What is really happening at the land border between Greece and Turkey?

Tihomir Sabchev*

Since March 2016, media accounts on the refugee situation in Greece have been predominantly focused on the arrivals and living conditions on the five Eastern Aegean islands hosting the so-called hotspots. At the same time, the events taking place on the land border between Greece and Turkey in the northeast Evros region have been largely overlooked. As a result, illegal push-backs that violate both EU and international law, threaten the lives of hundreds of people, and even put into question the democratic functioning of the Greek state have remained largely unnoticed. The following paragraphs provide a brief overview of the issue, shedding light upon the proliferation of these practices during the last year and a half.

File:Greece–Turkey land border.svg

The Evros River forms almost entirely the land border between Greece and Turkey.

As early as the summer of 2017 two lawyers from Thessaloniki specializing in refugee protection presented multiple evidence (text and voice messages, GPS data and photographs of refugees on Greek territory) suggesting that violent push-backs had been taking place across the Evros River - the natural northeastern border of Greece with Turkey. The available evidence indicated that the push-backs were organized and performed by the Greek police (TVXS, in Greek). In brief, the testimonies and the supporting materials demonstrate the following. A group of migrants crosses the Evros River and calls the lawyers, informing them about their situation and asking for legal assistance. While the lawyers travel towards the border they inform the Greek police (as necessary in order to avoid potential allegations in human trafficking). As a result, the migrants are arrested and brought to a local police station, which is the last information they send to the lawyers before the communication is interrupted. Upon the arrival of the lawyers and despite their protests, the police officers insist that there are no refugees arrested in the area whatsoever. In the meantime, the migrants are transported back to the river, their belongings are taken away and they are forcefully returned to Turkey. The same events repeated several times in the autumn of 2017, with the local police denying all allegations. Despite the protests of the lawyers and the attempts to seek explanations from the Greek authorities, no answers were provided.

In the beginning of December 2018, after the Greek authorities had been denying for more than a year any push-backs across the Evros River, three Greek NGOs (the Greek Council for Refugees, ARSIS and Human Rights 360) published a detailed report on the issue. The report presents the testimonies of 39 individuals currently detained in different centers in Northern Greece. All of them state that in the period between April and October 2018 they have been violently sent back to Turkey during their previous attempts to cross the border and seek asylum. The testimonies largely confirm the allegations of the lawyers from Thessaloniki, presenting in great detail how hundreds of refugees, including women and children, have been arrested, beaten up, robbed, detained, brought back to the river and pushed back into Turkey on inflatable boats. Moreover, the report brings to light one even more disturbing evidence. A number of refugees describe the push-backs being performed by armed people wearing masks and dressed in civilian or military clothing, who speak German, use unmarked vehicles and abuse people in various ways. The report concludes that the practice of illegal returns to Turkey through the Evros River is used to such an extent that it has already become the new normality.

In the end of December 2018, another strong evidence for the proliferation of violent push-backs from Greece to Turkey was presented, this time by Human Rights Watch. The report of the organization, which is also based on multiple testimonies by refugees and supported by video materials, once again confirms the existence of all the abovementioned illegal practices. Migrants describe how they have been stripped from all their belongings by the Greek police and then handed over to unidentified masked people, who after abusing them forcefully send them back into Turkey. The testimonies even include abuses on pregnant women and children seeking international protection.

All the abovementioned hardly leaves any doubt as regards the existence of a number of illegal practices at the land border between Greece and Turkey. As the Hellenic League for Human Rights recently noted, the available evidence from different independent sources leads to two possibilities– either all refugees who have testified take part in a large-scale conspiracy aiming at harming the international image of Greece, or the reports are true. In the very likely case of the latter, what we observe across the Evros River is direct violations of Greek, European and international law. On the one hand, the described push-backs violate the principle of non-refoulement, one of the fundamental principles of international refugee law. On the other, these practices also represent a breach of international human rights law, since they put the lives of individuals in danger and stripe them from their right to claim protection and access legal advice.

In the light of these developments, the responsible Greek authorities have been urged several times to take the necessary measures to prevent illegal push-backs on Evros. The Greek National Commission for Human Rights – the independent advisory body to the state specializing in human rights issues, has already published twice announcements (in Greek) asking for an investigation of the issue and actions on behalf of the government to secure the right to asylum to people who have irregularly crossed the border. Several other organizations, lawyers and journalists have also filed complaints to the Supreme Court and the Greek Ombudsman regarding concrete cases of push-backs. However, so far there is no evidence that an investigation has been initiated by any institution.  

Last but not least, in addition to the violation of national and international legislation, the events described above signal one more extremely alarming issue - the presence of parallel military groups that arrest, beat up, detain and rob people on Greek territory. Again, as the Hellenic League for Human Rights notes, there are two possible explanations – either the Greek police is not aware of the existence of those groups, or it consciously turns a blind eye to them. In the former case, the law-enforcement body should be considered completely incapable of protecting the rights not only of the arriving migrants, but of anyone. In the latter and even more unthinkable case, one can reasonably put into question the democratic functioning of the institutions of the Greek state.

In any case, however, the shameful silence of the Greek government and all the responsible institutions on the issue persists. The illegal push-backs across the Evros River remain a taboo topic for both politicians and mainstream media. At the same time, the former Minister of Migration Policy Ioannis Mouzalas, and the current one Dimitris Vitsas have repeatedly referred to their utmost commitment to safeguarding the human rights of migrants and fulfilling the international obligations of the country. While all the evidence is swept under the carpet and the issue is completely absent from the public debate, the atrocities taking place in the northeastern border of Greece probably surpass by far the inhumane conditions on the Eastern Aegean islands, to which we all seem already quite accustomed to.

It is high time that the EU Commission and UNHCR request an independent investigation of the push-backs on Evros, or otherwise be considered accomplices in alleged human rights violations through their inaction.


*All the views and opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author of the text.