Greek prosecutor investigating allegations of 'systematic' violence against migrants at Evros River

After a decade of accusations, a public prosecutor in Greece has begun investigating a troubling phenomenon: the pushback of asylum seekers on inflatable boats over the Evros River to deny them entry into the European Union.

Move was sparked by first-person testimony of 63 migrants released in December

These Syrian refugees crossed the Evros River into Greece in May 2018. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

After a decade of allegations, a public prosecutor in Greece has begun investigating a troubling phenomenon: the physical pushback against asylum seekers in inflatable boats over the Evros River to deny them entry into the European Union.

The Evros is a non-coastal river that traces the 150-kilometre border between Greece and Turkey, and there have long been allegations that Greek police officers and militant groups have been physically barring asylum seekers from African and Middle Eastern countries.

Dimitris Koros, a lawyer for the Greek Council of Refugees, said pushback victims will be testifying before the prosecutor over the next weeks. He said it was difficult to find people willing to come forward, because most of them eventually reached Greece and "they're in the middle of their asylum processes, and afraid of repercussions."

The prosecutor's move was sparked by the first-person testimony of 63 migrants released by three Greek NGOs and Human Rights Watch in December. The reports shed light on systemic abuses that have persisted in secrecy as Greece has declared much of the Evros area a closed militarized zone.

The testimonies revealed a pattern of pushback operations — the capture of migrants by local Greek police patrols, accompanied by confiscation of their belongings, including phones; detention in remote warehouses close to the river; followed by a handover in bigger groups to unidentifiable paramilitaries who violently pushed refugees onto inflatable boats and sent them back to Turkey.

The Evros is a non-coastal river that traces the 150-kilometre border between Greece and Turkey. (Orestis Seferoglou)

Some alleged pushback victims will be appearing in a Greek court over the next couple of weeks. Thereafter, the prosecutor will decide whether he's filing a case against the Greek authorities. If he does, it would be a signficant break with the past.

"Slowly, slowly things might move now," said Koros. "The reports are adding up — and that can lead to pressure on the government."

Crossings are up

The pushbacks have been happening since 2009, said Eleni Takou, a researcher with HumanRights360, an NGO that monitors the area.

"It's been, let's say cynically, an alternative way of guarding the border," said Takou. "The difference with before is that since the EU-Turkey deal in 2016, the number of people crossing the Evros River has gone up again."

The deal, meant to curb arrivals in Greece from Turkey, forms a legitimate basis for sending asylum seekers back to Turkey. But it applies only to the sea route leading to the Greek islands. The Evros area was not mentioned in the deal.

Last year, crossings spiked again, with three times as many people — roughly 18,000 — crossing the river compared with the year before. The migrants are largely from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, Pakistan, Yemen and Tunisia.

It's a risky journey; many people have drowned while attempting it. Earlier this month, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant reported that hundreds of bodies were found in the river and taken to a nearby morgue. It's believed many more bodies are sucked to the bottom of the turbulent Evros.

This Muslim cemetery in Sidiro, in northeastern Greece, houses the bodies of people who died while attempting to cross the Evros River. (Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images)

For those migrants who do make it, there's a significant chance of being caught by Greek police and pushed back. With the rising numbers of migrants, the Greek Council for Refugees concluded a year ago that pushbacks have become "systematic."

The Greek government has repeatedly denied all allegations.

'Men are beaten with batons'

A recurring theme in the testimonies of pushback victims is floggings.

"Men are beaten with batons or clubs while in detention," said Eva Cossé, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has published a video featuring the scarred backs of victims. According to an 18-year-old Algerian man, "My friend was beaten up so badly that when they returned us to Turkey, he had to be hospitalized."

The Council of Europe anti-torture committee said it received "credible allegations" of physical ill treatment and pushbacks. In response, the Greek government stated two weeks ago that "in the region of Evros a great number of officers have taken action … without having ever recorded some incidence of illegal refoulement [forced return] or violation of human rights by police officers." ­

The government concluded that allegations of violence "are not confirmed."

The pushbacks on the Evros River have been happening since 2009, said Eleni Takou, a researcher with HumanRights360. (HumanRights360)

In a video statement last December, the president of the Evros border guards said, "We deny all allegations about pushbacks of migrants."

Koros, the lawyer, admitted that "the main obstacle" in seeking accountability is "evidence in individual cases."

"It's impossible to verify who did what," he said.

For one thing, the Evros area is full of thick forests and swampy areas.

"It's a military zone in most places, and a blind spot," said Takou. "Pushback operations happen in a few hotspots where the river's not very wide. No tourists cross there."

Takou added that migrants "are immediately stripped of their phones, money and anything else that could be used as evidence."

The phones are thrown into the river, and clothing is seized. As a 29-year-old Syrian man testified, "They took all of our clothes. It was terrible. The men were left with our underwear, the women with underwear and T-shirts. It was degrading."

According to the testimony, the pushbacks happen after enough people — 10 to 20 — are grouped together. They are then forced into inflatable boats and dumped on the Turkish side of the Evros.

The use of these boats is risky given that as many as 20,000 people have lost their lives since 2014 when such boats overturned in the Mediterranean Sea.

'A variety of active forces'

From the testimonies, it's unclear who the aggressors are.

"We see a variety of active forces," said Takou. "Sometimes it's the Greek police, sometimes commandos wearing military clothing and masks, without specific insignia. Some do not speak Greek."

Takou said they "could be part of foreign forces" or members of Frontex, the EU's border control agency.

Migrants who make it over the Evros often end up in detention centres such as this one in Fylakio. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

The prosecutor's investigation kicked off earlier this month, but is apparently not the first deep dive into the issue. The Greek ombudsman promised he'd open a general investigation following an incident in July 2017, in which a Turkish journalist was pushed back across the Evros, and then thrown into a Turkish jail.

The journalist "remembered some of the plate numbers of the van that captured him. He talked to an NGO, which published a report about his experience," said Takou. But no official allegations by the ombudsman followed.

It remains unclear how many people have been pushed back over the river. Those who never make it to Europe fall easily out of sight.

"We've lost contact with some guys who've been pushed back by Turkey to Iraq or even Syria," said Takou.

That's a phenomenon called "chain-refoulement," meaning the multiple forcible returns of asylum seekers to a country where they are liable to be subjected to persecution. Takou said many migrants are pushed back further and further until they reach the place they originally left.

Lizan Nijkrake is an Amsterdam-based journalist and Munk fellow in global journalism at the University of Toronto.