This report contains two testimonies from the same chain pushback from Bulgaria to Turkey through Greece.
The respondent is a 26-year-old Tunisian man. Along with three other Tunisian men, ages 22, 23, and 40, he crossed from Alibey, Turkey to Greece using a plastic boat they had bought themselves. He recalled:
“We took the plastic boat alone at about 6:00 pm. After we entered Greece we walked along a highway for two or three kilometers and found a tunnel where we spent the night. Then, we continued on; we only wanted to get to Bulgaria. After four days, we got to the border of Bulgaria and we crossed a lot of mountains in the cold weather and rain. Along the way we also found the rest of what a refugee left behind—they were probably arrested—including bags and clothes.”
To get from Greece to Bulgaria, they waded through waist-high water to cross a river. Then, the respondent said:
“…we walked along a mountain that took us a whole day to cross; to go down we tied ropes together so that we wouldn’t fall. After four or five mountains, we found an abandoned small hut. It was raining; either you die with cold weather and rain or you get caught. We were so tired and one of our phones had broken; we made a fire in there to dry our clothes. The hut was far from cities and villages—we spent the night there and then the next day we continued to go to the city where we planned to take a bus to Haskovo airport. [We planned] to go there and act like new arrivals and then take a taxi to Sofia. [But] before all this happened we were arrested.”
Near Ivaylovgrad, two plain-clothed officers arrived in a grey Opel Astra G. According to the respondent:
“…they came to us and started asking for our passports and asking where we were from and where we were going. We didn’t try to do anything like running away from them; we just stayed where we were…They [behaved normally]; they did not do anything. They kept talking to us and told us, ‘We will call a taxi for you.’ And asked, ‘Do you have money or not?’…They asked us, ‘Where are you going exactly? To Sofia?’ We said, ‘Yes, to Sofia.’ [The officer responded,] ‘I will call a taxi for you.’ And we knew he would call more officers.”
They waited for 25 minutes, while the police officers watched them, and then a green car arrived with two officers wearing sage green uniforms that said “border police” and had Bulgarian flags on them. The respondent recalled:
“…then the first 2 officers went back to their car and brought gloves and started searching us. [They] asked us to kneel and then they took our phones, power banks, bags—all of our belongings. They took our levs and euros; they didn’t leave anything.”
The officers took 180 Bulgarian levs and about 40 euros from the men, which they put, along with all the other stuff they confiscated, in the Opel Astra. No translator was present, but when the respondents said they were from Syria, the officers called a woman on the phone who was able to translate. The respondent said, “…she only asked ‘Where did you get the money from?’ We told her that we exchanged the money and brought it from Turkey.”
Then the four men were loaded into the border police vehicle and were driven about 30 minutes along both paved and unpaved roads, while the other car followed behind them until they reached an intersection where their car turned right and the other car turned left. Along the way they passed two villages and on the last road they took, which was unpaved, they drove until they came upon another car parked on the right side of the road. The new car was green, had the Bulgarian flag on it, and had “border police” written on it as well as Bulgarian writing. One officer, dressed in a sage green uniform, was in the car. The respondent said:
“He was watching us from his car and he didn’t talk. The car that brought us parked 20 meters behind his car and then the officers went to talk to him. Then they came back and knocked on the window of the car and opened the door and asked us to get out. He showed us with his hand—he didn’t talk, he just showed us—the way to Greece and the other officer in the other car brought out a dog and held it and waited for us to walk…we kept walking…we didn’t know where we were exactly at that moment; if they had pushed us back to Greece or if we were still in Bulgaria. We didn’t know anything.”
The men walked for about ten kilometers through farmland in the rain, until they arrived at a small village, which his friend thought was Zoni, and saw a Greek flag. The respondent said, “…at that moment I knew I was in Greece.” They had been pushed back at around 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning so by this time it was around 11 am. They walked along a highway and at one point they saw a green military truck with soldiers in it that they tried to wave down, but it didn’t stop. The men continued walking until they saw a police car: a white Nissan Qashqai 4 by 4 with “border police” written on it. Inside were two officers, wearing sage green uniforms with a Greek flag on the left arm and black boots. The respondent recalled:
“They stopped us and started asking ‘Where are you from? Do you have passports? Where are you going?’…They weren’t violent; there was no problem in the beginning. Those two officers watched us for two to three hours, then two others came to start their shift and change service. And we waited with those new officers for two or three hours as well…some people walked by and saw us but not many.”
Finally, two cars arrived. The first was white and blue and had “border police” written on it. Inside was a man who appeared to be the boss, dressed in civilian clothes, along with three other officers dressed in sage green uniforms. The other car was a yellow unmarked Mercedes van with two men inside, both wearing civilian clothing and one wearing a balaclava as well. The respondent said:
“…once they arrived with the head patrol, they started beating us and kept saying ‘Tunisian, Moroccan, Algerian’ and they kept beating us…They kicked and punched us in the face. It was only the head patrol in the beginning who beat us. Then all the officers started hitting and beating us…They kept kicking, punching, pulling me out and humiliating me and saying ‘malaka’. Then, they asked us to stand up and they searched us. They looked everywhere; they didn’t find anything, only some things left from Bulgaria—a headset and glasses—then they pulled us and kicked us to load us in the van and they closed the door.”
There were no seats in the back of the van so the men sat on some spare tires. They were driven recklessly for about an hour along a paved road until they arrived at a detention site. Though it had nothing to signal that it was an official place of detention, it was surrounded by a fence and had numerous military trucks, police cars, and plastic boats. There were so many officers that the respondent couldn’t count them, though he said there were more than 20.
After arriving at the detention site, at around 5 pm, the respondent said:
“They took us out from the van and they held guns to threaten us…and they started kicking us and punching us again…They used a branch, kicking, and punching and kept asking ‘Where are you from?’ Then they took us to a small square building with a fence and closed the door. After 30 seconds, an officer came in and took me and my friend to the room inside. [He and another officer] started searching us; then they asked us to turn around and look at the wall and they started hitting us. They were acting like animals while they beat us.”
This went on for two or three minutes and then the men were brought to a holding cell, which was about three by four meters, which had bunk beds without mattresses and smelled bad.
The respondent said, “…they left [us] with shoes without shoelaces and pants and shirts and we stayed there. From time to time they pulled one of us out and beat him.” His friend went to throw the garbage out and was beaten outside.
They spent about three or four hours in the detention site, during which time they were not given any food, water, or medical assistance. There was a toilet in the cell but it was so dirty it was unusable. The respondent didn’t ask for asylum, explaining that:
“You can’t. He didn’t take care of giving you a bottle of water, do you think he would care about you and the asylum process? And we were afraid that if we talked they would pull us out and keep beating us. They wouldn’t even let you breathe if they had the power to do that.”
When they were taken outside, they found about 100 other people who had been similarly detained. The others were kneeling in a small square surrounded by a fence with no roof. The group included Moroccans, Syrians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, and Bengalis and though it was mostly men, there were also two or three women and a few kids around 8 to 12 years old. The respondent didn’t know everyone’s age but estimated that there were some men in their 50s.
They were loaded into a military truck by numerous officers, some wearing sage green uniforms, some in civilian clothing, and some in green camouflage uniforms and balaclavas. Right before they got in, however, an officer wielding a baton asked them where they were from. When they said Syria, he told them to get out and, hitting them on their backs and heads, told them to get in an unmarked van with a civilian license plate. Around 35 people were put in the van, which was driven by a man wearing civilian clothes and a balaclava. They were driven about an hour and a half, along both paved and unpaved roads.
When they stopped, they were met by more officers at a place along the river, which was thought to be close to Dilofos, where there was a railway and a big abandoned house. The respondent recalled:
“…this van was the same as the first one—there were small windows on both sides and I looked to see how they behaved. And I saw how they hit and beat everyone that got out of the truck. I even saw a man that they beat hard when they took him out of the truck…They used a branch; it’s long and thick and they don’t care—they hit you on your leg or on your head.”
In total, the respondent estimated that there were about 25 officers. He said the women in their group “were searched by male officers and if the woman said no or ‘don’t touch me’ or refused anything, they slapped her.” Two of the officers spoke Arabic with Syrian accents and one spoke with a Moroccan accent.
The respondent said, “This is the last [time they search you], where you have to take off your shoes and leave them there; I saw a pile of shoes.” Then, in groups of eight or nine, people were loaded into a boat paddled by the two Syrian men. The respondent estimated that the boat could only really accommodate a maximum of four to six people, and said though stable, it seemed like it could sink if any water got in it.
The boat got stuck in trees near the opposite shore, and while the drivers were paddling to release the boat, the respondent jumped out onto land. Others in his boat were told to jump into the water.
The respondent was in the last group to cross and said everyone who had come in the van was pushed back to Turkey. Once in Turkey, near to Kapikule, he walked barefoot for five or six kilometers and then found a taxi stand with “red lights all over it and a lot of taxis outside and a store next to it.” Then he took a taxi to Edirne, which took about 20 minutes.
The respondent, a 21-year-old Tunisian man, recounts a violent chain pushback. He crossed from Alibey, Turkey to Greece with three other Tunisian men, ages 22, 23, and 40. They bought a boat and used it to cross the river, without hiring a smuggler. Once in Greece, they walked for about six days through mountains and forests, until they arrived in Bulgaria.
After walking for a day in Bulgaria, the group spent the night in an abandoned house near a small village called Madzharovo. The next day, they walked for about 12 kilometers and then were detained by two officers wearing civilian clothes along a highway that connected the small village to a bigger city. The officers spoke Bulgarian and English and had nothing on to signal that they were police. They told the group that they would call them taxis to take them to Sofia, however 10 minutes later another police car arrived and the two officers in civilian clothes went to their car, a blue Opel, and put gloves on so they could check the four men.
The second police car was a green Nissan 4×4 with “police” written on it in both English and Bulgarian. The two officers who arrived in it were wearing sage green uniforms and carrying guns. The respondent recalled:
“They didn’t hit us in the beginning but they did humiliate us and ask us to keep our head on the ground and take our phones [and] everything [including] our supply money. It was Bulgarian money—we changed it in Turkey before we left there. They took it from us…they did the same things to all of us and they took 180 Bulgarian lev we had kept to get a bus ticket.”
When the officers asked the group how they had crossed into Bulgaria, the respondent said:
“…we had to lie and tell them [we crossed] from Turkey. Because we were afraid to tell them that we came from Greece so they wouldn’t push us back to Greece, because if [the Greeks] arrested us they would hit us and humiliate us and push us back over the river and we would suffer more. Then they called a woman that spoke Arabic and she asked us, ‘Where did you get the Bulgarian lev from?’ We told her from Turkey—from the currency exchange office…she was speaking Arabic fluently and she had a Syrian accent. She asked us, ‘What was the last city you came from?’ We told her we didn’t know; she started screaming and talked to the officers and immediately they loaded us into the back of the car like dogs.”
The four men were crowded into a space in the green Nissan that measured about one by one meter. They were driven about 15 minutes, stopped briefly, and then continued for another ten minutes, first along an unpaved road and then on a paved road, until the car stopped at a control point near a river where there was one officer dressed in a sage green uniform in a car similar to the one driving them. The officers got out of the car to check on what looked like a Bulgarian party and then took the four men out of the car. They took pictures of the group with a phone and, although the group asked to go to “camp”, the respondent said, “They didn’t care. They behaved like we were nothing, just a little dust they could easily remove.” The officer from the other car brought a dog out of his car and then the officers motioned to the group to cross a bridge to Greece, telling them to “leave Bulgaria.”
The respondent recalled:
“They pushed us back to Greece…we tried to go back to talk to them because we didn’t know what would happen, where we were, where we would go; we didn’t know anything but we were afraid that they would set the dog on us. It’s not something new that they do—they do this every time. We even had a friend that had the dog set on him. So we went to Greece and we walked through a river to get away from a place called Zoni—it’s a historic city. We stopped by the road to try to stop any car to get food and water. We tried to stop a Greek military truck but it didn’t stop. We tried the whole way to stop any car to tell them to call the police to take us to a detention center, because we couldn’t move anymore. We didn’t have food or water or a phone to find out the location or direction and we were hungry and tired because we crossed ten mountains and we crossed many forests and it was raining.”
The group walked about six kilometers with the intention of turning themselves in to the Greek authorities. They tried to stop passing cars and even attempted to wave down a sage green military truck that passed them carrying six soldiers but were unsuccessful. Finally, at around 2 pm, a blue Nissan police car with “police” written on it in both Greek and English stopped. Two officers got out, wearing sage green uniforms that said “police” and had a Greek flag on the shoulders. The respondent stated:
“They took the rest of what we had—we already didn’t have much stuff left after Bulgaria—then they told us to kneel and we stayed like that for about four hours while they watched…they talked to us in English; they kept saying ‘stay there’, until after four hours another two officers came. They gave them weapons and things—they were changing shifts—then the others went back and those two stood watch over us.”
During the whole time they were detained, the group wasn’t given any food or water. After around an hour after the officers changed shifts, a white, unmarked, Mercedes van and a white and blue Nissan Qashqai with “police” written on it in English and Greek arrived. Two officers were in each car. The van driver was a young man, around 19 years old and dressed in civilian clothing and a balaclava, who was accompanied by an older man wearing a black uniform. According to the respondent:
“These officers came to yell at the other officers, probably because they were lenient and tolerant with us…one of our friends had a leg injury and these officers saw the bandage on his leg and kept hitting him on it…[the officer in black kicked him] with his boots. He did not hit me but he kept kicking the young man on his back, yelling, throwing him down, and pressing his head with his foot…he spoke in Greek with the other officers and just came to beat us as if he were angry. After he was done hitting and beating us, they checked us again, but this time it was different; even the officers that were tolerant with us before began hitting us when they asked us to do something. While they were checking us they kept slapping and hitting us everywhere…they forced us to do what they asked, like putting my hand on my back. I told [the officer] my arm was broken, but he didn’t care and he turned it back violently and opened my legs and checked me again. They put two watches—the last of what we had—in a packet and took them.”
This went on for around five minutes, and then the officers loaded the men into the white van, continuing to kick them as they got in. The officers spoke Greek to each other and the respondent recalled one of them repeatedly saying the word, “malaka” (“asshole”).
Inside the van, the men had nothing to sit on except for some iron tiles. The officers drove recklessly for about 45 minutes, during which time the respondent saw tractors, cafeterias, a village, and a big city. When they arrived at the detention site, the respondent recalls seeing houses near it, as well as a woman hanging laundry, and a fitness center in front of the site. There were numerous police cars but no signs or anything else to indicate that it was an official detention site. The respondent observed, “It was surrounded by a fence and…there were also about three plastic boats with engines, about 50 police cars, and about five unmarked vans.”
When the men got out of the van, they were met by two officers wielding batons and a plastic hose, which they used to hit the men on their backs. This was all done in plain sight of passersby, including some who were exercising on the road outside the site.
The respondent recalled seeing about eight officers, wearing either sage green uniforms or black uniforms and balaclavas with no sign that they were police, holding batons and guns. Two at a time, the men were told to stand by a wall while the officers checked them again, more violently than before, and asked them repeatedly where they were from. The respondent said:
“They were punching us on the face—they had already broken my nose—and then they asked [us] to turn, then they kept punching [our] backs and asking [us], ‘Where are you from?’ We said, ‘Syria’ and they told us, ‘You’re not Syrian.’ They kept beating us more; we couldn’t say where we are really from because we were afraid that they would beat us more and more. Then, they asked us to take off all of our clothes…[we were naked] like newborns and they asked us to squat and then they held us from our hair and got us up and told us to take our pants and shirt and asked us one more time, ‘Where are you from?’ and said, ‘Never come back again.’”
The officers spoke in English and Greek, repeating the word “malaka” often. They put the respondent and one of the other men in a holding cell that was about five by six meters, which was dirty and smelled. They weren’t given any food, water, or medical attention and the only toilet was “so dirty” it seemed like it “had never been cleaned before”. The respondent said, “We kept asking for a bottle of water. An officer came to yell at us and tell us not to talk again.” The men were alone in the cell and the respondent said:
“later, we heard our friends screaming outside. They were being violent with them like they were with us. There was a mess on the ground and one of the officers asked me to clean it; he gave me a plastic bag to put all the dirt in it. After I finished he told me to take the plastic bag outside. When I threw the bag in the garbage container on my way back to the detention site, they talked to me in Greek—I told them I didn’t understand then they started hitting me everywhere and punching me and kicking me all over my body…before I got back inside, near the door, they started beating me and kept saying ‘funny, funny’. I said ‘no’ and he told me in English, ‘Never come back to Greece.’ and they took me back to the cell.”
After spending three hours in the cell, during which time they fell asleep, the men were woken up by an officer. The respondent said:
“We were sleeping and he came and knocked on the door and told us to go out and to hurry up. He kept hitting us with the baton and [when] we went outside we found around 100 people outside. They had gathered them from different places—one was caught in Thessaloniki and others from different places. They put them in a square surrounded by a fence.”
The new people were from Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, and Morocco, ranged in age from around 16 or 17 to about 30 years old, and were all men except for two women who were traveling with a friend. They were split into three groups and put in three different vehicles. The respondent was in the first group to leave and said there were about 50 officers outside, wearing both sage green uniforms and black uniforms with balaclavas. He said:
“There was no sign that showed they were Greek officers. Then, they started loading us into cars—they were about to put us in the military truck but they asked us where we were from. We told them ‘Syria’ so they asked us to get in the van.”
After about 40 people were loaded into the van, the group was driven about one hour down a paved, then unpaved, road. The driving was fast and reckless and caused the people to bump into each other. They were let out when they arrived at the river, where they were met by five more officers, including one speaking Moroccan Arabic and two speaking Arabic with a Syrian accent, wearing black uniforms with nothing to signal that they were Greek officers. There were also four officers present who were wearing sage green uniforms with Greek flags and “police” written on them.
The respondent recalled that one of the others being pushed back was:
“…a young Egyptian guy. He was 20 years old and he had been working in Athens for about 2 years. He went to Thessaloniki to buy things and they arrested him and pushed him back with us. He tried to talk to them in Greek but they beat him very hard…they kicked him and hit him with the baton. [The ones hitting him] were the two Syrians and two other officers and we were scared…[they hit him] randomly with the baton all over his body [including] his mouth, slapping and kicking him until he lost consciousness. They left them there with an Afghan guy and the girl and woman that were with us.”
The respondent said the women were searched by male officers who made them take off some of their clothes and that while the officers “were searching, they put their hands in sensitive places…and if [the women] talked or refused, they slapped her face.” He recalled: “[an officer] slapped this women wearing a hijab. They left them to the end—I don’t know what they did with them, but my friend told me he saw them later.”
The boat was ready when the group arrived and eight or nine people were put in it at a time, along with two Syrian drivers, despite the fact that it only measured about two by one meter and appeared to have a maximum capacity of around five people. The respondent was in the last group to cross, except for the Egyptian man, the Afghan man, and the two women. When the boat had gotten close to the other side of the river, the respondent and the others in the group were forced to jump into the river and walk to the other side. He said the water level was high and figured they weren’t brought all the way to the other side because the drivers “were afraid to get close because they were afraid of being arrested by the Turkish army. They already asked us to not make sounds or movements.”
Once on the other side, it took them a while to get to Edirne. The respondent said:
“we walked for five kilometers to get from the river to the highway near Kapikule. We walked in the fields and we found a gas station. We came barefoot because they took everything from us and we had to walk in a small forest and [endure] thorns and spend five days without sleeping in cold weather.”