(Athens) – Greek security forces are employing third country nationals, men who appear to be of Middle Eastern or South Asian origin, to push asylum seekers back at the Greece-Turkey land border, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 29-page report “‘Their Faces Were Covered’: Greece’s Use of Migrants as Police Auxiliaries in Pushbacks,” found that Greek police are detaining asylum seekers at the Greece-Turkey land border at the Evros River, in many cases stripping them of most of their clothing and stealing their money, phones, and other possessions. They then turn the migrants over to masked men, who force them onto small boats, take them to the middle of the Evros River, and force them into the frigid water, making them wade to the riverbank on the Turkish side. None are apparently being properly registered in Greece or allowed to lodge asylum claims.
“There can be no denying that the Greek government is responsible for the illegal pushbacks at its borders, and using proxies to carry out these illegal acts does not relieve it of any liability,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The European Commission should urgently open legal proceedings and hold the Greek government accountable for violating EU laws prohibiting collective expulsions.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 26 Afghan migrants and asylum seekers, 23 of whom were pushed back from Greece to Turkey across the Evros River between September 2021 and February 2022. The 23 men, 2 women, and a boy said they were detained by men they believed to be Greek authorities, usually for no more than 24 hours with little to no food or drinking water, and pushed back to Turkey. The men and boy provided firsthand victim or witness accounts of Greek police or men they believed to be Greek police beating or otherwise abusing them.
Sixteen of those interviewed said the boats taking them back to Turkey were piloted by men who spoke Arabic or the South Asian languages common among migrants. They said most of these men wore black or commando-like uniforms and used balaclavas to cover their faces. Three people interviewed were able to talk with the men ferrying the boats. The boat pilots told them they were also migrants who were employed by the Greek police with promises of being provided with documents enabling them to travel onward.
A 28-year-old former commander in the Afghan army who was pushed back to Turkey in late December, said he had a conversation in Pashto with the Pakistani man ferrying the boat that took him back to Turkey: “The boat driver said, ‘We are … here doing this work for three months and then they give us … a document. With this, we can move freely inside Greece and then we can get a ticket for … another country.’”
An 18-year-old Afghan youth described his experience after the Greek police transported him from the detention center to the river: “At the border, there were other people waiting for us.… From their language, we could recognize they were Pakistanis and Arabs. These men took our money and beat us. They beat me with sticks. They dropped us in the middle of the river. The water was to my chest, and we waded the rest of the way [to Turkey].”
Pushbacks violate multiple human rights norms, including the prohibition of collective expulsion under the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to due process in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to seek asylum under EU asylum law and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and the principle of nonrefoulement under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The Greek government routinely denies involvement in pushbacks, labeling such claims “fake news” or “Turkish propaganda” and cracking down, including through the threat of criminal sanctions, against those reporting on such incidents. On March 29, Greece’s independent authority for transparency tasked by the government to investigate pushbacks “found no basis for reports that Greek authorities have illegally turned back asylum-seekers entering the country from Turkey.”
Major General Dimitrios Mallios, chief of the Aliens & Border Protection Branch in Hellenic Police Headquarters, denied the Human Rights Watch allegations. He said that “police agencies and their staff will continue to operate in a continuous, professional, lawful and prompt way, taking all necessary measures to effectively manage the refugees/migration flows, in a manner that safeguards on the one hand the rights of the aliens and on the other hand the protection of citizens especially in the first line border regions.”
Greece should immediately halt all pushbacks from Greek territory, and stop using third country nationals for collective expulsions, Human Rights Watch said. The European Commission, which provides financial support to the Greek government for migration control, should require Greece to end all summary returns and collective expulsions of asylum seekers to Turkey, press the authorities to establish an independent and effective border monitoring mechanism that would investigate allegations of violence at borders, and ensure that none of its funding contributes to violations of fundamental rights and EU laws. The European Commission should also open legal proceedings against Greece for violating EU laws prohibiting collective expulsions.
Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, which is under increased scrutiny for complicity in migrant pushbacks in Greece, should trigger article 46 of its regulation, under which the agency has a duty to suspend or terminate operations in case of serious abuses, if no concrete improvements are made by Greece to end these abuses within three months.
“At a time when Greece welcomes Ukrainians as ‘real refugees,’ it conducts cruel pushbacks on Afghans and others fleeing similar war and violence,” Frelick said. “The double standard makes a mockery of the purported shared European values of equality, rule of law, and human dignity.”