“They pushed us into the mud, we were trying to lift the kids out… we didn’t know anything, it was in the middle of the night.”

By Selma Mesic

This is just one of the testimonies of illegal and often violent pushbacks that Mobile Info Team collated from people that crossed the Greek/Turkish land border (largely made up of the river Evros) and published in a recent report[i].

The first-hand testimonies which have been collated by MIT confirm previous findings on pushbacks in the Evros region. They outline the consistent and systematic nature of pushbacks, where interception and detention of migrants by Greek police is followed by a handover to masked commando groups who execute the final and forced expulsion into Turkey across the border.

Pushbacks as a response to failing migration policies

All pushbacks are inherently illegal, whether they involve violence or not, and refer to the informal expulsion (lacking due process) of an individual or group to another country and is forbidden under international and EU law. The Evros pushbacks have been reported on since 2013 by NGOs and media outlets. Despite this, men, women and children continue to be illegally pushed back.

Photo Credit SilvaAna

Even warnings by NGOs, human rights organisations and legal bodies of Turkey’s more and more hostile policies towards refugees and failures to fulfil the duties as a safe third country has not deterred pushbacks from Greece. Pushbacks have become an integral albeit unofficial method of migration management within EU and Balkans, especially after the closure of the Balkan route in 2016.

The land border between Greece and Turkey is no exception. Greece has seen an increase of people entering through the land border despite the dangerous route – reaching up to 500 migrants a day – largely due to the geographical containment on the Aegean islands and the desperate camp conditions.

The violation of international law and human rights

The testimonies collated by MIT detail a fundamental disregard for human rights and international law principles. Some key principles we found to be violated are that of non-refoulement, the prohibition of collective expulsions and unlawful detention and torture. Respondents were additionally denied the right to seek asylum and reported only having toilet water to drink, detention in overcrowded and unsanitary jails, theft and destruction of personal property, physical violence, humiliating searches and electrical shocks.

One respondent shared that he and his family were held in a small, crowded and smelly room during detention. A female respondent explained that after having their phones removed, her family was placed in detention and held without food or water. She was even denied baby food for her child. It is not uncommon for people to be held in these conditions without food and water for a full day.

The extent to which the government and the Greek police is actively aware and participating top-down in enforcing pushbacks is hard to determine from the testimonies. However, the evidence clearly indicates that parts of the Greek police are systematically rounding up migrants in the region and detaining and handing over groups to masked commando groups. Violent behaviour was commonplace and perpetrated at times by the Greek police and at other times by the masked men.

Photo Credit Alexandre Rotenberg

Once taken out of detention and handed over, one respondent noted: “I could not see their faces, only the eyes. They were covered with black masks. They were talking with us in hand signs, pointing at us to scare us, and they forced us to look down.” Another person told us of the military looking group taking their shoes before pushing them across the river. In addition to these cross-border pushbacks, asylum seekers run a high risk of chain-refoulement, in other words, the risk of being pushed further afield from Turkey and into their countries of origin. Many of these countries are active warzones or areas where asylum seekers face the renewed threat of persecution, torture and even death.

Putting pushbacks back on the agenda

The pushbacks have caused tense interactions between Greece and Turkey in the last few months. The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced that 25,000 irregular migrants have been pushed back from Greece in 2019 and that they had evidence – this was denied by the Greek government. The documents are not the ultimate evidence, but they align with reports from human rights organizations and growing testimonies. The government, implicated or not, has the duty on the basis on Greek law as well as international, to investigate these reports.

During the visit by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi noted during his visit to Greece last month the need to keep the pressure on pushbacks, however with the uptick in arrivals to the island hotspots and the plan to move another 10,000 migrants onto the mainland, among other things, pushbacks are likely to remain de-prioritised on the political agenda. In an unprecedented move, the media outlet Spiegel published videos on 12th December showing masked men taking people in groups over the Evros river onto the Turkish side. Six active and former police officers and soldiers also detailed to SPIEGEL the systematic nature of pushbacks.

The spokesman for the Greek police denied any knowledge of the pushbacks and similarly, Greece’s Prime Minister Mitsotakis responded that they had no information from the relevant authorities on these crimes. It is paramount that recent developments raise awareness and serve as an opportunity to move pushbacks up the political agenda, and more specifically that the Greek government conducts an extensive investigation.

The EU and the UN likewise need to step up their efforts in pressuring Greece to get to the bottom of the matter and hold them accountable to the human rights and international laws they have signed on to. They however also need to actively support the Greek government in managing the current situation and the increase of entries across its border, and moreover, commit to a comprehensive solution to the migrant situation.


[i] https://www.mobileinfoteam.org/pushbacks


The views, information, or opinions expressed in the blog post are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Refugee Rights Europe and its employees. Refugee Rights Europe invites a spectrum of viewpoints to feature on its blog in order to highlight different aspects of the human rights crisis facing refugees and displaced people in Europe, with the hope of generating discussion conducive to constructive solutions.

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