The recovery of 92 bruised and naked men in the Evros region after they crossed from Türkiye has sparked condemnation from the Greek government that paradoxically deems the country safe for asylum seekers. The crack-down on NGOs supporting asylum seekers and refugees continue as a smear campaign from government friendly media backfires.

On 16 October, UNHCR stated that the refugee agency: “is deeply distressed by the shocking reports and images of 92 people, who were reported to have been found at the Greek-Turkish land border, stripped of their clothes” and further that: “We condemn such cruel and degrading treatment and call for a full investigation into this incident”. Governments in Greece and Türkiye are exchanging blame over the group of men recovered bruised, injured and naked on 14 October after they reportedly crossed the Evros river, separating the two countries, in plastic boats. Minister for Civil Protection, Takis Theodorikakos, reiterated often heard Greek accusations of Türkiye “instrumentalising illegal immigration”. Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi posted a disturbing picture of the naked and humiliated men with the statement: “Türkiye’s behaviour towards 92 migrants whom we rescued at the borders today, is a shame for civilisation. We expect Ankara to investigate the incident and protect at last, its borders with the EU”. The minister further stated: “Turkey’s provocative behavior exceeded all limits”. In a response on 17 October, the Turkish government rejected Mitarachi’s accusations as: “perception management tactics” using photos: “for which there is no location, nor any date provided”. The statement further claimed: “It is very apparent that Greece is trying to cover up the systematic unlawful pushbacks they have been doing routinely by confiscating all the belongings of the migrants including their money, phone, ID and passports, throwing them into the sea, by taking all their clothing and shoes, battering them naked with batons, injuring them with electro-shock devices, shooting at them with rubber bullets or putting them on worn-out lifeboats”. According to Der Spiegel: “The EU border protection agency Frontex has confirmed an incident in which 92 migrants were allegedly driven across the border river Evros from Turkey to Greece last Friday, some naked. Frontex officials had supported the Greek border guards in rescuing the people, said a spokeswoman for the authority on Sunday evening”. Outlining events in a series of Tweets Der Spiegel reporter, Giorgos Christides wrote on 17 October: “A first, larger group of 78 people were reported to have been found completely naked. I am told GR Police had spotted them already while crossing the river in boats and did not discover them at the river bank after crossing. Frontex was not yet at the scene. A smaller group of refugees (14 people) was reportedly discovered a bit later, again men, again naked, also in the same area (some 10km from the border town of Ferres). Frontex was called in to assist. According to the same sources, the bigger group of 78 men (mostly Afghans and Syrians) were brought – still naked – to a detention center. The refugees will be moved to the Evros Reception and ID Center in Fylakio, starting tomorrow”.

The Greek ‘outrage’ over abuse by Turkish authorities seems paradoxical given the fact that since a Joint Ministerial Decision (JMD) issued in June 2021, the Greek government has considered Türkiye a safe third country for people originating from countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In a recent statistical update by Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), the organisation stated: “…in 2022, a large number of applicants whose initial claims had arbitrarily been dismissed on “safe third country” grounds resorted to lodging subsequent applications as the sole avenue for ensuring their case would be heard, in light of the absolute lack of readmission prospects to Turkey for over two years. Many of those applications, however, were again dismissed as inadmissible, this time for want of new substantial elements, thereby leaving people in legal limbo again”. As reported by ECRE over the past month, Türkiye is increasingly unsafe for asylum seekers and refugees. A report on Türkiye by the European Commission related to Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations released on 12 October points to numerous and severe problems in the country, including: “Recurrent allegations of human rights violations in the field of migration and asylum, particularly in removal centres remain a concern… NGOs have noted reports of detainees being coerced to sign voluntary return forms in removal centres and an increase in hate crimes and incidents motivated by anti-refugee sentiments, and are a cause for concern”.

The Greek indignation over the abuse also rings hollow to researchers and journalists covering the region. “Irrespective of the real events around the 92 people found naked in Evros: The performance of indignation by the Greek government is nothing less than an insult. First, to the people who have been subjected to border violence in Evros for years & some of whom died as a result”, researcher Lena K stated, continuing: “Second, to the people who support victims of the border violence perpetrated by states in Evros and elsewhere, who speak out against border violence & are regularly vilified & intimidated by the same government, and the Greek media joining in in this spectacle of indignation”. According to Der Spiegel, the Greek government is using the incident as a distraction after the release of that deeply damaging leaked report from EU’s watch-dog OLAF with incriminating documentation of misconduct and abuse including violent pushbacks by Greek authorities covered up by Frontex, Koraki has the same observation pointing to a 24-hour delay in the Greek governments issuing of a press release on the incident and stating: “timing is important. Because the Greek government is (or at the very least should be) under extraordinary pressure following the release of the OLAF report on Thursday (13 October 2022: not by the EU Commission, which should have happened in February this year, when it was issued, but by the German newspaper Spiegel), which showed the Greek government has been carrying out pushbacks in direct contravention of international law, for almost three years (33 months).

Meanwhile, reports of pushbacks continue as do attempts to incriminate NGOs working in support of refugees and asylum seekers. Aegean Boat Report has recorded 731 boats and 19,436 people pushed back from Greek islands into Turkish waters between 1 January and 19 October 2022 reported by refugees and volunteers. According to the organization, its documentation has resulted in: “frequently targeted, unfounded investigations initiated by authorities” that have been “leaked to Greek press, a scare tactic to get us to back off. The Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis has several times put forward allegations of human trafficking and espionage, without any evidence of such crimes, because none of the allegations are true”. As covered by efsyn, a recent attempt by the government-friendly media SKAI to criminalise NGOs working to support refugees and asylum seekers in the Evros region backfired. A video claimed to be part of confiscated material from the Hellenic Police was presented as ‘exclusive’ evidence of organisations bringing people to Greece from Türkiye. However, the video in fact dated back to May when it was sent to ECRE member Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) and HumanRights360 and was published by efsyn of a group of 94 people stranded in Evros and the subtitles were manipulated to falsely suggest NGO involvement in their crossing – SKAI even referred to non-existent organisations.

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