that deportations may resume earlier.

Greece and the EU should extend the suspension of deportation until effective safeguards are in place to guarantee the right to seek asylum and to challenge deportations, Human Rights Watch said.

“The EU deal is based on the deceptive premise that all returned people are safe in Turkey, when the facts say otherwise,” Abrahams said. “To build walls around Europe, the EU is turning a blind eye to the dangers faced by people in desperate need.” 
The bags of three deported Afghan men—Ilias Haqjo, Mohammad, and Reza (full names unknown)—which they were forced to leave in VIAL detention camp on Chios when they were deported on April 4, 2016. Greek police did not allow more than a dozen deportees to take their personal possessions.  © 2016 Human Rights Watch

No Information, No Possessions

The deportations from Chios began around midday on April 3, when Greek police at the VIAL detention facility took dozens of people to the main building where police and Frontex register new arrivals, and where the Greek asylum service is located. The authorities separated the 66 people they had identified for return, witnesses said. The 12 friends and one relative of the 19 deportees, who did not want their names published, told Human Rights Watch that the police had called people on the false pretext that they were to be registered, including for asylum.

“Salim,” a 24-year-old man from Afghanistan, said the police took three of his Afghan friends, Ilias Haqjo, Mohammad, and Reza (full names unknown), all between 20 and 25 years old, without their possessions.

“They came here and told them they have to go to register,” he said. “They left happy and when they came out the police were waiting for them…. If the guys knew they were going to be deported, they would have taken their bags, their papers, their money.”

Among those selected for return was a family of five from Afghanistan: Shila Ahmadi, 40, Jalal Ahmadi, 54, and their three children, Mohsen, 20, Omid, 18, and Soraya, 16. Shila’s brother said the family was from Logar Province but had moved to Kabul after the Taliban attacked their home in 2009, wounding Shila, Jalal, and Soraya.

“The police came and took everyone to the main area,” the brother said. “They separated the group [to be deported] and told them that they’ll be transferred.”

A still from video shows Greek police at the VIAL detention center on Chios as deportees protest their pending return to Turkey on April 3, 2016. © 2016 Private

In the afternoon, Shila Ahmadi began to scream and protest in the main area. A video given to Human Rights Watch shows her wailing as about 15 riot police with helmets and shields approach. A group of men nearby starts chanting: “This is Europe, it’s a shame on you!” and “It’s not human rights!”

At 5:53 p.m., Omid Ahmadi began exchanging text messages with “Amir,” a friend of the family who was in the closed part of VIAL:

  • Omid:              “They want to take us from here.”
    “Amir:”           “Where?”
    Omid:              “I don’t know.”
    “Amir:”           “Are you in the hall?”
    Omid:              “Yes.”
    “Amir:”           “Deport or forward?”
    Omid:              “I don’t know.”

Later that evening, the police in VIAL bound the hands of the 66 deportees behind their backs and forced them onto a blue bus.

“They brought everyone in the bus; it was a police bus, and they didn’t let them take their jackets, bags, money, mobile phones,” said “Tahir,” a 26-year-old man from Afghanistan, referring to the three deported Afghan men, Ilias, Mohammad, and Reza. “We didn’t have time to speak. Their families are calling us and are asking, ‘Where are they?’ and we don’t have any information. We don’t know where they are.”

The police took the deportees to an abandoned factory in Chios called Tabakika, which served as the registration center for new arrivals on the island before the VIAL facility opened in February. A person who visited the factory that night told Human Rights Watch that he saw people sitting or sleeping on the concrete floor, some with mats. The people told him they had been given food but asked for water.

Between 15 and 20 of the people in Tabakika – Afghans and two people from the Democratic Republic of Congo – told the visitor that the police had taken them from VIAL without allowing them to gather their personal belongings: backpacks, clothes, and in some cases their mobile phones and documents.

Human Rights Watch saw eight of the bags that people had left behind in VIAL, including the bags belonging to the three Afghan men and bags from four other Afghan men who were also deported: Zishan Haider, Alijan, Asadullah, and Rohullah (full names unknown). Another Afghan man, “Karim,” showed Human Rights Watch a bag and medicine that he said a deported friend of his, Omid Popal from Kabul, had not been allowed to take.

One of the Afghans held at Tabakika before he was deported, Wahid Abbasi, left a voice message for his friend, “Hamida,” a single mother of one in VIAL, who was traveling with her sister and her sister’s five children. “Hello, we are here with families in another camp without anything, no water, no food and it’s so cold here,” he said at 9:20 p.m. on April 3, on the voice recording.

An exchange of text messages followed:

  • Wahid:            There is no news of deportation.
                            They don’t say anything.
    “Hamida:”      How?
    Wahid             Now we are the camp. There’s nothing here.
    “Hamida:”      They didn't tell you anything?
    Wahid:            We are at the shore.
                             No, they didn’t say anything.
    “Hamida:”      They didn’t give you any papers?
    Wahid:            They didn’t say a word.
                             Whatever news we get we will inform you right away.

The confusion continued the next day as Greek and Frontex officials loaded people onto ferries in Chios and Lesbos harbors around 5 a.m. – two hours earlier than the police had announced to media.

Text messages between deportees on the boat and people still in VIAL indicate that the deportees did not know where in Turkey they were being taken. Around 11:30 a.m., Mohsen Ahmadi sent a message to “Amir,” the family friend in VIAL:

  • Mohsen:         OK, they are taking us to Turkey, we’re inside the boat.
                             Now we’re close to Turkey.
    “Amir:”           They didn’t tell you where they’re taking you?
                            What city are you in?
    Mohsen:         I don’t know. When I know I’ll tell you.

Shortly thereafter, Wahid Abbasi informed his friend in VIAL, “Hamida,” that the boat had arrived in Turkey. “Do you know where they’ll take you and what they’ll do?” Hamida asked. “I don’t know,” Abbasi replied at 12:03 p.m. “We’re on the boat.”

Also on the boat from Chios was a family from Afghanistan’s Faryab province – Ghulam and Rabia Sakhi and their daughters Shanaz, 19, and Suhaila, 15. A friend of the family who was detained with them in VIAL told Human Rights Watch that the Sakhi family had left their village, Maimana, because of fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban.

“With each of us is a security officer, which makes us uncomfortable,” a message from the Sakhi family said at 10:47 a.m.

Officials in Dikili, Turkey escort deportees off the boat from Greece on April 4, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

On the other side, in Dikili, Turkey, the authorities hung blue tarps on the fence around the registration tents to block journalists and human rights monitors from contacting the deportees. The police commander at the area denied a Human Rights Watch request to access the site.

The deportees were then loaded onto buses and driven away. Police at the site told Human Rights Watch that they were headed to Kirklareli, near Edirne, and the media subsequently reported that the people deported from Greece were being held at the Pehlivankoy removal center in that town.

The deportees on the buses in Turkey, however, seemed not to know where exactly they were going. “Now we’re in the bus, they’re taking us to a camp,” Mohsen Ahmadi wrote his friend “Amir” around 3 p.m. “Why there?” “Amir” asked. “I don’t know, the camp is near Istanbul,” Ahmadi replied.

“When you arrive, let us know,” “Amir” wrote. “OK,” Ahmadi wrote back at 8:28 p.m., but that was the last message that “Amir” received.

“Hassan,” a friend of the four deported Afghanis who could not take their bags said he received a message that evening from one of that group, Haider, who is from Ghazni province, followed by a brief conversation over the phone. “Hassan” recalled:

“He [Haider] said: ‘We are near a gate. I don’t know where. Now they’re taking us inside. It looks like a jail.’ Then he said that if someone from immigration comes to our room [in VIAL] I should give them his stuff. Then he said ‘now we’re going inside and the police are collecting our phones. They’re saying empty our pockets.’ He said he’d call back, but he did not.”

On “Hassan’s” phone, Human Rights Watch saw a message from Haider at 10:28 p.m. on April 4, followed by a phone conversation of 2 minutes and 32 seconds.

Human Rights Watch collected the phone numbers of four of the people who were deported from Chios on April 4. As of April 18, none of them had replied to messages on Viber, the application they had been using. When called, three of the phones appeared to be shut off and one of the numbers was not working.

The legal basis of confiscating phones from people being deported, if any, remains unclear. Given that asylum seekers and migrants rely on their phones to stay informed and to keep in touch with family, such measures appear unnecessary and cruel, as well as a violation of the individuals’ personal property rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Wrongly Deported
Greek and EU officials repeatedly claimed that all of the people deported from Chios and Lesbos had not wished to seek asylum in Greece. But, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, 13 of the deportees from Chios had expressed such a desire, 11 from Afghanistan, and 2 from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The number who wanted to seek asylum may actually have been greater. During its research at the VIAL detention camp, Human Rights Watch found that many detainees lacked adequate information about seeking asylum in Greece and were unable to access legal aid. They also were not informed about the reason for their detention or their right to challenge it.

These deficiencies raise doubts that asylum seekers who arrived in Greece after the EU-Turkey deal came into effect on March 20, including those deported on April 4 and 8, have had a fair chance to request protection, Human Rights Watch said.

Detained in Turkey

In Turkey, the status and treatment of the 13 wrongly deported people, as well as the other 189 deportees from Chios and Lesbos, remain unclear. Even if they are able to apply for asylum in Turkey, they can do so only for the purpose of resettlement in another country because Turkey limits its application of the 1951 Refugee Convention to refugees from Europe.

A formal Human Rights Watch request to visit the removal centers that Turkey is using to process migrants returned from Greece was denied. UNHCR’s spokesperson in Turkey said the agency is still negotiating access to the Pehlivankoy removal center.

Turkey is currently negotiating readmission agreements with a number of countries, including Afghanistan, to expedite returns to countries of origin. Turkey's parliament approved the first of those agreements, with Pakistan, on April 8.

Turkey cannot be considered a safe country for non-European refugees and asylum seekers because it does not provide effective protection, Human Rights Watch said.

Effective protection requires access to fair and efficient asylum procedures and a demonstrated willingness and capacity to provide protection in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and international human rights standards. This includes, most fundamentally, respect for the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits a country from returning a person to a country where they face a risk of persecution or abuse.

Turkey has openly flouted the principle of non-refoulement by blocking Syrian asylum seekers at its border. As of April 18, Turkey was denying entry to up to 100,000 people from Syria, and even shooting at some who were trying to flee fighting.

Despite Turkey’s assurances that it provides work authorization for Syrians with temporary protection, as well as access to education and health services, many Syrians in Turkey have told Human Rights Watch that they face difficulty in registering for temporary protection and receiving identification cards, which is required for employment, health care, and schools. Many Syrians who do have temporary protection identification are still unable to qualify to work or to find jobs and many, particularly among the unemployed, are not able to send their children to school.

Refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other non-European countries are not eligible for temporary protection in Turkey. At best, they can get conditional protection, which under Turkish law is explicitly for the purpose of third country resettlement. The EU-Turkey deal, however, makes no allowance for the resettlement of non-Syrians. It provides that Turkey will resettle one Syrian refugee to Europe for each Syrian asylum seeker returned to Turkey from Greece.

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