Greek law enforcement officers have summarily returned asylum seekers and migrants at the land and sea borders with Turkey during the Covid-19 lockdown, Human Rights Watch said today. The officers in some cases used violence against asylum seekers, including some who were deep inside Greek territory, and often confiscated and destroyed the migrants’ belongings.
In reviewing nine cases, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the authorities took any precautions to prevent the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to or among the migrants while in their custody. These findings add to growing evidence of abuses collected by nongovernmental groups and media, involving hundreds of people intercepted and pushed back from Greece to Turkey by Greek law enforcement officers or unidentified masked men over the last couple of months. Pushbacks violate several human rights norms, including against collective expulsion under the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Greek authorities did not allow a nationwide lockdown to get in the way of a new wave of collective expulsions, including from deep inside Greek territory, ” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of protecting the most vulnerable people in this time of global crisis, Greek authorities have targeted them in total breach of the right to seek asylum and in disregard for their health.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 victims and witnesses who described incidents in which the Greek police, the Greek Coast Guard, and unidentified men in black or commando-like uniforms, who appeared to be working in close coordination with uniformed authorities, violently pushed migrants back to Turkey in March and April 2020.
Six of those interviewed said Greek police officers rounded up people in the Diavata camp for asylum seekers in Thessaloniki, 400 kilometers from the land border with Turkey. This is the first time Human Rights Watch has documented collective expulsions of asylum seekers from deep inside Greece, through the Evros river.
Six asylum seekers, from Syria, Palestine, and Iran, including a 15-year-old unaccompanied girl from Syria, described three incidents in March and April in which Greek Coast Guard personnel, Greek police, and armed masked men in dark clothing coordinated and carried out summary returns to Turkey from the Greek islands of Rhodes, Samos, and Symi. All of them said they were picked up on the islands soon after they landed, placed on larger Coast Guard boats, and once they were back at the sea border, were forced onto small inflatable rescue rafts, with no motor, and cast adrift near Turkish territorial waters.
Another asylum seeker described a fourth incident, in which the Greek Coast Guard and unidentified men dressed in dark uniforms wearing balaclavas used dangerous maneuvers to force a boat full of migrants back to Turkey.
On June 10, the International Organization for Migration reported that they had received allegations of migrants being arbitrarily arrested in Greece and pushed back to Turkey and asked Greece to investigate. On June 12, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged Greece to investigate multiple reports of pushbacks by Greek authorities at the country’s sea and land borders, possibly returning migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey after they had reached Greek territory or territorial waters.
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Greek government instituted nationwide restrictions on public movement from March 13 until early May. Migrants and asylum seekers were locked down in some camps, mainly on the Greek islands, where restrictions on freedom of movement continue, and where the closing of government offices has left them in legal limbo.
Human Rights Watch sent letters to the Greek police and the Greek Coast Guard on June 29, presenting authorities with a summary of findings but received no response. The Greek Coast Guard indicated they would reply but at the time of publication, we had received no communication.
Greek judicial authorities should conduct a transparent, thorough, and impartial investigation into allegations that Greek Coast Guard and Greek police personnel are involved in acts that put the lives and safety of migrants and asylum seekers at risk, Human Rights Watch said. Any officer engaged in illegal acts, as well as their commanding officers, should be subject to disciplinary sanctions and, if applicable, criminal prosecution.
The Greek parliament should urgently establish an inquiry into all allegations of collective expulsions, including pushbacks, and violence at the borders, and determine whether they amount to a de facto government policy.
The Greek Ombudsman, an independent national authority, should examine the issue of summary and collective expulsions, and issue a report with recommendations to the Greek authorities, Human Rights Watch said.
The European Commission, which provides financial support to the Greek government for migration control, including in the Evros region and the Aegean Sea, should urge Greece to end all summary returns and collective expulsions of asylum seekers to Turkey, press the authorities to investigate allegations of violence, 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.
On July 6, during a debate at the European Parliament on fundamental rights at the Greek border, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that incidents should be investigated and indicated that the European Commission may consider a new system to monitor and verify reports of pushbacks amid increased allegations of abuse at the EU’s external borders. The Commission should take concrete measures to set up an independent and transparent investigation in consultation with members of civil society, Human Rights Watch said.
Everyone seeking international protection has a right to apply for asylum and should be given that opportunity.
Returns should follow a procedure that provides access to effective remedies and safeguards against refoulement – return to a country where they are likely to face persecution – and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
“Greece has an obligation to treat everyone humanely and not to return refugees and asylum seekers to persecution, or anyone to the real risk of inhuman and degrading treatment or worse,” said Cossé. “Putting a stop to these dangerous incidents should be a priority for the Greek government and the European Commission as well.”
For more information and accounts from migrants and asylum seekers, please see below.
Sea Pushbacks to Turkey
Between May 29 and June 6, 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed six men from Iran, Palestine, and Syria, and one 15-year-old unaccompanied girl from Syria, who were in Turkey and who described three incidents in which they said the Greek Coast Guard, Greek police officers, and unidentified men in black or commando-like uniforms coordinated summary returns from Symi, Samos, and Rhodes in March and April. In the fourth incident, the Greek Coast Guard and unidentified men in uniforms wearing balaclavas used dangerous maneuvers to force the boat full of migrants back to Turkey from the Aegean Sea.
Marwan (a pseudonym), 33, from Syria, said that on March 8, the Greek Coast Guard engaged in life-threatening maneuvers to force the small boat carrying him and 22 other passengers, including women and children, back to Turkey:
“[W]e saw a Greek Coast Guard boat. It was big and had the Greek flag on it…. They started pushing back our boat, by creating waves in the water making it hard for us to continue…. It was like a battle – like living in Syria, we thought we were going to die.”
In the three cases involving summary returns of people who had reached land, Greek law enforcement officers apprehended them within hours after they landed, and summarily expelled them to Turkey. All of those interviewed said that they were forced first onto large Coast Guard boats and then onto small inflatable rescue rafts, with no motor, and cast adrift near the Turkish sea border. In all cases, they said the Greek officers stole people’s belongings, including personal identification, bags, and money.
These findings add to growing evidence of abuses collected by nongovernmental groups, including Alarm Phone and Aegean Boat Report, and the reputable German media outlet Deutsche Welle. Human Rights Watch was able to identify 26 reported incidents published by others, that occurred between March and July, involving at least 855 people. In 2015 Human Rights Watch documented that armed masked men were disabling boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea and pushing them back to Turkish waters.
Karim (a pseudonym), 36, from Syria, said that he arrived by boat to Symi island on March 21, along with approximately 30 other Syrians, including at least 10 children. He said that the Greek police approached the group within hours after they arrived. They explained that they wanted to claim asylum, but the officers detained them at an unofficial port site and summarily returned them to Turkey two days later, he said. They were taken on a military ship to open water, where the asylum seekers – including children and people with disabilities – were violently thrown from the ship’s deck to an inflatable boat:
[T]hey [Greek police] put us in a military boat and pushed us [from the deck] to a small [inflatable] boat that doesn’t have an engine. They left us on this boat and took all our private stuff, our money, our IDs. We were on the boat and we were dizzy. We were vomiting. They [the Greek Coast Guard] didn’t tell us anything…. [W]e were in the middle of the sea. We called the Turkish Coast Guard. They came and took our boat.
Karim and his extended family were detained in the Malatya Removal Center in the Eastern Anatolia region of Turkey, and in three other detention centers in Turkey, for seven weeks. They were released on May 7.
In another incident at the end of March, 17 men and women and an unaccompanied girl from Iran, Palestine, and Syria were intercepted on a highway on the island of Rhodes, an hour after landing and forced back to the shore. They were detained in a tent for two days, without food and water, and then forced onto what they believe was a Greek Coast Guard boat on the third day, then dumped at sea in a small motor-less rescue raft. Human Rights Watch gathered four separate witness statements about the same incident, in which interviewees gave similar accounts. The Turkish Coast Guard rescued them.
Leila L. (a pseudonym), 15, a Syrian girl traveling alone, said:
On the third day, it was night, we don’t know what time, they told us to move … they looked like army commandoes and they had weapons with them. There were six of them, wearing masks … they pointed their weapons at us. We were pushed in a horrible way and they pushed our bags in the sea. Before getting on the first boat, they took everything from us – our phones, our IDs, our bags … everything, apart from the clothes we were wearing. We were very scared. Some people were vomiting. Think what you would feel if you’re in the middle of the sea and you don’t know what would happen to you. We stayed between two to three hours [in the sea]. The boat had no engine. It was a rescue boat. It was like a dinghy. After two to three hours, the Turkish Coast Guard drove us to shore.
In another incident, Hassan (a pseudonym), 29, a Palestinian refugee from Gaza, said that the police apprehended him and his group of approximately 25 people about three hours after they arrived on the island of Samos, during the third week of March. He said the police took them to the shore, where another group of police and Greek Coast Guard officers were waiting:
The Greek Coast Guard put us in a big boat…. We drove for three hours but then they put us in a small boat. It was like a raft. It was inflatable and had no motor. Like a rescue boat they keep on big boats in case there is an emergency. They left us in the sea alone. There was no food or water. They left us for two nights. We had children with us….
Hassan said that a Greek Coast Guard boat came back on the third day, threw them a rope, and “drove around for two hours in the sea,” leaving them closer to Turkish waters. The Turkish Coast Guard rescued them.
Video footage analyzed by Human Rights Watch from an incident that allegedly took place in the sea between Lesbos and Turkey on May 25, shows what appears to be women, men, and children drifting in an orange, tent-like inflatable life raft while three other rafts can be seen in the background. The rafts appear to be manufactured by the Greek company Lalizas, which according to publicly available information is a brand that the Greek Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Insular Policy purchases. The person speaking in the video alleges they were placed on those rafts by the Greek Coast Guard to force them back to Turkey.
Human Rights Watch contacted the Lalizas company through email with questions on the use of the life rafts by the Greek Coast Guard, but received no response.
In its June 10 statement, the International Organization for Migration notes that “footage showing the use of marine rescue equipment to expel migrants across the Eastern Aegean Sea are [sic] especially disturbing.”
Collective Expulsions Across Land Border
In May, Human Rights Watch interviewed six men from Afghanistan who described five separate incidents in which they were summarily returned from Greece to Turkey in March and April. They gave detailed accounts of the Greek police apprehending them in the Diavata camp, a reception facility in Thessaloniki.
They said the police took them to what they thought were police stations that they could not always identify or to an unofficial detention site that they said was like a small jail, close to the Greek-Turkish border, robbed them of their personal belongings including their ID, phone, and clothes, and beat them with wooden or metal rods – then summarily expelled them to Turkey.
In one case, a 19-year-old man from Kapisa, in Afghanistan, gave Human Rights Watch a photo of injuries – red strip-like marks across his back – he said were caused by beatings by people he believed were police officers.
Reporting by Human Rights Watch and other groups suggests that collective expulsions of people with documents allowing them to be in Greece, from deep inside the mainland, appear to be a new tactic by Greek law enforcement.
Five of the men had obtained a document from police authorities in Thessaloniki granting the right to remain in Greece for up to 30 days. While the document is formally a deportation order, the person should have the chance to apply for asylum during the 30-day period if they wish to and the document may, under certain circumstances, be renewed.
The men said they had either not understood their rights or had been unable to apply for asylum, or to renew this document, due to Covid-19 related shutdown of government institutions. They said that before they were returned to Turkey, in the weeks following the nationwide lockdown due to Covid-19, they saw Greek police forces visiting the Diavata camp almost daily to identify and return to Turkey residents whose documents had expired.
Greece suspended the right to lodge asylum applications for those who arrived irregularly between March 1 and 31, following tensions on the Greek-Turkish land borders at the end of February due to a significant and rapid increase in people trying to cross the border. The Emergency Legislative order said that these people were to be returned to their country of origin or transit “without registration.”
Making the situation worse, the Asylum Service suspended services to the public between March 13 and May 15 to protect against the spread of the Covid-19 virus. During this period, applications for international protection were not registered, interviews were not conducted, and appeals were not registered. The Asylum Service resumed full operations on May 18 but the Greek Council of Refugees, a non-governmental group providing legal assistance to asylum seekers, said that no new asylum applications had been lodged by the end of May with the exception of people under administrative detention.
Greek law requires authorities to provide for the reception of third-country nationals who are arrested due to unlawful entry or who stay in Greece under conditions that guarantee human rights and dignity in accordance with international standards. During the reception and identification procedure, authorities should provide socio-psychological support and information on the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, including the right to apply for asylum, and refer vulnerable people such as unaccompanied children and victims of torture to social services.
Mostafa (a pseudonym), 19, from Afghanistan, said that in mid-April, Greek police rounded him up from Diavata camp, took him to a police station near the camp, and then transferred him to another small detention site near the border, where he was detained for a night, then forced onto a boat and expelled to Turkey:
When they [the police] came to check my papers [at Diavata camp] I told them I couldn’t renew them because the office was closed but they didn’t listen to me…. They didn’t allow us any time. They just took us to the bus and said: “We will take you to renew the papers.” They were beating us the whole time…. [T]hey took us to the police station near the camp, there were more people, 10 people altogether…. [T]hey kept us in the rain for a few hours and then they transferred us to the border. There were two children with us – around 15 or 16 years old….When they took us to the police station, they took my coat, I was just with pants and a t-shirt and then at the border, they took these too. They took everything, my money, ID, phone.
Mostafa gave the following description of the detention site near the border and the secret expulsion that followed:
It was like a small police station. There were toilets. There were other migrants there. It was around four and a half hours away from the border. They carried us in a bus like a prison. We stayed in this small jail for one night, no food was given. It was at 10 or 11 o’clock at night when they took us to the border. I crossed with the boat. There were 18 people in one boat. It took six or seven minutes – then we arrived on the Turkish side. [T]he police were standing at the border [on the Greek side] and looking at us.
Two men giving accounts about two separate incidents, said that the police took them to an unofficial detention site near the border. They described the detention locations as “small jails” and said they were detained there for a day or two.
Four out of the six asylum seekers said that Greek security forces had abused them, throughout their summary deportation, beating them with heavy metal, plastic, or wooden sticks.
Mohamed (a pseudonym), 24, from Afghanistan, said:
They had a stick that all the police have with them…. The stick was made of plastic, but it was very heavy. They had black uniforms. I couldn’t see all of the uniform – I couldn’t see their faces – if I looked up they would beat us. They beat one migrant for five minutes…. There were eight of them – they asked us if we came from Thessaloniki and we said yes and then they started beating us.
All of those interviewed said the Greek security forces stripped them of their clothes, leaving them in either just their underwear or just a basic layer, and took their possessions, including personal identification documents, money, telephones, and bags before pushing them back to Turkey.
In a report published in March, Human Rights Watch documented that Greek security forces and unidentified armed men at the Greece-Turkey land border detained, assaulted, sexually assaulted, robbed, and stripped asylum seekers and migrants, then forced them back to Turkey. At the end of June, Greece’s Supreme Court Prosecutor opened a criminal investigation initiated by the Greek Helsinki Monitor, a nongovernmental group, into the pushbacks and violence documented by Human Rights Watch and others, as well as into the shooting and deaths of two people in Evros in March.
Human Rights Watch documented similar situations in 2008 and 2018. In March 2019, the Public Prosecutor of Orestiada in Evros, initiated an investigation regarding the repeated allegations of systematic violence against migrants and asylum seekers at the Evros river, based on the Human Rights Watch 2018 report, and a report by three nongovernmental groups, including the Greek Council for Refugees.
Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a nongovernmental group, has built an extensive database of testimony of people being pushed back from Greece to Turkey over the Evros river. Between March 31 and April 28, BVMN has reported at least 7 incidents involving more than 306 people. Among these cases, at least six people had legal documents regularizing their stay in Greece when they were summarily expelled.