The controversial and illegal practice of "pushback," forcibly sending illegal migrants to countries they arrived from, is in the spotlight once again after the bodies of three migrants were found near the Turkish border. Greece is accused of sending back the migrants after stripping them of their clothes in freezing temperatures. Minister for Citizen Protection, Olga Gerovasili, whose ministry oversees border security, denied the allegation and told Anadolu Agency (AA) that Greece is not involved in such incidents. Yet, figures provided to AA by Turkish security sources show many illegal migrants were forced to go back to Turkey by Greek officials; some 2,490 migrants were "pushed back" in November alone.
The agency reports that some 300 among them were subjected to mistreatment by Greek security forces, ranging from beatings to being forced to go back half-naked to the Turkish side of the border.
Three bodies, believed to be Afghan or Pakistani migrants, were found in three villages in Edirne, the Turkish province that borders Greece, yesterday. More than 70,000 illegal migrants were intercepted in Edirne from January to November, a high number compared to 47,731 people stopped last year as they tried to cross into Greece, despite an increase in "pushback" reports.
Under international laws and conventions, Greece is obliged to register any illegal migrants entering its territory; yet, this is not the case for some migrants. Security sources say that accounts of migrants interviewed with Turkish migration authority staff and social workers show that they are forced to return to Turkey, where they arrived from their homelands with the hope of reaching Europe.
Afghan national Jamaluddin Malangi, who was among the migrants intercepted by Turkish forces in Edirne on Tuesday, told reporters how they were forced out of Greece by "police." Malangi said he saw one migrant, who was found frozen to death later, at a police station earlier where they were held after illegally crossing into Greece.
"We moved toward a village near the forest [in Greece]. We asked for help by knocking on the doors of Greek villagers. During that time, the Greek police came and caught us. First, they took us to the police station and then to the riverbanks. They made us get on a boat and sent us back [to Turkey]," he said. Malangi said there were two boats on the river, apparently used by Greek police to send back migrants, and police forced them to steer the boat to the Turkish side.
Abdelkader Fikrash, a 23-year-old Algerian migrant who was among the 14 half-naked migrants found freezing by people from a Turkish border village in Edirne 20 days ago, relates a similar story. "Police took us to the riverbank. They were wearing masks. First, they took our cellphones, money and clothes and then they moved us to boats [to the Turkish side]." Another migrant has said that they were beaten "with iron bars" showing large bruises on his back.
Last December, five Syrian migrants were filmed aboard a small boat moving toward the Turkish side on the Meriç River dividing Greece and Turkey, but there is no footage or image of Greek police forcing people onto the boats as migrants say their cellphones or cameras were confiscated.
The story of Amar Mattai, an Algerian migrant, shows pushback is not limited to migrants caught by the Greek border patrol moments after they cross into Greece from Turkey. Mattai, who was found near the border with bruises on his body last July, had crossed into Greece via the sea route, taking shelter on a Greek Aegean island. He was then relocated to camps on the mainland before he was taken to a police station. "I was in a cell in the police station when policemen came and told me it was 'time to leave.' I had stepped out of the police station when a car stopped. I saw men wearing police uniforms inside. They forced me into the car and started beating me. At midnight, I was taken to the banks [of the Meriç River] and put on a boat, without my clothes or money. Turkish soldiers found me and saved me. I would be dead if they hadn't found me," he said.
The Greece office of the U.N. Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, acknowledges that they have tip-offs about "pushback" and describe them as "concerning." A statement to AA by UNHCR Greece says they extended their concerns to Greek authorities before and called Athens to take measures to "prevent" it. UNHCR Greece has received hundreds of complaints about pushback incidents since January.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of migrants flee civil conflict or economic hardship in their home countries in hopes of reaching Europe. Edirne is a primary migration route. Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management data reveals that most of the migrants come from Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The numbers increase in late summer and autumn before dropping in the winter months.
Temperatures fluctuate to minus zero degrees in Edirne and other provinces at the border, which also saw heavy rainfall last week. Migrants usually take boats on the Meriç River, while some try to swim across to the other side.
Turkey and the European Union signed a deal in 2016 to curb illegal immigration through the dangerous Aegean Sea route from Turkey to Greece. Under the deal, Greece sends migrants held on Aegean islands they crossed over to from nearby Turkish shores, and in return, EU countries receive a number of Syrian migrants legally. The deal, reinforced with an escalated crackdown on human smugglers and more patrols in the Aegean, significantly decreased the number of illegal crossings. However, some desperate migrants still take the better-policed land border between Turkey and Greece, especially in winter months when a safe journey through the Aegean is nearly impossible aboard dinghies.
Greece, which struggles to cope with the huge influx of migrants, especially after a civil war in Syria displaced millions, has been criticized for decrepit conditions in refugee camps on its Aegean islands.