Migrants to expel migrants: the new tactic of the Greek security forces at the European border | International
The Evros River indicates the end of the territory of Turkey and the beginning of Greece. From the European Union, therefore. The line that delimits the land border between the two countries sometimes goes into the east or west of the river course, but for most of its 200-kilometre route it runs through the middle of the river waters. And that poses a problem. When agents of the Greek security forces illegally return migrants to Turkish territory in boats and speedboats, a practice increasingly denounced by NGOs and journalistic investigations, they not only commit a crime against the rights of those they return against their will, but that the agents themselves incur in an administrative offense, the same one that they accuse irregular migrants of: the illegal crossing of a border. For this reason, most of these deportations occur at night, under cover of darkness, trying to evade the surveillance of the Turkish military and gendarmes. And for this reason, too, the Greek police have launched an increasingly common practice: coerce other foreigners so that they are the ones who illegally return irregular migrants, according to testimonies collected by this newspaper and the Greek media. Solomon.
"I have seen these pushbacks [como se conoce a estas expulsiones ilegales en inglés] at dawn because I am a farmer”, explains a resident of Orestiada, a town six kilometers from the Turkish border. The area around the Evros River is a military zone and access to it without permission is prohibited, except for those residents of the area who have farmland. “You see familiar faces, of people who may be your neighbors. And you see vans arrive without license plates. It is easy to understand why they are there. This is a small place, where everyone knows each other, if you go around without a license plate they stop you quickly ”, he adds.
No one stops or reports these big vans because everyone knows they belong to the police. According to testimonies collected by NGOs and human rights organizations on 374 incidents in which more than 20,000 people were illegally expelled between 2017 and 2022 ―and which have been consulted by an investigation by EL PAÍS and Solomon―, these unregistered vans are the preferred means of transporting captured migrants to places of detention and then bringing them to the banks of the Evros River for illegal expulsion to Turkey.
On a trip to the province of Evros in November, the authors of this investigation were able to see a dozen vans without license plates parked in front of the Neo Cheimonio police station, where numerous testimonies state that migrants are housed until enough are gathered to make a mass deportation. Inside there were more than a dozen boats like the ones that are usually used in these pushbacks.
Arabic, Turkish, Farsi...
To avoid the problem of crossing the Turkish border with the speedboats, the Greek authorities have devised a new method: the use of irregular migrants to deport other people in the same situation. In its first report on forced returns, in January, the National Human Rights Commission made public that in 20 of the 50 incidents registered by this consultative body of the Greek State, there was the presence of "foreigners" as "responsible for the part of the physical transfer ”. “According to the testimonies, these people allegedly spoke Arabic, Turkish, Farsi, Dari, Kurdish or Urdu,” the report added.
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The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), which brings together a dozen grassroots associations that collect testimonies of illegal behavior by European security forces, began receiving reports of these practices at the end of 2020. "Before they used to be Greek men wearing ski masks, but then there was a change and it became standard practice. Basically, members of the group in transit or other migrants brought from other places are forced to drive the boats”, explains Hope Barker, spokesperson for BVMN.
Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report resulting from interviews with 23 Afghans who were illegally deported from Greece to Turkey. Morad, an 18-year-old, explained that two Afghans between the ages of 20 and 25 piloted the boats that took them back to Turkey under the watchful eye of Greek policemen from the shore: “I spoke to one of them. He said that he worked for the Greek police. He said the police picked him and others out of the migrants and used it to get the migrants across the river and not be directly involved in the return."
Zayan, a former Afghan army commander who fled his country after the Taliban took power, was deported by the Greeks in December 2021 and also managed to speak to one of the migrants used in this task, a Pakistani national: “ The boat's pilot told me: 'We do this job for three months and then they give us a three-page document. With it we can move freely within Greece and we can buy a ticket to another country”.
An investigation by Lighthouse Reports together with several European media ―Guardian, Der Spiegel and the world, among others― interviewed six migrants who had been used for these tasks by the Greek police and revealed that they work in “slave-like” conditions. One of them, identified as Bassel, a Syrian national, was beaten by Greek agents who threatened him that if he did not agree to help them with the deportations, he would be charged with human trafficking and imprisoned.
“His only way out, they told him, was to do the dirty work for the Greeks. They kept him locked up during the day and released at night to illegally deport his compatriots and other desperate asylum seekers,” the investigation reads. “I worked during the winter. Although there were not many migrants, we were expelling at least 80 or 90 every day. We would work for an hour or two and then they would take us back to our cells and lock us up again,” explains another of the interviewees, who was being held at the Tychero police station in a separate room from the migrants who were going to be deported.
Three other interviewees explained that they paid a smuggler in Istanbul to cross into Greece and he assured them that another Syrian would be waiting for them on the Greek bank of the Evros. The Syrian, who calls himself Mike, lives in the Neo Cheimonio police station and works with the Greek police on illegal deportations despite being allegedly linked to human trafficking networks and other crimes, according to testimonies. Under duress and threats, Mike forced these three Syrian refugees to work as speedboat pilots before receiving a document from the Greek police that allowed them to continue their route to other Western European countries. According to the testimony of one of them, quoted by the worldMike steals money and valuables from deported migrants and sends the loot from his thefts in periodic transfers to France, some of which reach as much as 6,000 euros.
The practice of stripping migrants of their valuable belongings has become systematic in recent years, as shown by an investigation published by EL PAÍS and, according to which, the Greek security forces have appropriated more than two million of euros in cash stolen from illegally deported migrants.
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