A new report by Amnesty International adds to the body of evidence of torture, ill-treatment and pushbacks of people on the move to Turkey by the Greek authorities. It also documents experiences of violence at the Turkish side of the border as people on the move are being used as pawns in a political game between the two countries. The trial against the Vial15 who were arrested after protests and fire in the squalid Vial camp on Chios last year has started, prompting criticism of the criminalisation of asylum seekers as the scapegoats of failed asylum policies. A Dutch journalist who provided shelter to an asylum seeker has to appear in court later this year.

Amnesty International has published a new report called Greece: Violence, lies and pushbacks revealing 21 pushback incidents that affected about 1,000 people and other abuses occurring between June and December 2020. Among the people Amnesty spoke to were also a recognized refugee and a registered asylum seeker who had been living in mainland Greece for almost a year but were apprehended and pushed back by Greek authorities. Adding to compelling evidence by international human rights bodies, civil society, and journalists, the new report that primarily focuses on incidents in the Evros region substantiates that pushbacks have become Greece’s de facto policy of border management. During the pushback incidents documented in the report, individuals were often target of complex and coordinated operations across the country to transfer people from sometimes up to 700 km inside Greek territory to the Evros region and then summarily expel them. This practice underlines that pushbacks in Greece rely on the coordinated efforts of multiple authorities. The research also highlights the frequency and similarity of patterns of violations. The vast majority of individuals Amnesty spoke to have been subjected or witness to violence from people they described as uniformed Greek officials, as well as men in civilian clothing. This included blows with sticks or batons, kicks, punches, slaps, and pushes, sometimes resulting in severe injuries. Men were often subjected to humiliating and aggressive naked searches, sometimes when women and children were present. Some of the documented incidents amounted to torture, due to their severity and humiliating or punitive intent. The report concludes: “The EU and its member states should take urgent, effective measures to ensure that Greece stops violating the rights of refugees and migrants at its borders. This should include the launch of infringement proceedings against Greece and the creation of an effective, independent monitoring mechanism for violations of human rights at the borders.” In a joint statement from 18 June, the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) call on the Greek authorities to end and promptly investigate pushbacks referring to 147 cases documented by GHM involving more than 7,000 individuals.

Testimonies of people interviewed by Amnesty regarding their treatment at the Turkish side of the border varied. Some highlighted that after being pushed back from Greece, Turkish officials provided assistance. Other testimonies give a worrisome account of abuse suffered at the hands of Turkish authorities, including (attempted) push backs to Greece or islets in the middle of the Evros river, delayed rescues, or excessive force and beatings. According to the report, this provides “an alarming insight into continued political tensions between Turkish and Greek border authorities in the Evros region. People continue to be used as pawns in a political game, at times being “ping-ponged” back and forth across the river, unnecessarily putting the lives of children and adults at risk.” The report was published a day before EU leaders met in Brussels to discuss, among other things, the migration situation along various routes and relations with Turkey. Proposals for EU funds for Turkey that were leaked ahead of the summit call for €3bn from the EU budget to fund refugee aid and migration management in Turkey, with an unspecified part of the money earmarked for border control. Speaking to the Guardian, ECRE director Catherine Woollard expressed her concerns that any funding for border control could prevent people from reaching safety and leaving Syria: “There is a high risk that EU funds are used to support activities that may lead to refoulement [forcible return] or other violations, if a chunk of the money is earmarked for border management and border control,” adding that support should rather focus on improving the Turkish asylum system and the long-term economic and social rights of refugees in Turkey, the country hosting the highest number of refugees globally. Furthermore, she emphasized that “Turkey in a way is able to ask for whatever it wants from the EU and is also able to act in any way that it wants because of the dependency created by the EU-Turkey deal.”

Ten days after the controversial sentencing of four youths to a decade in prison in connection to the fire that destroyed Moria camp, the trial against the so-called Vial15 started at the Court of Mytilini, on Lesvos. The fifteen defendants are charged with arson with risk to human life, destruction of private property, causing injuries to people and forming a criminal group in relation to protests over inhumane living conditions at Vial camp on Chios and a fire that destroyed parts of the camp in April 2020. The unrests erupted after a 47-year-old woman died in Covid-19 isolation after suffering a panic attack and protesters called for safe living conditions. On the first day of the trial, the hearing was interrupted because the main witness, a police officer did not show up in court. He allegedly identified the Vial15 based on their appearance such as height and hair colour. The association borderline-europe criticised the lack of credible evidence and stated it feared that the Vial15 “will be convicted and criminalized as the scapegoats for the European and Greek migration policies, creating unbearable living conditions in camps on the Greek Islands.” A concern that is amplified by the unfair trial of the Moria6. The judgement in the Vial15 trial is expected for 29 June.

In mid-June, a Dutch journalist reporting on the inhumane conditions people on the move face in Greece and her Afghan translator, an asylum seeker, was arrested on the Greek island of Hydra because the journalist had provided shelter to the young man. Reportedly, the journalist has to appear in court in October and faces a fine or imprisonment. “The arrest […] shows how grim the climate is in Greece,” MEP Tineke Strik (Greens, NL) commented the incident and pleaded with the Greek authorities to release the journalist. “People who want to provide humanitarian aid to asylum seekers are being dealt with harshly, in this way the Greeks want to set a terrifying example.”

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.