Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports of an increasingly hostile environment in Turkiye and hundreds of deportations from Türkiye to Syria urging the European Commission to push Greece to repeal the Joint Ministerial Decision deeming Türkiye a safe third country for main countries of origin. Meanwhile, reports of pushbacks, abuse and non-response by Greek authorities continue to mount and recognised refugees in or returned to Greece face destitution and a lack of rights.

On 24 October, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported how: “Turkish authorities arbitrarily arrested, detained, and deported hundreds of Syrian refugee men and boys to Syria between February and July 2022” in violation of the non-refoulement principle. Amnesty International, Syria researcher Diana Semaan recently stated: “Syria is not safe for returns,” pointing to past returnees subjected to rights violations including detention, torture, rape and forced disappearance. HRW pointed out: “Although Turkey provided temporary protection to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, it now looks like Turkey is trying to make northern Syria a refugee dumping ground”. Türkiye has been moving towards a normalization of relations with the Syrian regime and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced a plan to resettle one million Syrians in Northern Syria. In its response to HRW, the Turkish Ministry of Interior denied allegations, stating: “a foreigner is only deported to a safe country of origin or a safe third country. Syria is one of the countries where the principle of non-refoulement is already in place and all foreigners who return to this country do so voluntarily. Accordingly, the allegation that Syrians were forcibly and unlawfully deported to Syria does not reflect the truth”. However, HRW points to the increasingly hostile environment for refugees in Türkiye that has seen their situation deteriorate amid an economic crisis and extreme rhetoric from nationalist politicians. Refugees are facing a raise in “racist and xenophobic attacks against foreigners, notably against Syrians” as well as a crack-down from authorities including arrests, detention, beatings and ill-treatment and being forced to sign ‘voluntary’ return forms. Among HRWs recommendations for the European Commission are, to: “Publicly clarify that Turkey is not a safe third country under the criteria set out in Article 38 of the EU Asylum Procedures Directive”, to pressure Greece “to repeal the Joint Ministerial Decision deeming Turkey a safe third country” for main countries of origin and to “call on Greece to re-examine all inadmissibility decisions based on the safe third country concept in relation to all Syrian asylum seekers”. Turkiye is often accused by Greece of instrumentalising refugees and had recently prevented hundreds of Syrian nationals from entering its neighboring EU country by land. A spokesperson for a group organising a so-called “Caravan of Light” told media: “We wanted to cross the border and they refused,” noting: “There were around 600 people in the convoy. We were blocked”. According to information from Turkish authorities compiled by Aegean Boat Report, more than 250,000 people attempting to arrive by sea have been stopped by the Turkish Coast Guard or Turkish Police since 2017. The International Organization for Migartion (IOM)’s Missing Migrants Project (MMP) documented more than 55 deaths: “at the Turkey-Greece land border in 2021, including 49 on the Turkish side of the border. At least 17 of these deaths were related to alleged forced expulsions by the authorities (“pushbacks”) in 2021, according to reports from survivors”.

Meanwhile, reports of violent pushbacks, abuse and non-response continue to emerge from the Greek side of the border. A team from Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) recently found three people handcuffed and four others injured from beatings on the Greek island of Lesvos. “According to testimonies, shortly before we arrived, seven or eight people approached the group, saying they were doctors and they had food,” said Teo Di Piazza, MSF project coordinator in Lesvos, continuing: “They reportedly started to beat them and handcuff them as soon as they found them. And when they heard us, the group told us the other people immediately ran away”. According to MSF, teams from the organisation: “have heard similar testimonies of violence occurring when people arrive on Lesvos and Samos islands to seek safety after a traumatic journey. These reports are extremely concerning and we urge the appropriate state authorities to take all necessary measures to prevent and stop such incidents from happening. People must have access to safe reception, protection and asylum procedures”. The NGO hotline for people in distress, Alarm Phone reported on 24 October the testimony of a group of people from Syria and Iraq: “that after arriving on their own at Fylakio refugee prison, giving their names to the authorities and voicing the wish to apply for asylum, they were pushed back to Turkey”, with Greek authorities using severe violence. The following day, local media reported of an Iranian man left helpless with deteriorating health and symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, fainting, exhaustion and hunger in the Evros region despite authorities being alerted by several NGOs, interventions from the Public Prosecutor and National Commission for Human Rights to locate him and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) granting interim measures for his rescue and medical care. According to Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) rather than rescuing the man, Greek authorities pushed him back to Turkiye. The Aegean Sea is also the scene of systematic pushbacks and according to reports by refugees and volunteers compiled by the Aegean Boat Report, at least 45,486 people have been pushed back from Greek islands into Turkish waters since 2017. On 26 October, Alarm Phone reported of a “pushback in the making” stating: “We are in contact with 29 people on a boat off the Greek island of Euboea. Reportedly the Hellenic Coast Guard is with them, but when asked if they help, the people only reply: “No, they will bring us back”. The NGO hotline added: “The latest GPS position we received shows the people closer to Turkey” and stated that “Frontex replied with a standard response to our alert, stating they informed the Greek authorities. This is not enough! Prevent the illegal return”.

The situation for refugees receiving protection in Greece and those returned there from other European countries is also dire, with many facing destitution and a lack of rights. RSA released a statement on 26 October on prolonged delays in the renewal of their residence permits exceeding one year. The organisation states: “Without a valid residence permit (Άδεια Διαμονής Ενιαίου Τύπου, ADET), refugees have no access to social rights such as housing, employment or social welfare. They are also unable to authorise a lawyer to legally represent them, for want for valid identification documents to certify their signature before public authorities”.

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