Istanbul, Turkey – Greece is reportedly employing third-country nationals, including Syrians, Pakistanis and Afghans, in its illegal pushback operations across the land border with Turkey.
According to reports from rights groups, as well as interviews conducted by Al Jazeera with four survivors of illegal expulsion, the practice has been a systematic part of Greece’s pushback operations for well over a year.
The men, referred to as “proxies” and “auxiliary police” in a recent report by Human Rights Watch, appear to be responsible for paddling boats across the Evros river, which separates Greece from Turkey, as well as searching and sometimes beating refugees and migrants during expulsions.
Hundreds of reports collected by rights groups have documented the practice, however, all evidence remains second-hand, since access to the proxies is limited.
Therefore, evidence has been provided by migrants who have spoken with the men during their expulsions, and by those who claim to have been offered the work by police, but turned it down.
While the exact arrangements made between police and third-country nationals remain unclear, reports state that the men do the work in exchange for travel documents, as well as items such as phones and clothing stolen from those pushed back.
Work for asylum
Ali [name changed to protect his identity] told Al Jazeera that he was offered the task by a Greek police officer in December 2020.
The 27-year-old Algerian had been working as a guide for a smuggler across the Turkey-Greece border and was apprehended by police in Greece before being detained and transported to the Evros river.
He said that, once at the riverside, a police officer took him aside and spoke with him in Turkish.
“He asked me if I wanted to work with them for a month, maximum two months, not for money but I would get asylum,” Ali said. “He also told me I could take anything that was taken from the people being pushed back.”
When Ali refused the offer, he said the officer beat his legs and feet with a tree branch.
“He beat me so much that I couldn’t walk,” Ali said, adding that he refused because he did not want to claim asylum outside of normal procedures.
He also said he believed he would be expected to beat others and would potentially witness sexual violence.
Rights groups in Greece and Turkey say they began hearing reports of the involvement of third-country nationals in illegal pushbacks in about August 2020.
Hope Barker, senior policy analyst for the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), an independent network monitoring rights violations at European Union borders, said this appears to have become the “sole means” of operating dinghies across the Evros river from Greece to Turkey.
Barker said that often the third-country nationals are members of the transit groups and themselves asylum seekers.
She said the BVMN has been unable to verify the information through firsthand testimonies, however, “it seems to be a well-known secret in the Evros region that this practice is taking place”.
Aziz Amari, a 22-year-old Tunisian, told Al Jazeera that he has seen Afghans, Syrians and Pakistani men helping Greek police to push people back into Turkey.
Amari said he has been pushed back from Greece 14 times since October 2020 and has seen these men working with police almost every time.
Amari said that the men were working cleaning in the detention site where he was held on several occasions in the Evros region of Greece. He added that these same men beat him when they were at the riverside.
“The Afghans were helping them [Greek police] to get people on the boats and drive the boat,” he said. “One of the Syrians said: ‘We have to’ – meaning to hit us.”
Amari said that he was then forced, half-naked, on to a boat and taken halfway across the river. From there, he was forced to swim.
He added that many in the group did not know how to swim: “We had to help them to get across … They would die [if we didn’t]. People died on a past trip.”
Faisal Daqouri 50, an English literature professor from Hassakeh in Syria, said he saw four men who “spoke Arabic” operating the boats used to force people across the Evros river during a violent pushback on May 25 this year.
“They were from Syria,” he said, adding that he could easily identify their accents, since he, himself, is from Syria.
“They were getting orders from the Greek officers … [the Syrian men] had tree branches and they were beating people while they were searching them,” said Daqouri.
He said that he was not beaten by them because of being Syrian. However, he stated he was beaten severely by police.
Daqouri reported that about 200 people from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq were pushed back alongside him, all wearing only underwear and shirts, and that women and young children were among the group.
Reyner Enseñat Sanchez, 38, a doctor from Havana, Cuba, had never been to Turkey before he was expelled in October 2021.
He said he saw men who “looked like Arabs” wearing camouflage and balaclavas during his expulsion to Turkey, and that the men were responsible for loading people on to and paddling the boats.
Lack of access to asylum
According to Mobile Info Team, an NGO supporting asylum seekers in Greece, the practice is linked with restricted access to asylum and increasing exploitation of refugees and migrants.
Manon Louis, advocacy officer for Mobile Info Team, said that the apparent promise of travel documentation in exchange for the work demonstrates the “exploitation of vulnerable people who cannot access protection through a safe asylum system”.
Since a pre-registration system via Skype was terminated in November 2021, Louis said that there is currently “a near-total lack of access to the asylum system on mainland Greece”.
She added that there are now three narrow routes to asylum on the Greek mainland, one of them being to register at the Fylakio Reception and Identification Centre in the Evros region.
A recent report published by Mobile Info Team said that 71 percent of people pushed back were apprehended in this region, “making it an unsafe and unviable option” to travel there in order to register a claim.
Natalie Gruber, founder of Josoor, an NGO supporting pushback survivors in Turkey, called the involvement of third-country nationals in pushbacks “sickening”.
She added that the practice exploits people’s desperation and is in vast contrast to the reception of Ukrainian refugees: “This right is completely taken from basically everyone who is entering the country who is not Ukrainian, but … those who collaborate in the violation of this right for everyone else, they get awarded with [asylum].”
Al Jazeera contacted the head of the press office at the Ministry of Migration and Asylum in Greece regarding the allegations, and was referred to the ministry’s official response to the Human Rights Watch report, published on their website.
The response refutes the claims and expresses “grave concern and sorrow for the quality of [the HRW] report”.
It further states that the reported involvement of third-country nationals “look rather like conflicts and settling of differences among smuggling networks”, and that the practices “do not correspond to the standard operating procedures of the Greek authorities and Frontex [the European Border and Coast Guard Agency]”.
A letter from the Hellenic police headquarters, in response to the Human Rights Watch report in April, also stated that “standard procedures” are followed, and that the Hellenic Police maintains “ethos and respect” for the fundamental rights of third-country nationals.
Calls for investigation
Martha Roussou, advocacy manager for the International Rescue Committee in Greece, said that the IRC, along with other organisations, has long been calling for an independent investigation into pushback practices in Greece.
“We think that the [EU] Commission should put pressure on Greece to establish a truly independent border monitoring mechanism,” she said.
“[They should] investigate all reports of pushbacks and violations of the right to seek asylum,” Roussou said, adding that the current entity charged with investigating reports of pushbacks is the National Transparency Authority, which, “we do not think [is] independent or expert enough.”
The Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants presented a report [PDF] to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2021, referencing numerous reports of pushbacks from Greece’s land and sea borders.
This included the “collective expulsion of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers” from Greece, including from urban areas, detention centres and reception centres.
Among the recommendations in the report, are to “thoroughly investigate” allegations of pushbacks and “establish effective independent monitoring mechanisms”.