Greece: End Violence Against Asylum Seekers at Border

Security Forces and Unidentified Men Abuse, Strip and Summarily Deport Thousands

(Athens) – Greek security forces and unidentified armed men at the Greece-Turkey land border have detained, assaulted, sexually assaulted, robbed, and stripped asylum seekers and migrants, then forced them back to Turkey, Human Rights Watch said today. Top EU officials have praised Greece’s border control measures and provided support through the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX).

“The European Union is hiding behind a shield of Greek security force abuse instead of helping Greece protect asylum seekers and relocate them safely throughout the EU,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should protect people in need rather than support forces who beat, rob, strip, and dump asylum seekers and migrants back across the river.”

Greece should immediately reverse its March 1 decision to suspend for one month access to asylum for people irregularly entering the country and to deport them, where possible, to their countries of origin or transit. The Greek Parliament should investigate, and FRONTEX should monitor, any Greek security force abuse and summary deportation of asylum seekers and migrants. EU member states should urgently relocate asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries and fairly process their asylum claims.

Between March 7 and 9, Human Rights Watch interviewed 21 asylum seekers and migrants, 17 of whom were men and 4 women, in Turkey about how they tried to enter Greece over the land border following the Turkish government’s February 27 announcement that it would no longer stop asylum seekers and migrants from leaving Turkey to reach the European Union.

Those interviewed and thousands of others have traveled to Turkey’s Pazarkule border gate on the Greece-Turkey border and to the Evros river, which forms a natural border between Turkey and Greece, to the south of Pazarkule. Eight of the interviewees said Turkish police transported them to border villages and showed them where to cross into Greece.

In response, the Greek government reinforced its border with police, army, and special forces, which fired teargas and reportedly rubber bullets at people who approached the Pazarkule crossing. Two asylum seekers who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that Greek security forces also used live fire to push people back. One of these people, interviewed in a hospital where he was getting treatment, said he was shot in the leg. According to Turkish officials, Greek security forces have shot and killed at least three asylum seekers or migrants, but Human Rights Watch has not verified this number.

All those interviewed said that within hours after they crossed in boats or waded through the river, armed men wearing various law enforcement uniforms or in civilian clothes, including all in black with balaclavas, intercepted everyone in their group. All said the men detained them in official or informal detention centers, or on the roadside, and stole their money, mobile phones, and bags before summarily pushing them back to Turkey. Seventeen described how the men assaulted them and others, including women and children, through electric shocks, beating with wooden or metal rods, prolonged beating of the soles of feet, punching, kicking, and stomping.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed five Turkish residents of border villages who described how between February 28 and March 6 they had helped care for large groups of people who returned injured and almost naked from Greece saying that Greek security forces had beaten, robbed, stripped, and deported them.

In one case, an interviewee described Greek security forces sexually assaulting his wife when they crossed the border. “They [Greek security forces] tried to search my wife and touched her breasts,” said a Syrian man who was travelling with his wife and children. “Then they tried to take off her headscarf and her trousers. When I tried to stop them, they beat me really badly with their fists, feet, a heavy plastic rod, and a metal stick. They hit my 2-year-old daughter with a heavy plastic stick on the head so that she still has a bruise.” Human Rights Watch saw a bruise underneath the girl’s hair.

In most cases, the interviewees, said that armed men stripped them down to their underwear, including some women, and forced them across the Evros river back to Turkey. Many said that they were passed between various groups, suggesting coordination between police or soldiers and the unidentified men.

In three cases, asylum seekers and migrants said they were forced back to Turkey or handed over to abusive Greek forces by people who did not speak Greek and were not wearing a Greek uniform, though they did not know where they were from. On March 3, 2020, FRONTEX agreed to deploy along the full length of the Turkey-Greece land border but how many forces have been deployed and when remains unclear. On March 13, Human Rights Watch informed FRONTEX about alleged abuse by non-Greek forces and asked about its deployments along the border. On March 16, FRONTEX replied saying that it did not have the requested information and that it would respond as soon as it did.

Some of the interviewees said they tried multiple times to enter Greece and were each time forcibly returned. Taken together, the interviewees described 38 deportation incidents involving almost 4,000 people, although some of these could be double counts.

On March 6, the Turkish President’s communication director, Fahrettin Altun, condemned reports of Greek border security stripping, beating, and deporting asylum seekers across the Evros river, but Turkey continued to transport people to the border and urge them to cross.

On March 3, senior EU officials met Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the Greece-Turkey land border, praising the government for protecting the border and referring to Greece as the EU’s “shield.” In later statements, the European Commission president, Ursula van der Leyden, and EU Migration Commissioner Ylva Johansson said they had emphasized the need to respect fundamental rights, including the right to asylum.

Greece is bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which recognizes the right to seek asylum and guarantees protection from refoulement, the forcible return of anyone to a real risk of persecution or other serious harm.

Turkey does not meet the EU criteria for a safe third country to which an asylum seeker can be returned, which include respect for the principle of non-refoulement. Since July 2019, Turkey has deported at least hundreds of Syrians from its cities, exposing those forcibly returned from Greece to the risk of onward refoulement to Syria.

Since 2016, Turkish border guards patrolling Turkey’s closed border with Syria have killed and injured Syrian asylum seekers and carried out mass summary pushbacks. Most have been returned to Idlib governorate, where Syrian government and Russian forces have recently carried out a new round of indiscriminate bombings, striking civilians, hospitals, and schools, forcing a million people to flee. In 2018, Turkey also summarily deported thousands of Afghans to their country.

Greece should allow people seeking protection at its borders to enter, and fairly and efficiently assess their asylum claims, Human Rights Watch said. The European Commission should urge Greece to reinstate asylum procedures for people irregularly entering Greece from Turkey, end summary returns to Turkey, and press the authorities to prosecute abusive officials.

FRONTEX should monitor and publicly report on Greek security force compliance with European and international human rights and refugee law, including detention standards, as well as similar compliance by its officers and those contributed by member states. Turkey should not compel anyone to cross the border irregularly into Greece.

“Without EU pressure on Greece to stop these appalling abuses, this cycle of violence will continue,” Hardman said. “But the EU should also help Greece by relocating asylum seekers to the rest of the EU and help Turkey, the world’s number one refugee hosting country, by resettling far greater numbers of refugees.”

Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants in Turkey; Transports to the Border in February and March

Turkey shelters almost 3.6 million Syrians registered under a “temporary protection” regulation, which Turkish authorities say automatically applies to all Syrians seeking asylum. This reflects the UN refugee agency’s position that “the vast majority of Syrian asylum-seekers continue to … need international refugee protection” and that “states [should] not forcibly return Syrian nationals and former habitual residents of Syria.”

According to Turkey’s migration authorities, almost 115,000 asylum seekers lodged protection claims in 2018, including 70,000 Iraqis and 40,000 Afghans, while in 2019 almost 35,000 Afghans and 15,000 Iraqis lodged asylum claims. In late 2019, Turkey said it also hosted about 460,000 irregularly present people, including 200,000 Afghans, 70,000 Pakistanis, 55,000 Syrians, 12,000 Iraqis, 12,000 Palestinians, and 9,000 Iranians. It is unclear how Turkey identified these people without registering them.

Until the February 27, 2020, announcement, Turkish border authorities generally prevented foreigners from leaving Turkey irregularly at its EU land borders, reflected in the high numbers of people who resorted to entering Greece in smugglers’ boats beginning in 2015. Between January 2015 and March 12, 2020, Turkey’s coastguard reportedly intercepted 186,766 asylum seekers and migrants in the Aegean Sea.

On March 5, Turkey announced that it was sending 1,000 additional police officers to the border with Greece to prevent Greece from pushing asylum seekers back to Turkey. Turkish media published photos of what the authorities said were new deployments along the Evros river.

Eight asylum seekers and migrants Human Rights Watch spoke with said that between February 28 and March 6, Turkish police or military had transported them in buses to villages on the Evros river to the south of the Pazarkule border crossing and helped them cross to Greece. They included two men taken from immigration removal centers, one of whom said the authorities threatened to kill him if he did not agree to be taken to the Greek border. Two others said police or military took them to Pazarkule. At 7 p.m. on March 8, Human Rights Watch saw hundreds of foreign nationals getting off five large white coaches without commercial logos parked next to police vehicles in Küplü village, 400 meters from the Greek border.

An asylum seeker in northern Turkey at the Greek border on March 6 shows injuries he says Greek security forces inflicted after he had crossed the Evros River into Greece. 

© 2020 Belal Khaled

Abuse by Greek Forces in late February and early March

Between March 7 and 9, two Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 21 asylum seekers and migrants in Edirne city and near the Evros river to the south of Edirne about abuses that they had faced on the Greek side of the river. Seventeen of them were men and four were women: 7 from Afghanistan, 4 from Syria, 2 each from Morocco, Pakistan, and Senegal, and one each from Azerbaijan, Gambia, Iran, and Iraq.

Interviews were carried out privately and confidentially through male and female interpreters in the interviewees’ first language. One person spoke fluent English. They shared their accounts voluntarily, and without remuneration, and consented to Human Rights Watch collecting and publishing their accounts without using their names.

Their accounts confirm patterns that Human Rights Watch documented in similar situations in 2008 and 2018. In mid-2018, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture said it had received “several consistent and credible allegations of pushbacks by boat from Greece to Turkey at the Evros River border by masked Greek police and border guards or (para-) military commandos.” And in November 2018, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner called on Greece to investigate allegations of Greek abuses at Turkey’s border, in light of information pointing to “an established practice.”

Interception and Detention

All of those interviewed said that armed men, and in one case a woman, in uniform or in black or other civilian clothes intercepted everyone in their group within one to 10 hours after they had crossed the Evros river. They said the men were armed with handguns, rifles, metal bars, and wood or plastic batons.

Ten of the interviewees described 19 occasions in which men they thought were police stopped them, because they were wearing blue, grey, or dark uniforms. Five interviewees described six incidents in which men they thought were soldiers stopped them, because they wore green or beige camouflage uniforms. Five others said that they were stopped by men wearing black or other civilian clothes. One person said he was stopped by four armed men and a woman in black with the German flag on their sleeves and one man in black with the Swedish flag on his sleeve and that they handed him and others over to men in black with balaclavas.

In the two other cases, asylum seekers described men in black and balaclavas speaking English and French who said they were from France, and men in camouflage uniforms who spoke what sounded like German, who abused and deported them to Turkey.

Greek authorities have said that police officers wearing dark blue uniforms work at police stations; border patrol police officers wear military camouflage uniforms. FRONTEX guards wear their national uniforms with a blue armband with the EU flag.

Interviewees said the men who stopped them in Greece arrived in police cars, pick-up trucks, white vans without windows or signs, or larger green or camouflage trucks that appeared to be military trucks. Sixteen said they were held on the roadside or in forests for between half an hour and four hours after being apprehended, while five said the armed men took them to unofficial detention centers. They described the detention locations as small houses, small compounds, and partially built houses and said they were detained there between two and five hours. In one case, a man said men wearing uniforms marked “police” held him in a metal container with about 50 other people for 18 hours without water or access to a toilet.

No one registered those interviewed, they said, and their detention appears to have been arbitrary and incommunicado.

On March 10, the New York Times reported on a detention center a few hundred meters from the border village of Poros, four kilometers east of the town of Feres, which it concluded Greek security forces had used to detain asylum seekers and migrants in early March before returning them to Turkey. On March 11, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said she would discuss the center with the Greek authorities.

Beatings and Abuse

Seventeen of those interviewed said the men detaining them physically abused them or others, including women and children. Eight said police were responsible for ill treatment, three identified soldiers, three spoke of men in black and balaclavas, and three said men in other civilian clothes mistreated them.

A Syrian man holds his 2-year-old daughter in the Turkish border village of Alibey on March 9, 2020, a day after he says Greek security forces detained and beat them both when he tried to stop them from sexually assaulting and stripping his wife.

© 2020 Human Rights Watch

A 31-year-old Syrian man and 22-year-old Syrian woman from Idlib with three daughters ages 2, 4, and 6 said that they crossed to Greece on March 5, where men in camouflaged uniforms who they believed to be Greek soldiers took them and 40 others to a small compound. The man described what happened next:

They [Greek security forces] tried to search my wife and touched her breasts. Then they tried to take off her headscarf and her trousers. When I tried to stop them, they beat me really badly with their fists, feet, a heavy plastic rod and a metal stick. They hit my 2-year-old daughter with a heavy plastic stick on the head so that she still has a bruise. Then they gave my wife an electric shock on her wrist and shoulder and one of the men pointed a gun at my head. They beat many of the other men [in the group] and forced all of them to take off almost all their clothes. They took our phones, money and passports. After two hours they took us in one truck back to the river where a man in a boat in black with a balaclava went back and forth [across the river] until all of us were back in Turkey.

A 33-year-old man from Afghanistan who said he crossed to Greece on March 1 explained:

I crossed in a boat with about 60 others including families. Turkish police made sure there were no Greek police on the other side of the river. We walked for about eight hours and then the Greek police found us and took us to a half-built house. They stripped us men down to our underwear and they slapped, kicked, and beat us with wooden sticks. They didn’t show any mercy and beat some of the women and children, too. They took our phones, money, bags, and clothes and held us there for five hours. They brought other refugees to that building. When there were about 300 of us, they took us back to the river and put us on small boats back to Turkey.

A 25-year-old Syrian man with a heavily bandaged right arm said that he crossed to Greece on March 2 in a group of about 200 people and that they walked through forests and villages for two hours:

Suddenly a transit van and a pick-up truck arrived with about eight men. Four were in civilian clothes and all of them had beards. Some others were wearing a patchy camouflage with black boots and others were wearing a green uniform with beige boots. They all had big guns, that looked bigger than a Kalashnikov. They stopped us and took our bags, money, and phones. Some of us tried to hold onto our things so they punched and kicked us, including women. They threw me to the ground and one of the men stomped on my right hand about ten times. After they sent us back to Turkey, a Syrian doctor did surgery on my hand to repair a severed nerve.

A 30-year-old Pakistani man in a group of 20 described their arrival during the first week of March:

All of us have tried to cross to Greece every day for the past week. Each time the Greek police catch us and strip us of our clothes, beat us, give us electric shocks to our upper body, and steal whatever we have with us and then send us back. Each time we find locals in Turkey who give us clothes. Today, they beat two of the men in our group so badly on the soles of their feet that an ambulance in Turkey picked them up in this village and took them to a hospital.

Theft, Stripping, and Summary Deportations

Fourteen of the people interviewed described 20 incidents in which the armed men who had stopped them stripped them of their possessions, including personal identification documents, money, telephones, and bags. Seven said the police took their belongings, seven said it was men in black, five said soldiers took their belongings and one said it was men in other civilian clothes.

Eleven people described 15 incidents in which men detaining them stripped them of their clothes down to their underwear, including three who said women were also stripped, and then forced them back across the border.

A 32-year-old man from Afghanistan said Turkish police drove him and 300 others to a border village with Greece, where they crossed on February 29. He said that men in various uniforms and civilian clothes intercepted them after two hours and held them for half an hour at the side of the road:

After about 30 minutes, three big trucks arrived. The drivers and some other men on the trucks were wearing dark blue uniforms and had sticks that give electric shocks. As the men forced us on the trucks, they told all of us men to take off our clothes, except for our underwear. They beat the men who didn’t want to strip. Then they took us to the river and forced us onto inflatable boats back to Turkey.

The 21 interviewees described 38 deportation incidents involving almost 4,000 people. This includes eight groups of an average of about 50 people deported in the last two days of February and thirty groups deported in the first seven days of March, including 22 groups of an average of about 50 people, seven groups of an average of about 200 and one group of about 1,000 people.

All interviewees said that armed men walked or drove them back to the Evros river, in military trucks, pick-up trucks or in other civilian vehicles. There the armed men ordered them onto small boats controlled by men in camouflage uniforms or civilian clothes that went back and forth until they had transported the entire group back to Turkey. Some said that some of the armed men watched the Turkish side of the border with binoculars during the deportation.

Shooting Live Ammunition

Media reports say Turkish officials have accused Greek security forces of shooting and killing at least three people during the first week of March. These possibly include a Syrian man who was killed on the Greek side of the Evros river the morning of March 2.

On March 10, a lawyer with the Istanbul Bar Association’s Human Rights Center said she had petitioned the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to order Greece to allow asylum seekers to enter Greece and to stop using live fire and teargas against them, based on the reported March 2 killing.

A Senegalese asylum seeker told Human Rights Watch that shortly after he had crossed the Evros river on the morning of March 2 with about 300 people, Greek security forces fired shots at the group and he saw two men who he thought were Syrians fall to the ground. He ran away and did not see what happened afterward.

The Bar Association lawyer also said that the Turkish prosecutor’s office had opened an investigation into the killing of a Pakistani man on March 4 at the Pazarkule border crossing. The lawyer said the Office of the Governor of Edirne Province referred to the man’s death in a March 4 news release. It said that at 11 a.m., Greek border forces at the Pazarkule crossing had used “teargas, plastic bullets and live bullets” against asylum seekers and had injured six people, one of whom died later that day.

On March 9, Human Rights Watch interviewed a hospitalized Pakistani man who said that Greek border guards shot him in the leg near the Pazarkule border crossing on March 1 while he was standing in Turkey about 200 meters from the Greek border gate. His doctor said he had been injured by a bullet that shattered inside his leg.

On March 4, a Greek government spokesperson said that Turkey had “fabricated fake news … concerning alleged injuries from Greek fire" and repeated the claim during the following days on social media. On March 5, Turkish media reported that the Turkish authorities were “preparing a case for the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of asylum seekers trying to cross from Turkey.

Turkish Villagers Providing Help

Human Rights Watch interviewed five Turkish people living in border villages near the Pazarkule border crossing on March 8 who confirmed the accounts of violence. They said that every night dozens or hundreds of men, women, and children would return after attempting to cross into Greece, often nearly naked, describing in broken Turkish that they had been beaten, robbed, stripped, and pushed back by Greek security forces. The villagers said they saw back and head injuries and a broken leg.

They also said that for many years, asylum seekers and migrants had passed through their villages, crossed to Greece and been pushed back to Turkey but that the numbers had been relatively low. They all said that the numbers pushed back had significantly increased between February 28 and March 6, after buses brought dozens or hundreds of people to the village each night.

One man in a border village said:

Every night since February 27 buses with migrants have arrived in our village. They stay in mosques and other buildings and cross the river [to Greece] in inflatable boats. In early March we sometimes heard gunshots from across the river. We saw them come back stripped and cold and beaten. Some had what looked like broken legs and one woman was limping badly. Some had bad wounds on their head. Most of them had stripes across their backs where they had been beaten. Men were stripped to their underwear. We always saw groups returning with men stripped. The majority spoke Turkish and they told us that the Greek soldiers caught them and put them in camps where they took their phones and money. This has always been happening, maybe once every month, but not like now, with so many people and every night.

A man in another village said:

Last week groups of dozens and up to 100 people arrived and went to Greece. When they returned, we saw men and women stripped down to their underwear and some men were totally naked. Some spoke Turkish and said the Greeks had pushed them back. We saw injuries across their backs, like red stripes, and they had bruises on their cheeks and split lips. We offered them food and drink and clothes. What else could we do?

Recommendations

Greece, the European Union, and Turkey should take a number of urgent steps to address the abuses at the Greece-Turkey border, Human Rights Watch said.

Greece should allow people seeking protection at Greece’s borders to enter and have their asylum claims assessed fairly and efficiently. It should also reverse its decision to summarily return asylum seekers to Turkey without registering their asylum applications. The authorities should promptly investigate in a transparent, thorough, and impartial manner whether the Greek police and border guards have committed abuses against, and collective, extrajudicial expulsions of, asylum seekers and migrants in the Evros region. The authorities should urgently investigate reports of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials and hold those responsible to account.

Members of Greece’s parliament should urgently establish an inquiry into all allegations of collective expulsions, pushbacks, and violence on Greece’s land borders with Turkey. The Greek Parliament should exercise its oversight powers to investigate the abuses and determine whether they amount to a concerted policy.

The European Commission should urge Greece to reinstate asylum procedures for people irregularly entering Greece from Turkey, end all summary returns to Turkey, and press the authorities to prosecute abusive officials. It should also tie its support for border management to Greece to its commitment to guarantee the right to seek asylum and open legal proceedings against Greece with a view to referring the case to the European Court of Justice if Greece fails to effectively resume access to asylum.

The EU and its member states should urgently expand the numbers of Syrian refugees to be resettled from Turkey to Europe and relocate asylum seekers from Greece to other EU countries, which should process their asylum claims equitably, fairly, and humanely.

FRONTEX should monitor and publicly report on Greek security force compliance with European and international human rights and refugee law, including detention standards, as well as compliance by its own officers and those contributed by member states. It should also urgently review whether its mandate allows it to be deployed in Greece while Greece has suspended the asylum procedure for arrivals from Turkey and has said it will summarily return asylum seekers to Turkey.

Turkey should not compel anyone to cross the border irregularly into Greece.