This testimony describes the pushback of a transit group that got separated upon apprehension, then reunited in a detention site and again separated right after the pushback when Turkish authorities forced part of the group back to Greece. The respondent in this testimony, a 35-year-old Syrian man, was among the group forced back to Greece while the rest of his original transit group returned to Istanbul. He describes the first pushback from Greece, how he was forced back to Greek territory by Turkish officers, and the second pushback from Greece to Turkey. The testimony called “We want the international community to know what they are doing to us and we hope that we can go somewhere else. Anywhere where it’s peaceful. If it’s Somalia, I don’t care. We just want peace.” describes the events from the perspective of the other members of his original transit group, detailing the same first pushback described here.
This testimony describes the pushback of a transit group that got separated upon apprehension, then reunited in a detention site and again separated right after the pushback when Turkish authorities forced part of the group back to Greece. The respondent in this testimony, a 35-year-old Syrian man, was among the group forced back to Greece while the rest of his original transit group returned to Istanbul. He describes the first pushback from Greece, how he was forced back to Greek territory by Turkish officers, and the second pushback from Greece to Turkey.
On April 25th, a group of five Syrians and two Iraqis, all male and between the ages of 12 and 39, crossed the border from Turkey to Greece near Soufli. All but one of the Syrians are related. Among them were two minors, 12 and 14 years old, traveling without their parents, but with extended family members. The 14-year-old minor has severe scoliosis and 14 screws in his body. This minor’s uncle is a recognized refugee in Athens.
On May 6, after the transit group had been walking for 11 days, the uncle mentioned above came from Athens together with a lawyer to pick up his nephew, the 14-year-old boy traveling with this transit group, due to his health condition and the fear of him being pushed back. The pickup took place outside Komotini, near the village Gratini. Previously, the lawyer had alerted the recently established UNHCR hotline for minors, many NGOs, and several journalists in the hopes of preventing the pushback.
Shortly before the pickup, the group, who had run out of food, went to a supermarket in Arriana where they met a Greek local who treated them nicely and, to the group’s surprise, did not call the police.
After the minor had been picked up and taken to Athens, the rest of the group, now 6 people, continued walking towards Thessaloniki. Three days later, on May 9th, at around 1.30 am, they were apprehended by police while walking outside Amaxades.
When the lawyers and journalists involved realized they had lost contact with the group, they started contacting the police precincts of Orestiada, Kavala, Xanthi, and Komotini, but no information was provided to them.
The respondent explains that the group was apprehended by several officers in Greek police uniform but was unsure of the exact number and color of uniform as it was dark and he and the others were blinded by flashlights.
When the group was apprehended, the respondent’s cousin and their nephew (the second minor of this transit group), as well as one of the Iraqis, ran away, escaping apprehension, and discarded their phones as they were afraid that the officers would be able to track them down through the phones. The respondent himself and the other three group members were caught by the police officers. The officers had a vehicle with them that the respondent describes as “a white van without seats inside that had police written on it”. The respondent is certain there was a curtain behind the driver and a camera inside the back.
The respondent and the other group members were beaten during apprehension and forced to undress while being frisked. Afterward, they were allowed to put their clothes back on and then ordered to embark on the police vehicle. The drive did not take long, approximately 15 minutes estimated the respondent. Due to the location of apprehension and the short drive, the group assumed they were taken to Xanthi but there are no other indications backing this assumption as the vehicle had no windows so the respondent could not see where they were being taken.
When the car stopped, the group of now four men was ordered to exit and hurry inside a building which the respondent refers to as a “police station”. The respondent explains: “we were being beaten to move quickly from the car to the police station while looking down on the ground with our hands like this” while placing his hands behind his neck. He explains that it was therefore very difficult to recognize anything about the detention site and know where they were detained. Upon further questioning, the respondent believes the detention site was likely in nature as he could hear various sounds of nature. He is further certain that there were several police cars present at this detention site.
This first detention site was a two-floor building that had a wall around it with barbed wire on top, the entrance had four steps, a big black metal door and upon entering through this big door, there was another glass and aluminum door leading to a hall with seats along the wall. The colour of the wall was a very light yellow, the floor was light brown tiles. There was one cell they were taken into and many other doors, more than ten, but the respondent does not know where they lead to. This station was bigger than the others they would be taken to at a later stage during the pushback.
“But we didn’t see anything other than being beaten,” adds the respondent. The group was detained at this detention site from around 2 am until about 10 or 11 am. There were no translators available, the group was not permitted to ask for asylum, they were denied food and water as well as access to a toilet.
6 officers were present at this detention site, as well as the two officers who brought them there, amounting to 8 in total. The two officers who brought the group there were wearing black clothes and balaclavas. They had Greek writing on the uniforms but the respondent couldn’t tell details as he was told to look on the ground. One of the six officers present at the detention site was a woman wearing a sage green uniform and no balaclava. The other five officers were male: two with black uniforms with balaclavas, but no writing, and three in camouflage uniforms and balaclavas.
Inside this first detention site, there were many other people, all from Afghanistan or Syria. Soon after the respondent and the others had arrived, the other three members of the original transit group of the respondent who had previously escaped apprehension were taken into this detention site as well.
In total, the group now comprised approximately 35-40 people, except for the two Iraqis all Afghan or Syrian, and all of them male.
After spending around 8 hours at this detention site, the group was taken into another vehicle at around 10 am. This one was described as a blue police bus with bars, similar to:
One officer in a blue Greek police uniform was driving the bus and it was escorted by two police cars in the front and back of the bus. When the traffic was high, the police cars turned on the sirens to pass through.
The drive from the first to the second detention site lasted approximately one hour according to the respondent. They arrived at a second detention site at around 11 am on Sunday, May 9.
At the second detention site, they all had to undress again, while also being beaten with batons again. They were not given their clothes back but were given boxers instead. Here they stayed for two to three hours and were allowed to use the toilet quickly and were given water. Nobody talked to them or asked them anything, neither were they able to ask for asylum.
Approximately 20 officers were present, four of them in black uniforms with balaclavas and no writing. The others were mostly wearing camouflage uniforms and some in sage green uniform, some with camouflage trousers and normal jackets, most wearing balaclavas.
The respondent described this second detention site as a one-floor building that looks “like it’s made from stone” from outside, and as looking old or worn down. Just like the first detention site it was surrounded by a wall and barbed wire. The entrance door had two steps leading to a small door looking “like a normal entrance door” made of grey metal. This door led into a corridor at the end of which there was a room on the right side which was the holding cell. There were also many other doors but the respondent does not know where they led to. He said the whole building was significantly smaller than the previous detention site. The color of the wall inside the corridor and holding cell was of a light yellow, the floor was grey tiles.
At around 2 or 3 pm, the group was ordered to exit the building and get on the same type of blue police bus as before, but without an escort this time.
After driving for around 3 hours, the group arrived at a third detention site at around 5 or 6 pm. The respondent explains that again they were ordered to look on the ground which is why he cannot explain much of the building’s exterior. He recalls however that the ground around the building was made of asphalt. To enter the building, there are two or three steps through a wide black metal door with a smaller one inside which was the one they entered through. After entering through this door, the group found themselves in a corridor with old tiles but the respondent cannot recall the colour. The walls were “very worn down and scratched”.
After spending around two or three hours at this third detention site, some officers wearing plain sage green uniforms and balaclavas came and ordered the group of 35-40 to leave the detention site and get on a military transfer vehicle with metal (not tarp) casing. The vehicle had no windows other than in the roof, there were no seats inside. They drove for a short time, around 15 minutes until they arrived at the river. Several other officers wearing camouflage uniforms and balaclavas were waiting there. The group, still wearing nothing but boxers, was ordered to undress again and the officers were beating them while they undressed. The group was frisked again and then left completely naked.
In two trips, the group was ferried across the river to the Turkish site – still completely naked. The pushback occurred at around 8:30 pm or 9 pm on the evening of Sunday, May 9. Once they arrived on the Turkish side, they walked to a village and went into a Mosque asking for help. “It was more humiliating than I will ever be able to explain,” recalls the respondent. “We were walking naked. I was holding my hands like this” recounts the respondent while holding his hands in front of his crotch.
Some people in the Mosque gave them clothes and food and called the Jandarma. Based on the respondent’s account, it is suspected that this Mosque might have been the one in the village of Saricaali.
When the Turkish police arrived, they took the group back to the river and ordered them to cross back to Greece. The Jandarma had two boats with them. They ordered the respondent and eight of the other Syrians they had encountered in the first detention site during the previous pushback (none from his original transit group) to get on one of the boats. “We said, ‘we have no food, no [proper] clothes, please don’t send us back!’ But they didn’t listen. They sent us back anyways” recalls the respondent. “They don’t ask us anything, they just used us as pawns” he adds.
The boat was not equipped with an engine, only paddles. The nine Syrians were forced to get on the boat with the officers kicking them, and they were ordered to paddle back to the Greek shore. The boat also had a rope attached to it that the Turkish soldiers had tied to a tree, in order to pull it back to the Turkish shore once the first group disembarked on the Greek side.
When the respondent arrived on the Greek shore, he decided to destroy the boat in order to save his relatives and the other members of their group from being forced back to Greece as well. He took a branch and punched a hole in the inflatable boat.
The group then waited on a nearby “road for military vehicles” right next to the river to be found by Greek officers. The respondent estimates that they had arrived back on the Greek side at around 11 or 12 pm. After waiting for about 3 hours, when it was still dark, a camouflage unimog truck arrived, carrying 5 officers in camouflage military uniforms and balaclavas. Each of them carried one pistol and an assault rifle identified as AK 47 or similar.
One of the group members spoke English and addressed the officers. He asked them for help, explained that they hadn’t eaten for three days and were exhausted. The soldiers made a call, and around 10 minutes later, a vehicle arrived with one driver. It was a closed, unmarked white van without windows. The driver wore civilian clothes. While the group had been waiting, the soldiers only asked them where exactly they had crossed but other than that there were no interactions.
When the van arrived, the group was ordered to get in. They drove for around half an hour and arrived at a detention site at around 3 or 4 am. It was the same detention site as the last (third) one in which the respondent and the rest of his original transit group and the other people had been held the previous day. This time, there were three officers in blue uniforms with balaclavas waiting for them. The officers ordered the group to exit the car with their hands on their necks and their heads looking down at the ground. That’s why the respondent couldn’t see many details, it was also still dark. The respondent was only able to see some vehicles nearby but cannot describe any details.
In the corridor inside the building, all of the group members were ordered to undress completely. They were searched and then given some of their clothes back, but only light clothes and not their shoes. Then they were ordered to get into a cell which was the only room in this building. Between 100- 120 people were already gathered inside this room this time. This group included other Syrians as well as Afghans, Yemenis, and two Iranian men as well as two women and one 6-year-old child from Afrin, Syria. There was a toilet in this cell that had a window. Through this window, the respondent could see a wall around the building with barbed wire on the top. He could see some small houses and civilian vehicles parked outside that wall, there were no fields or forests.
When giving the testimony, the respondent was shown pictures of different detention sites. He could not identify any of them but said that this third detention site looked most similar to the one in Komotini:
They were kept there until the next day’s sunset, so approximately 17 or 18 hours. The respondent recalls how during the period of their detention, at times officers would talk to them through the door, telling them to be quiet/not make any noise. Three times, the door was opened and more people were brought in: once 10, once 1, and once 3 people. The total number of people detained in this room now reached something between 125 and 145 people.
At sunset on May 10, some officers in blue uniforms opened the door and told the whole group to get out of the holding cell. Around 20 officers, some in EKAM uniform, some in blue uniforms and some in military uniforms, all wearing masks and carrying sticks – some batons and some tree branches – were present at this point. These 20 officers had formed two lines leading to five vehicles parked outside the building. There was one big blue van and four bigger military vehicles similar to KrAS-255B but with metal casing instead of tarps and windows on the top. The group of 125-145 people was ordered to walk to the cars, having to pass through the two lines of officers. The officers were randomly hitting all of the group members as they walked by. The respondent was ordered to get into the smaller blue van which did not have any windows and had a door at the back as well as the side and nothing inside, also no seats. The drive lasted for around 30-35min. At this point, it was sunset time. The sun had already set but it was not dark yet, so around 9 pm.
Two of the officers from the detention site had come with the respondent’s car. The other four vehicles with the rest of the group also arrived at the same spot.
The respondent estimates that there were 15-20 officers present there in total, some wearing blue uniforms, some camouflage uniforms, all wearing balaclavas. Most of them were carrying batons or metal pipes as well as guns.
The respondent describes the landscape as a forest. The group was ordered to walk around 200m away from the cars and arrived at train tracks. All of the officers accompanied them. The group members were ordered to kneel on the train tracks and then, one by one, ordered to stand up to be frisked. This procedure was repeated three times with each group member and lasted for approximately one hour. By this time, it was dark.
Then, still standing on the train tracks, the group was divided into smaller groups of around 20 people each. About 10 to 15m next to the train tracks was the river and after the third round of frisking and being divided into smaller groups, they were ordered to walk to the river in their respective sub-group.
At the river, one other vehicle was present, the same type of white van as was used before, with some more officers in different uniforms, and three boats. The boats were all the same type, described as bright blue and silver/grey inflatable dinghies. The officers ordered some of the group members to carry the boats into the water.
The boat the respondent was put on was ferried by two Syrians who were working for the police officers. When asked for details about this, the respondent explained:
“They [the officers] always ask us if anyone speaks English. And those who do, they can work for the police. You work for three months, and you will get the Khartia. But they only want English speakers. Someone who has the Khartia can travel inside Greece and can go to Albania. That’s what these people who were pushing us back told us.”
The respondent says the officers appear to prefer Kurdish Syrians if they have the choice, “because they know that Kurds don’t like the Turks either”.
In groups of 20, the group members were ferried across the river with paddles on the three boats. They were ferried all the way to the Turkish side. Once they arrived at the Turkish shore, they were told to “go straight”, not left or right. The respondent believes this was an attempt at the hand of the Greek officers, or the third-country nationals working with the Greek police, to avoid interactions with the Turkish border guards and prevent another group from being sent back to Greece.
The respondent is not sure of the exact location of the actual pushback site. He describes that there were no villages but a forest and train tracks on the Greek side; no islands nearby in the river; and on the Turkish side, there was no forest but fields and farms.
The group walked along a dirt road and reached a swamp which they crossed. After that, they followed another dirt road and then arrived at a highway. Until they reached the highway, they had walked for around one hour. At the highway, they split up. Some Afghans went first while the others waited, hiding on a farm. After 15 min of hiding there, the respondent and the others went to the highway, stopped a taxi, and went to Istanbul where the respondent was reunited with his relatives and the other members of his original transit group.
Explaining his reasons to attempt to reach an EU country and apply for asylum, the respondent states in desperation:
“We really tried to survive in Lebanon [from 2013 until 2021]. But when my second child died of malnutrition, I just had to try to go to a place where we can live.”