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The officers followed us, saying “never come back to Bulgaria” while taking pictures of us - testimony of a Pushback from Bulgaria to Greece to Turkey and back to Greece

Date & Time 2021-01-03
Location Soufli/Meriç
Reported by josoor
Coordinates 41.20351565, 26.31710938
Pushback from Bulgaria, Greece
Pushback to Greece, Turkey
Taken to a police station yes
Minors involved yes
WLTI* involved yes
Men involved yes
Age 5 - 50
Group size 60
Countries of origin Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Egypt, Yemen
Treatment at police station or other place of detention detention, denial of food/water, denial of medical care and medicine
Overall number of policemen and policewomen involved 34
Violence used beating (with batons/hands/other), kicking, pushing people to the ground, insulting, sexual assault, forcing to undress, theft of personal belongings, reckless driving
Police involved Bulgaria: 1 Jeep, 1 White car with ‘police’ written on it, 6 officers in blue uniforms with Bulgarian flag, 2 more officers with unidentified uniforms, 1 Nissan car. Greece: 1 Nissan Qashqai car, 1 unmarked Ford salon-style white car, 3 men and 1 woman in black uniforms and balaclavas, 2 officers dressed in civilian clothes wearing balaclavas, 6 Greek officers in green uniforms, 1 big Ford truck, 6 greek officers wearing military uniforms and balaclavas, 4 Greek officers wearing black clothes and balaclavas, 2 officers in unidentified, 2 officers driving the boat in black uniforms and balaclavas

The respondent, a 28-year-old male from Aleppo, Syria, had crossed from Turkey, into Greece, and then Bulgaria before he was apprehended in the Bulgarian village Lambuh. He had walked for three nights across difficult, mountainous terrain with 3 other men. Two were from Syria and one was Moroccan, aged 22, 26 and 28-years-old.

The respondent’s phone had run out of battery so he tried to reach the nearest house, which he thought was Bulgarian, to see if they could try to help them. But, he found that the occupier was Turkish so they conversed in Turkish. The respondent asked him for help to charge his phone so he could contact someone to help him get to Harmanli. According to the respondent, the occupier of the house told him “tamam”, which means “ok” in Turkish and Arabic, so the respondent went inside. But while he was changing his clothes, the other guys in his group told him that the owner of the house had been talking on the phone in Bulgarian, and 5 minutes later a police car arrived.

It was a jeep with two officers dressed in dark blue uniforms. The respondent described that the uniforms had a flag of Bulgaria on their arm. Later, another white car came. This car had ‘police’ written on the outside, and there were two more officers inside it. The respondent claimed that the Jeep stayed with them, but the white police car went to check the village nearby to see if they could find any more people.

After they had waited for a bit, another car came to pick them up. This car was a Nissan and had two more police officers inside. These officers were wearing blue uniforms too.

This last car took them to the Greek-Bulgarian border. The journey took about 20 minutes. The driver was allegedly driving very fast, “even in the slopes and downhill he never decreased the speed so we started colliding into each other” explained the respondent. When they arrived at the border, there were two more officers. The respondent described them as wearing blue uniforms with the Bulgarian flag on their arms. These two officers spoke to the respondent in English, with one reportedly insulting him by calling him a “big dog”.

The respondent explained that they had asked for asylum when they were first apprehended and told the officers that they wanted to be taken to a camp. The officers responded asking where exactly they wanted to go, to which the respondent replied “Harmanli camp”. One officer reportedly agreed to take them, but instead they found themselves at the border. According to the respondent, they were then searched and his iPhone 6S was taken. The officers asked for money, but the respondent and his companions had none.

The officers allegedly took everything the group possessed, including food and water, and all their spare clothes. They were not beaten but they were threatened by the officers. The respondent recalls that, when they were ordered to cross the border, the officers followed them, telling them “never come back to Bulgaria” while taking their picture, and said “Bulgaria finish”. 

“We didn’t know where we were, in Turkey or in Greece or in Bulgaria. We walked until we found a river. We crossed it, the water level was over the knee, ” recalled the respondent. After walking for two hours, they came across a farm and here police arrived and caught them. According to the respondent, the officers had arrived in a Nissan Qashqai and were wearing black uniforms and balaclavas. The respondent recalled that three men and a women checked them and did not find anything, since the Bulgarian police had already taken everything from them. The respondent explained they were brought a bottle of water to drink and they stayed there for an hour and a half until another car came. This car was a white Ford, with no markings suggesting it was a police car. Two more officers stepped out of this car who were dressed in civilian clothes but wore balaclavas.

These officers reportedly checked them again to find that they had nothing. These officers conversed with the respondent in English, asking them where they were from, where they had crossed from and where they were going. These officers allegedly beat the respondent with a metal baton randomly, injuring his shoulder and his left hand. His companions were not beaten, only he was.

Then they were taken in this car for about an hour and a half to a detention centre which, the respondent recalls, was closed from all sides so you could not see in. The respondent remarked that it was cold. There were two military trucks, a car with ‘police’ written on the outside and a caravan within this detention site. There were no buildings near this site. There were at least 6 officers at this detention site wearing green uniforms. There were some others but the respondent could not give a definitive answer to how many. 

The respondent and his companions were made to stand near a wall and frisked. They were reportedly forced to remove their shoe laces from their shoes. The respondent explained he was “trying to do what they asked me to do but an officer kicked me in my knee”.

They were then taken to a cell where there was a metal bed, but no mattress. The cell was about 3 by 3m big with a dirty floor. “Even the toilet, its nasty and a bad stinky smell comes from it and you are afraid if you get to it you get any disease from it. There was no water” explained the respondent. 

There were about 11 people in this cell when the respondent and the others arrived – including a family with a young girl who was seven years old, and an old lady who was about 50. They were detained in that cell from 10pm that evening to 2pm the next day. During this time they were allegedly denied food and water, as well as medical attention. “They didn’t give us anything. I was sick and had an allergic reaction, I needed pills. I talked to them in English and they told me ‘this is not a hospital’. I asked them for food  and water, and they told me ‘this is not a restaurant’”, recalled the respondent.

At 2 or 3pm on the second day, one officer told the respondent and the other detainees they had to leave the detention site, to which the respondent asked where they were going. The officer would have replied with “you don’t have the right to ask”. An officer searched them again (the fourth time they had been searched in Greece) as they left the door to the detention centre. A bigger Ford truck arrived with 6 more officers inside it who wore uniforms – described as “military” by the respondent – and balaclavas. The respondent explained that he and the others thought they were being taken to a camp. One officer stood next to the car making sure people went inside.

They drove for about an hour. The driving was reportedly reckless and fast. The truck had a window in the roof so dust could get in. “We couldn’t breathe well’ remarked the respondent. 

The vehicle then stopped. The respondent and the 14 others were ordered to disembark and embark another vehicle which the respondent described as a military truck. Another 50 people were already in that truck. These people were of varying nationalities including Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, Yemenini and Iraqi. There was a 5 year old girl being held by her mother.  “They push us inside so we all fit in the truck, as if they were loading commodities, not people” explained the respondent.

The respondent was able to look out of the window of the truck, and saw that they were in the middle of a forest. There were no buildings nearby. 

They were then driven for an hour and a half, by two officers, until they arrived at the Evros/Meriç river. The driving was described as reckless. “Many of us had to stand so that we all fit in the truck. But because of the driving, the ones who were standing often fell over those who were sitting” explained the respondent. 

They arrived when it was still daylight. Four more officers were present at the river, waiting dressed in black clothes and balaclavas with no flags on their uniforms. 

When they arrived at the river there was a 2 metre long plastic boat ready, with an engine. “They [officers] were checking us again before they put us in the boat. There was a woman who had a gold  necklace and she was hiding a wallet in a sensitive place. They took both… I don’t know how he reached that wallet” explained the respondent.

Male officers had reportedly checked all the women. One of the officers found $400 in the one woman’s wallet. “She was yelling and crying, telling them ‘it’s my pocket money and that’s all I have’, so they pushed her and she fell on the ground and the officer picked her up and told her to go away”.

There were two officers dressed in black uniforms already in the boat and they ferried people across in groups of about eight. These officers spoke in English to the people and conversed in Greek between each other. 

When the group reached the Turkish side, they walked for 2 hours where there was a canal which the some officers – identified by the respondent as belonging to the Turkish army – forced them to cross, which was near Meriç. All 60 people were allegedly forced to cross back to Greece without food or water. The respondent explained that they had no choice as they were being watched by the authorities. They ended up stranded on an island, and then eventually were able to cross back to Turkey again.