Growing numbers of migrants are trying to enter Greece via land routes from Turkey. At the same time, there are reports that Greek authorities are using practices including forced expulsions of migrants back across the border. InfoMigrants has received a video secretly filmed by a man who says he was the victim of such an operation.
Kurdish journalist Hiwa Dartas and his wife Banaz did not expect that their journey of escape from northern Iraq to Europe would be easy. But had they known that upon reaching Greece they would be caught and locked in a small room without their belongings, and later taken by masked commandos back across the border into Turkey, they might have made different plans.
"The prison was 2x4 meters in the middle of nowhere. People were urinating, defecating, sleeping and resting all in this room, where you can see the urine bottle in (the) video.
"They took the women and the children out of the room. Soon afterwards they brought 50 more people inside. The oxygen was almost finished in the room. We tried to break the door and this is when they came in and hit us. They opened the door for a couple of minutes.
"In the afternoon, some other commandos came with masks and divided us into groups of men and women and sent us back to the Turkish border in an illegal boat after taking all food, water, bags, belts and shoes from us. They shot into the air to let the Turkish army know there were people on their side."
Hiwa and Banaz Dartas say while they managed to escape arrest in Turkey, more than 90 others who were also forcibly expelled by Greek authorities on that day less than a fortnight ago were not so lucky.
Pushbacks increasing: Report
Stories of such treatment by Greek authorities have become increasingly common, according to the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR). Earlier this year, the Council published a report which included a large number of testimonies of what it calls illegal pushbacks of refugees in Evros on the Turkish border.
It claims Greek authorities are systematically arresting and detaining people in need of international protection, "asylum-seekers and even recognized refugees," and sending them back to Turkey.
Pushbacks are a means of stopping refugees and migrants at borders and forcibly turning them around to the country they came from. The legal term is collective expulsion -- a practice prohibited by Article 4 of Protocol 4 (Art 4-4) to the European Convention on Human Rights.
Under international law, countries have an obligation to process asylum requests. They also can't force a group of migrants to leave before they have properly assessed the case of each individual. If it comes to expulsion, Art 4-4 gives them the right to contest the move.
'Deplorable conditions and violence'
The GCR report claims that the victims of pushbacks include vulnerable migrants such as pregnant women, people who have been subjected to torture, and children. It identifies what it calls a specific "pattern" of operating in which authorities transfer migrants to detention centers where there are armed guards, sometimes wearing Greek police uniforms, military-style camouflage or with face masks. According to the report, when the migrants are arrested, their cellphones, money, ID cards and legal residence documents are confiscated and never returned.
The GCR says this has happened to undocumented arrivals who have not had an opportunity to seek international protection, but also to people who have applied for asylum in Greece and even those who have already been granted protection in another European country, yet still attempt to enter Greece by irregular means.
Burden on Greece
While migrant arrivals in Europe are well down compared with the huge influx in 2015, the burden on Greece as a front-line country remains significant. In the first half of this year, Greek authorities reported 22,899 arrivals, more than twice as many as in the same period last year and more than any other country in Europe.
Arrival patterns are also changing. With the sea routes to the Greek Islands now largely blocked, more migrants are attempting to cross overland from Turkey. Since January, 9,385 people have crossed into Greece through its land border with Turkey. And according to the International Organization for Migration, the proportion of irregular crossings by land routes is rising at a rapid rate.
Greece accused of breaching international law
Greece is certainly under pressure, but claims that it is using pushbacks have provoked alarm in many quarters, including the Council of Europe and the UN refugee agency. Greek legal experts say the practice violates the country's international obligations and specifically the principle of non-refoulement and the right of access to asylum. The GCR also says it constitutes inhuman or degrading treatment and exposure to threat to life or risk of torture.
The principle of non-refoulement is enshrined in the Geneva Convention and means that refugees can't be returned to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened. Though it has not been possible to obtain independent evidence to support Hiwa Dartas' account, if true, it would be a case in point.
InfoMigrants contacted the Greek Ministry for Migration Policy for comment specifically on the claims of pushbacks but received no response. According to Kleio Nikolopoulou, a GCR lawyer, the authorities do not acknowledge that pushbacks are happening.
Hiwa and Banaz Dartas, meanwhile, are planning their next attempt to make the crossing into Greece. This time, they'll know a bit more about what to expect.