While migrant camps on the Aegean islands have reached breaking point, and with Turkey threatening to 'open the gates', migrants continue to arrive in Greece in the hundreds every week. Most come by sea, but in recent months, growing numbers have crossed via the land route across the Evros River. Many claim they are subjected to violent and illegal treatment by authorities at the border.
Since the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants smuggled by lorry into the UK, there have been many more reports of migrants stowing away in trucks and vans. The latest group of 41 people hiding in a truck crossing from Turkey into northern Greece were reportedly mostly Afghan men between the ages of 20 and 30. Some reports said they were in danger of suffocation when they were discovered.
On the Greek-Turkish border, smugglers are regularly caught transporting migrants in minibuses or trucks. There are mixed reports about how many people cross via this border. According to the UN migration agency, IOM, the number has risen steadily in recent months – from 255 arrivals in May to 1,233 in September.
While the focus remains on the overcrowded migrant camps on the Aegean islands, which have seen a much bigger surge in arrivals during the same period, there has been less attention given to what is happening on the land border.
There have been reports of violence and illegal activities by some Greek authorities against migrants crossing the Evros river since as early as mid-2017. These have included claims that migrants have been arrested, beaten up, robbed, detained, and forcibly returned or "pushed back" into Turkey.
Dorothee Vakalis from Naomi, a refugee aid organization in Thessaloniki, says migrants continue to be subjected to "brutal treatment" by authorities at the border. "Everything gets taken away from them, phones, money, sometimes clothing as well. They are sent back to the other side practically naked," she said on German radio on Tuesday. "We hear from relatives about families with small children, pregnant women being pushed back," Vakalis said.
Beaten by masked men
According to an account of a case in April reported in Euronews, men wearing masks beat several migrants with batons before sending them back. In the group was a 28-year-old pregnant woman, Tugba Ozkan. "I had forgotten about my pregnancy," Ozkan told Euronews. "I tried to stop Greek police by moving ahead but they pushed me, too. It was unbelievable and unforgettable to see my husband beaten in front of my eyes."
InfoMigrants was also in contact last year with a Kurdish couple who said they were locked in a small dark room with many others before being taken by masked commandos back across the border into Turkey.
It is not clear who is carrying out the push backs, because they often wear masks and cannot be easily identified. The Hellenic League for Human Rights (HLHR) and Human Rights Watch describe them as paramilitaries. Eyewitnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said people who "looked like police officers or soldiers, as well as some unidentified masked men, carried handguns, handcuffs, radios, spray cans, and batons," and others carried gear such as "armored gloves, binoculars and knives and military-grade weapons such as rifles."
The HLHR has suggested that the Greek police are either unaware of the existence of these paramilitaries or they turn a blind eye to them. According to Human Rights Watch, accounts suggest "close and consistent coordination "between police and unidentified men." ..."Commanding officers knew, or ought to have known, what was happening," HRW's report claims.
Calls for investigation
The Greek Refugee Council and other NGOs published a report in 2018 containing testimonies from people who said they had been beaten, sometimes by masked men, and sent back to Turkey. The UNHCR and the European Human Rights Commissioner have called on Greece to investigate the claims. Late last year another report by Human Rights Watch also based on testimonies of migrants, said that violent push backs were continuing.
Turkey has also urged Greece to stop the practice of push backs. The Turkish foreign ministry recently claimed that a total of 25,404 irregular migrants were pushed back to Turkey in the first month of this year, according to the IPA news service. Turkey says it has evidence that the push backs are occurring and has invited the Greek government to "work on correcting the policy." Greece has not acknowledged that violent push backs are occurring.
According to some of the testimonies in the report by the Greek Refugee Council, Turkey is also responsible for carrying out push backs of Syrian and Iraqi single men.
The European Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud has confirmed that the Commission contacted Greek authorities about reports of alleged push backs earlier this year. "The Commission expects that Greek authorities will follow up on the specific allegations and will continue to monitor the situation closely," Bertaud said.
Legal returns and illegal push backs
The Evros River runs along 194 km of the 206 km of land border between the EU and Turkey. This border is not covered by the so-called EU-Turkey Statement, the agreement signed between Turkey and Europe in 2016 which allows the return to Turkey of Syrian migrants who arrive irregularly in Greece by sea.
The land border was covered by a separate bilateral migrant readmission deal between Turkey and Greece. Turkey canceled that agreement last June because Greece refused to hand over several Turkish officers who escaped to Greece after Turkey‘s failed military coup in 2016.
Push backs are prohibited by Greek and EU law, as well as international treaties and agreements, including the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which guarantees the right to seek protection. They go against the principle of non-refoulement, which means the forcible return of a person to a country where they are liable to be subject to persecution.