A 25 years-old Kurdish woman from Turkey, together with two Kurdish friends from Turkey, fled political persecution and arrived in Greece with the intention to seek international protection. The group gave the information about their arrival in Greece to a Greek lawyer, shared their location with friends, and took photographs in order to prove that they were in Greece and protect themselves from being pushed-back.
At 7:45 in the morning, they bought tickets for a bus to Thessaloniki at the bus station of the Greek town of Didimotichou near the border. Just when they were about to board on the bus at 8:00, they were approached by two men in plain clothes, one of them wearing army trousers. The men asked them to show them their passports. As they did not have passports, they showed their Turkish IDs and told them that they are political refugees and want to apply for asylum in Greece. They were ordered to turn off their phones and the officers confiscated them. Then they were taken and placed in the trunk of a white van with no “police” signs and no windows in the back. From there, they were taken to a small police station, 10-15 minutes away from the bus station. They could not see the surroundings of the building, as the van drove to its very entrance, but it did not seem very official according to our interviewee. Three Greek police officers in uniforms were waiting for them in the lobby. There were a lot of clothes and shoes piled up in the lobby, which our interviewee assumed belonged to other refugees. The police took their IDs and searched them and their bags; the two men were searched by the male police officers, and our interviewee by the female police officer. They told the police again that they are Kurdish political refugees, that they had been imprisoned for their political activities in Turkey, and that they would be imprisoned again if they were sent back.
“We said ‘Are you going to send [us] back?’ They said ‘Let’s see.’”
After that, they called them one by one and asked them questions to fill out a form with their biometric information – “name, surname, height, weight, hair color, eyes color, age, place of birth, ID details.” They hoped that this was for the purpose of their asylum application. Then they were taken to a detention room, which had three sections. The three were put in one of the sections together. The place was very dirty. There was a toilet, but they were not given any food or water. They could see different officers in police uniforms and in plain clothes coming and going. When they saw the Turkish-speaking police woman again, they told her that they have got a lawyer in Greece, who knows about their arrival, as well as photographs from Greece, that they sent to their friends – trying to convince them that they have the records of being in Greece, so that they would not be pushed-back. “If you send us back, these will bind you to a crime,” they told her. The woman told them that they are going to have a trial for illegal entry. She asked them to turn on their phones, saying that the manager wanted to inspect them. Our interviewee unlocked her phone and gave it to her, and the police woman took it away.
The group later learned that their Greek lawyer had called all the police stations in the Evros border region to ask for them, including the one they were kept at, but the officers told the lawyer that they were not there.
When the hours passed, 2-3 groups of people-on-the-move started arriving, all together about 20-50. They were not able to see the lobby, but they could hear the sounds from there, indicating that people were being beaten. The interviewee could see the middle-aged persons in plain clothes and police officers in uniforms wearing balaclavas beating people with sticks while they were bringing them past the interviewee’s detention room. According to the respondent, they must have beaten the people very badly according to the screams they could hear. The group of three themselves was not treated badly.
Around 6 pm, an officer wearing a balaclava came and asked them if they were from Turkey. They told him that they were Turkish citizens and Kurds. He told them to get ready to go back to Turkey. They started convincing him to not send them back, but he said things like “the system is like this” and “it is not my decision,” and left. Then the police came back and took them and their bags into a white van with no “police” signs and no windows in the trunk. The group asked for their phones and the police said that they would get them back later.
When they passed through the lobby, there were two people lying on the floor, “refugees” according to our interlocutor, inferring from their appearance. They were both severely beaten, lying in blood, and one of them had his leg “broken open into pieces.” When they got into the van, the three realized that its ground was full of blood.
The van was driven by the person in army uniform wearing a balaclava, accompanied by 1 or 2 police officers. They traveled for no more than 10 minutes to arrive at the Evros/Meriç riverside at the border with Turkey. When they were released from the van, there was the middle-aged army officer, two police officers, and two migrants, who were probably Syrians but could also be Afghans or Pakistanis according to our interlocutor. They were not Greek and were Muslims, because they were praying in a Muslim manner, as our interlocutor remembered.
(Our interviewee later learned more about the third-country nationals operating the pushback dinghies on the Evros river, when she was detained after she arrived in Greece to seek asylum for the second time with the same two Kurdish friends. The second time, they were detained at a bigger police station in Soufli, where they were staying in a cell beside the open cell, where the migrants working with the Greek police during pushbacks were accommodated. While staying there for a week, they three frequently chatted the dinghy-drivers through the bars – with a Kurdish refugee from Syria in Kurdish and with those from other countries in basic Turkish (since some had learned it while living in Turkey). The dinghy-drivers told them that they were being pushed back many times, until the Greek police asked them to work for them in exchange for the residence permit (the “ausweis” card). The Kurdish-Syrian told them that the police usually does not accept Syrians, but they accepted him because he spoke Arabic, Kurdish, and English. He agreed with the police to work for them for three months before they would arrange his residence permit. When he completed the three months, they agreed with him to work for another three months in order for the police to let his older brother come to Greece, too.
The dinghy-drivers were going to the border every day, sometimes several times per day. The Kurdish-Syrian told them that they were sometimes pushing-back 400 people in a day.)
While they were at the river, the three Kurds again tried to convince the officer not to push them back because they flee political persecution, but he again just said that it is “the system” and suggested they “come again tomorrow.” They asked for their bags and phones, and the officers gave them their bags and said that their phones were inside the bags. The officer also suggested to them a direction to choose once they cross the river in order not to be caught by the Turkish soldiers.
They were ordered to board the boat together with the two migrant dinghy-drivers working with the Greek police. While they were on the dinghy, they realized that their phones were not in their bags but were stolen by the police, and the money the respondent had had in her bag was also gone. When they got off the dinghy, they waited for the dinghy-drivers to return to the other riverbank, get into the van together with the officers, and leave. It got dark by that point, so they walked for about 3 hours and reached a road to a village of Edirne district. They met a villager and paid him to take them to Edirne (our respondent’s two friends had their money on them and it was not taken away from them). Our interviewee returned to Istanbul and had to be hiding from the police.
If the three were caught by the Turkish authorities, they would be sent to political prison. Our interlocutor had stayed in prison before for her political activities for one and a half year and has ongoing trials.
After a week, they fled to Greece again. They again found a lawyer in Greece to help them with their asylum application. Upon their arrival, they went to a village and asked the people there to call the police, because they wish to apply for asylum. The police arrived and brought them to a police station in Soufli. According to our interviewee, it was a very different situation from their first experience: everything looked more official – they were taken to a central police station, full with officers in uniforms, and the procedure was more official. They were put in a detention cell, designated only for Turkish citizens, who were not being pushed-back.
However, there was a backyard surrounded by barbed wire, to which the police were bringing around 200-300 people-on-the-move of different nationalities (Syrians, Afghans, …), including old people, women, minors, and babies. The police were gathering people every day, sometimes a couple of hundred at the time and loading them on trucks or busses in order to bring them to the border and push them back to Turkey. The Turkish citizens, who were separated from the rest were given water and food, but the people in the backyard were not given anything and were kept in horrible conditions, according to our interviewee. They were kept in an open-air space even when it was raining heavily during some nights. Our interviewee and her friends were giving them water and bread through a small window in their cell, facing the backyard. When the police saw this, they got angry and threatened them to push them back to Turkey.
After a week, the group of three was sent to the Filakio refugee camp, where they were kept for 40 days before being released.
Our interviewee told us that in the past year or so, about 70% of people [from the Turkish/Kurdish community] are pushed back the first time they arrive in Greece in order to seek international protection. Fleeing persecution in Turkey, they try again – if they are not caught or identified by the authorities in Turkey.
The details of this narrative were repeated in a separately recorded interview, which we conducted with the other two members of the same pushed-back group. The other two interviewees, 26 and 30 years-old Kurdish men, have also described the torture and mass pushbacks of people-on-the-move they have witnessed at the two police stations in Didimotika and Soufli.