This testimony recounts their illegal expulsion to Turkey, from Greece. The respondents are two Cubans – a married couple, a woman aged 50 years old and a man aged 51 years old – who had never stepped foot in Turkey before. The Cuban couple were amongst a group of 32 people who were involved in a pushback.
The Cuban couple arrived in Thessaloniki on 22nd October 2021. When they arrived, they went to an office to apply for asylum in Thessaloniki at the Court House. They were told by Police Officer Mr. Dimitrios Savvidis at the Thessaloniki Court House to go to the Evros region, specifically Orestiada RIC, Fylakio (Φυλάκιο, Ορεστιάδα), to apply for asylum there. They were told to go to the Evros/Meriç region, specifically Orestiada RIC, Fylakio (Φυλάκιο, Ορεστιάδα), to apply for asylum there. They waited until 28th January to travel to this centre in Evros. This was because their lawyer told them to wait because there would be a new law in January 2022 that might influence their claim. The couple tried to ask for asylum before, but the lawyer held them back. They both bought tickets for the 11am bus and travelled on a bus from Thessaloniki to Orestiada. When they arrived at the city, they took a taxi directly to the centre. The taxi ride took about 20-22 minutes in total, arriving at the centre at 7-7.20pm in the evening on 28th January. The Cuban couple were not able to identify the name of the centre during the testimony, but due to instructions given to them by Police Officer Mr. Dimitrios Savvidis at the Thessaloniki Court House, as well as the written down instructions, was identified as Orestiada RIC, Fylakio (Φυλάκιο, Ορεστιάδα).
They described the centre as having “three barbed-wire fences”, with a dark blue “police” bus parked in front of it. It said “astinomiko” on it. The respondents remarked the bus to be the same size as the bus pictured in Image 1.
There was a big door to the centre, manned outside by what the respondents identified as “police guards”. These two men were dressed in green trousers, green shirts and they were both wearing black balaclavas. The respondents identified these uniforms as the same as the uniforms in Image 2.
The Cuban respondents also identified a car, of the same description as what is shown in Image 3, near the door to the entrance of the centre.
Once they reached inside the centre, they saw more people, of whom the respondents identified as “police”. These people were wearing dark blue police uniforms. There were approximately 5-6 people, with two identified as women. The respondents identified the same uniform that these 5-6 people wore as the same in Image 4.
They explained that inside this centre was where they explained they were told to apply for asylum in this centre. They went forward and approached the desk and spoke to one of the dark blue dressed men (same uniform as Image 4) They were able to communicate with this officer through the use of one of their phones, so they handed the phone across to this officer. The Cuban woman (one of the respondent’s) had a friend who had lived in Greece for 22 years because she was married to a Greek man and had a Greek passport – she spoke fluent Greek. The friend (referred to as “hermana de crianza” aka. someone who is basically a sister but is not blood related) was on the phone helping them through the process. This officer told the friend that the paper which was given to him by the two Cubans was not valid and this is not the procedure to follow in accessing asylum. The officer and the friend spoke for about 10 minutes, and the officers said “the process is not like this” and after this, hung up the phone.
Then, the officers took the phones of the Cuban couple immediately, right after the phone was hung up. These officers also took their backpacks, which had everything in them. The couple thought they were going to apply for asylum so had brought everything they would need to do so. This included: clothes, toiletries, medicine (the Cuban man suffers from migraines), tooth brace (the woman’s), blankets, charging cables, towels and their wallets, amongst other things. Inside their wallets was 375€, which was taken later in the pushback.
The officers also took their ID’s, passports, image of their grandson and their religious trinkets. However, these were returned to them.
The Cuban couple were asked to sit on a white and red plastic fence outside the centre. They sat there for 20-25 minutes, waiting. They were not handcuffed or restrained while being made to wait. They mentioned that they did not see anyone else at the centre, as in no other refugees just the officers stated. While they were made to wait the officers communicated through google translate whether the couple came in a group, of which they said they did not. The officers told the couple to speak in English, but they could not as they only spoke Spanish. The only thing the respondents could understand was “malaka” (Greek swear word), which was said to them by the officers.
They waited there until a white van arrived. The white van had nothing distinctive about it, no markings suggesting it was affiliated with the police. But, the male respondent remarked “it was slightly in a bad state. Metal would make lots of metal sounds when it moved”. The respondents identified the white van to be the same as Image 5.
In this van, there were two new people in it – with one driving the van itself. These men were referred to as “officers” by the respondents. These “officers” both wore balaclavas – one dressed all completely in black, the other was wearing a white shirt and jeans. The other people dressed in dark blue police uniforms handed all of the stuff and belongings that was taken from the Cubans about 25 minutes prior to the arrival of the van. One of the “officers” – the one dressed in black – picked out the male respondent’s shaving machine, which he had in his backpack, and also took the coins that were in the pocket of male respondent too.
The two respondents were shouted at by the two new “officers”, saying “Go! Go!” to tell them to get into the back of the van. The respondents were not hurt, nor did they put up any resistance because they thought they were being taken to go and apply and get asylum.
And from here, they were transported to what the respondents referred to as a “police facility”. They were driven for 20 to 30 minutes in a white van. The husband referred to it as “very violent driving. Super fast”. The road they were driving on was not even, and they hypothesised it may be a dirt road. They said they were jumping all the time in the back of the van. There were no seats or anything to sit on in the back of the van. They were sitting at the back part of the van, in the trunk area. It was just metal inside.
After this journey they arrived at a detention site that the couple referred to as a “police facility”. They waited in the van and as soon as the engine stopped the back door opened. There stood about 8 “officials” (as identified by the respondents). They were described as “very young” and there was one woman and seven men. Two of them were wearing blue uniforms (as identified in Image 4) – one was the woman and the other was who the respondents referred to as the “boss”. The other six were wearing green trousers and a green pull over (same uniforms as Image 2). These people spoke in English and Greek. None were wearing balaclavas, all of them had their faces showing.
They explained they did not see much of it as they were put in the parking area of the facility. They did however see about 15 patrol cars, white and blue in colour. The respondents were able to identify the cars to be the same as the car pictured in Image 6.
These people took the Cuban couple to the back side of the facility where there was a “small park”. These people, identified as “officers” went through the backpacks which were brought with them. One of the officers found a notebook which was a book to learn Greek without a teacher. They all started making fun of them because of the book. The couple remarked they could hear the words “malaka” and “Cuban’s malaka” said to them over and over again, but did not understand much else (as these officers spoke in Greek). Another officer had learnt how to say the word “shit” in Spanish, so was also repeating this over and over again at the Cuban couple. One man in blue, who they referred to as the “boss”, was also one of the people to tell them “malaka” and was looking down on them. He was “being rough and very aggressive” remarked the husband.
The Cubans were speaking to these “officers” in Spanish, but these officers did not understand them. The Cubans explained they were explaining their situation and story in Spanish as well as asking for political asylum. But the police demanded they speak in English. So this conversation was just miscommunication and even though they had applied for political asylum they are not sure the officers understood.
This lasted for about 40 minutes to one hour. The Cubans remarked that these officers seemed to enjoy mocking them and the whole ordeal. During this time the couple were also searched, and the Cubans said the officers even enjoyed this. The officers searched everything – starting going through their bags. Then these officers conducted a body search on them both, rigorously searching through their clothes. When they were going through their clothes the officers were ordering them to pull their shirt up, then put it down, open your mouth, shut your mouth, and so on. The ropes on their clothes were also cut – including the waist strings on their jackets and also the laces on their shoes. The husband was searched by a male officer and the wife was searched by a female officer.
After all of this, they were taken inside the building. They described seeing very very tall walls where they were brought in, but could not see much else as they were taken in the back of the building. The back door was a metal door. They entered this room that was “full of charts and posters” identified as having “oriental language” written on them – the Cubans said it could have been Arabic or Farsi. They were walked by the officers through a corridor. They saw some rooms which were made with “barbed wire” around. They assumed these were used as holding cells. They explained that they were hurried along so they did not see much else.
They were then walked into a holding cell – which had 8 bunk beds in it, quite big, approximately 6×10 metres in size. The bunk beds did not have mattresses, just the metal frames of the beds. These frames were screwed into the floor. The officers gave the couple dirty blankets. Inside this cell was a toilet, a Turkish toilet (as they described) which was in the floor. The husband was unsure if it could be flushed, but the wife said it could be. There was also a metal sink in the corner which had running water. “It looked like a pig sty, very dirty” explained the husband.
At the end of the corridor you could see an exit where they explained the officers would be. But they could not see the door, but could hear it as it had a lock on it.
Next to it was another holding cell, which was smaller. This had two bunk beds, which had mattresses, blankets and pillows. “It would not fit a third bunk bed, there were only 80cm between the two beds” explained the respondents. No one was in either cell when they arrived. At around 1am on 29th January, two officers (dressed the same as before) brought them two boiled eggs and a piece of frozen bread. They were not given any water. The wife was on her period, so she asked for sanitary towels but no one answered her question. So she tore her pullover to make it into a sanitary towel. The husband also had a migraine/ strong headache in the early morning, and since they took his backpack with his migraine medication he was not able to alleviate his pain. No one helped him when he asked for it back. However, it was in this cell where the Cubans were given back their passports, identification cards, religious trinkets and photos of their grandson.
Just before 3-4am on 29th January, the couple were moved into the smaller cell. They were ordered/ signalled to come out of the bigger cell and put into the smaller cell.
And then just after this, at approximately 3-4am on 29th January, others were brought in – 30 people, all men apart from an 8 year old Syrian child and a Syrian woman. The oldest age was about 35-40 years old. The nationalities of these people were Syrian, Afghan and Moroccan. Just before these people were brought in, they were moved into this smaller cell. The couple did not see the group, and only saw them when they were eventually taken out of these cells. They did not see any officer approach the cell to give these people food or water. They just heard “go go go go” when the other people arrived, assuming that the officers were ushering them inside quickly. The couple recall one of the officers going to speak to the group, but they could not exactly tell who it was or what was said and to whom because the cells were side by side.
At approximately 6-7am in the morning of 29th January they were all removed from their cells. The husband was sure that it was about 7am when they were loaded into a vehicle. He counted 32 people, including him and his wife. The vehicle they were loaded into was a blue van but with no insignia or symbols on the sides so could not tell if it was a police van. This van was the same size as the white van pictured in Image 1. Inside this van they just spoke to each other saying “where are you from where you from”.
Inside the van was completely empty. It was just metal. It had no windows. The husband remarked it was a very old van. Everyone in the van was either kneeling or sitting. The couple were the last two to be put into the van. There was not enough space for them to sit down so they stood.
They were then driven to a new detention site, which they described as a “facility”. The couple remarked it was a short drive, taking approximately 10-12 minutes. The driving was again “very violent and aggressive”, like before. “The road was not a good road” but explained it could have been a paved road. The new place they ended up at was very very close to a road. This road was described as “a paved main road”. It was located just after a bridge (a highway bridge), just as they turned right off the road. They were able to see a bit through the door of the van, so they could look out a little bit.
This detention site had very high walls, similar to the last and they entered in the van between two high walls. The van door was opened and they were taken out of the van. This was done by eight people who were present at the detention site.
Seven people with balaclavas in desert green trousers with different pullovers – some were wearing white pullovers and others were wearing green pullovers. They were holding guns and batons. Then there was “boss” of this group, as the couple referred to him as, wore a balaclava, green pullover, green trousers and he did not have a gun.
There was a “small installation” as the couple described was in the centre of the parking lots. They clarified it was in fact a very small building, something like a government office. Nearby this building were 4 containers, which were full of backpacks. These containers they had to put their shoes in later. Also, the couple noticed four military trucks. These were described as an “old Russian war truck”, olive green in colour. These trucks were “tough” on the outside, a hard surface not covered with soft tarp. There was also a white van – which was similar to the aforementioned van pictured in Image 5, and then the one van they were in.
Two people came out of this small building. One was a young woman dressed in civilian clothes, but then later changed into the same blue border uniform as identified in Image 4. Then the other was a man dressed in the same uniform as in Image 4. Neither were wearing balaclavas, they had their faces on show.
After they were taken out of the van, the eight people ordered the group to dump their shoes in the containers and directly move into one of the military trucks. Only the women in the group and the children were allowed to keep their shoes. One male member of the group was in his underwear. The Cuban’s assumed that this man had revolted somehow towards the officers.
This all happened very quickly. The people in uniforms shouted “go go go” to them all. It took a total of around 15 minutes. The Cubans were not able to see who drove the truck as they were loaded into the truck before the driver got in.
This truck then drove for about 20-25 minutes before they stopped again. The driving was very fast. The Cubans remarked that they could definitely tell this road was not paved as the “car was jumping non-stop”. They could hear the branches of trees hitting the sides and top of the truck. They explained that they could not see anything, but they could hear and feel everything.
The husband explained that he did not witness any violence himself, but spoke to the situation of the guy without his shirt on and in his underwear. He was about 22-23 years old. The husband explained he could not identify his nationality. The husband referred to when they were in the truck there was a bench inside and people had surrounded this man (who was sitting on the bench) to give him some heat. The Cubans were not able to speak or interact with him as they did not have access to him.
They arrived at the river’s edge at around 8am on 29th January. This river is located in the Evros/Meriç region. They still were not able to identify who was driving as when they arrived the doors of the truck were just opened to let them out. When they were taken out of the truck, they could see a white van parked close to the truck and people inflating two boats. They were described as small dinghies, blue and grey in colour. They were inflatable but also paddle boats. “They looked like rescue boats,” remarked the husband.
They could just see trees and grass around them. There was a road which was next to the river side which they were driven down to get to the pushback point. They described this place as “an informal place for boating boats”.
The Cubans explained that they did not recognise the officers as the same as at the previous detention site as they were wearing balaclavas. There were seven people in total – wearing green trousers and different colour pullovers – similar to the uniforms previously identified at the other detention site. None of these people were wearing coats, and all were wearing balaclavas. There was also the “boss” who the Cubans had previously mentioned. He was older than the other people. His behaviour showed he was in charge as when the people were taking money from the group at the river side, he was putting it all in his pocket and not distributing it. Other officers were scared of him apparently. One officer gave a pack of cigarettes to someone in the group, and also gave cookies to a child and signalled and asked them to hide it from the boss. All of the officers communicated in Greek and spoke only a few words of English to the group.
The whole group was forcibly searched again by the officers. Although the group had almost everything already taken from them, they were all searched again. The Cubans had their passports, ID cards, religious trinkets and photos they had taken from them again. Everyone in the group was divided into groups – men in one group, and women and children in the other. The group of males were made to kneel down in lines of three in front of the white van by the rivers edge. Everybody was searched, including the children in the group. The husband explained that here is where they took his money he had left and it was not returned. The man without his clothes, and only in his underwear, was kneeling shivering with them on the ground.
The wife explained that in her group male “officers” (as she referred to them) forced her to show what was underneath her pants. She showed them, and one officer saw she had made her own sanitary towel. He ordered her to remove it. The children in the group were ordered to remove their clothes, as well as socks and shoes, so the officers could search everything.
This whole process took approximately one hour. The husband explained again he did not see any violence, but saw an officer push one of the people in the group. The cuban man remarked “we were very lucky, as we were pushed back in a group of 32 people and they were not given anything back to them”. They explained that in their group were mostly Syrians and Afghans. “They [pushback group members] were all muslims. They [the officers] treat muslims worse”.
After this hour, they were ordered all to kneel in threes in front of the two dinghies. They were loaded into groups of 16 into the boats. The Cuban man was put into the first group, and the Cuban woman was put into the second group. But, the officers saw that they were together so moved the Cuban woman to be with her husband in his boat. In the first group there was also a child with them. While they were loaded into the boat they were returned their passports, ID cards, religious trinkets, and photograph of their grandson.
In each boat there were two people, which the Cubans explained were amongst the 8 already identified as at the river. These officers wore the same uniforms. These two people were responsible for paddling the boats across the river. “They seemed very skilled as they were able to row across these strong currents” explained the Cuban man. They did not speak at all to the group so were not able to identify what language they spoke.
On the other side of the river, once they got to the Turkish side, there was a fallen tree close by. They used this tree to cross another small river that was immediately behind the one they were taken across on a boat. They explained their surroundings looked like someone had been harvesting there, so it was agricultural land. All of the group stuck together here, with the Cuban couple crossing the tree first and then the Syrian woman and her child next. The Cubans explained that those who shared a common language were able to form their own group and communicate, but they all walked together.
The couple could not describe much on the Turkish side. They explained it was within the border area, sort of an arid environment. After showing the Cuban couple a map, we deciphered that pushback location was very close to Neo Cheimonio on the Greek side and Elçili on the Turkish side. They passed what looked like a small container building that looked like it should have some officers inside, but they did not see anyone. They saw in the distance a camouflage jeep.
They walked one kilometre and then found cars waiting for them near a road, at an abandoned gas station – which was not near anything, on the Turkish side. The couple found a car that drove them to Istanbul. They paid $250 for themselves in a taxi to get to Istanbul. They contacted a friend who lived in Canada, who transferred them 500€ and were able to pick up the money when they arrived in Istanbul. The journey from this point took around 5 hours in total.
The Cuban man explained the story of why and his wife left Cuba. He was part of a human rights group in Cuba that was fighting for freedom of expression and freedom. But, because of the ongoing dictatorship, if they caught him, he would be put in prison for a long time. He left Cuba because he felt that the government was coming for them. He and his wife sold everything and left.
“We would understand that if we applied for asylum in Greece and we did not get it. But, we don’t understand why they would take everything from you and leave you in Turkey”.