This testimony documents violence, torture and extensive human rights violations by the Greek authorities, involving women, children and seniors. If the respondent is to be believed, two people were killed during this push back.
Our respondent is a 50-year-old man from northern Afghanistan. At 11:00 a.m. on the 9th of September 2020, he boarded a bus in Xanthi, north-eastern Greece, bound for Thessaloniki. After a short drive of ten minutes, the bus pulled over and one Greek police officer “dressed in a blue uniform” entered the vehicle. The officer approached the respondent and asked him to produce his “documents”.
According to the respondent, he was in possession of “police paper” – a temporary residency permit of 30 days which is commonly known as khartia in Greece – that was valid. Nevertheless, the officer stated that he “needed to check the document” and requested that the respondent exit the bus. Initially hesitant to leave, the officer reassured him that it was a routine procedure. He was escorted outside where two more Greek police officers were waiting.
A further three men were brought off the bus by the police. They were Syrian and, like the respondent, allegedly possessed khartia. The three officers then walked the men “some minutes” – to a point which the respondent claimed was purposefully out of sight – handcuffed them, tore up their documents and loaded the group into the back of a white, windowless van.
Next, the four men were driven to a police station in Xanthi that was “by a motorway.” They were placed in a large cell that contained 26 other people-on-the-move from a wide range of countries; Tunisians, Moroccans, Egyptians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were all present.
“I am a legal person here”
How the detainees were treated inside Xanthi Police Station is concerning. Not only was the cell described as “filthy” and “overcrowded”, the officers stripped them of their valuables, clothes and shoes. Indeed, despite confiscating their money – the respondent himself had 130 euros seized – the officers told the detainees that they could only buy food and water. “You guys have taken our money, so how are we supposed to buy stuff for ourselves”, the respondent recalled asking the police.
Wider reports have flagged up numerous issues inside Greek pre-removal facilities, including unsanitary conditions, an impossibility of seeing visitors and insufficient access to healthcare.
Amplifying this anxiety, the detainees were denied a translator or any information from the officers as to what was happening. The respondent said:
“They [the police] were not talking to them … they was just hitting them and throwing them into the room.”
“Maximum it was for 15 to 18 people … [but] the police [didn’t] care … they just wanted to close them in the van and take them to the border”
Approximately seven hours later, the respondent stated that the police unlocked the cell door and corralled all of the detainees into the back of a van with metal batons. Although the respondent could not relay an exact description of the vehicle, he stated it was a “small minibus”. Meanwhile, from a separate part of the station, four women and four minors were also loaded into the back of the van – two reportedly were below the age of seven.
“If the car would take another thirty minutes or one hour, there would be some people who would have got unconscious”
Without air-conditioning, and with only a few holes in the roof for ventilation, the back of the van was not only pitch black, but soon became intolerably hot once the journey started. Many vomited from heat stroke, while others had to strip due to the high temperature. The group remained in these conditions for between four to five hours.
At 9:00 p.m., the group arrived at what the respondent called a “big army base” where 20 Greek soldiers were stationed. “They [the soldiers] covered their faces, they were wearing black uniforms and they were not letting anyone look up,” the respondent recounted. Many were armed.
He continued: “it’s a hidden army base … they [the Greeks] don’t want anyone to know about it or [that] journalists put it in the media.”
The soldiers led the group into a vast room inside the building, which contained roughly 120 people-on-the-move, and told them to wait. For two and a half hours, during which the respondent observed multiple “beatings,” the group waited until a bus arrived. This vehicle was described by the respondent as one of “the army’s big green buses.”
Like before, the group was transported in dangerous, dehumanising conditions. Although six Syrian and Palestinian families were present, containing around eight women and 16 minors, there was insufficient seating on the bus and those standing up stifled the air of those below them. This time, two people fainted.
“They were screaming to the bus drivers and they were not stopping the bus”
The group was driven one and a half hours to the Greek-Turkish border. They were led by the soldiers into a concealed, wooded area and made to kneel on the ground. Then, in groups of ten, they were forced to crawl to the banks of the Maritsa River. There a black dinghy waited for them.
The dinghy was manned by a Pakistani man. Speaking Pashto, the respondent talked to the driver and found that he had been offered documentation by the Greek authorities in exchange for two months manning the vessels. Whether or not this bargain is honoured remains unclear.
Unusually for the Evros border, the “air pressure boats”, as the respondent called them, were not docked, but floating at a distance from the bank and could only be reached by wading out into the river.
The dinghy itself was small. Indeed, before boarding, one man warned the soldiers that the group could not fit safely inside, however they responded by beating him and wounding his forehead. “There was too much bleeding”, the respondent noted. Heedless to their warnings, the police proceeded to load the people inside the dingy. “Most of them had big bodies”, the respondent recounted, “like ten people wont fit in one boat. The police did not care about that.”
In the next moments, the dingy capsized and everyone on board fell into the water.
“The boat was down, without air, it had holes”
With many of the group unable to swim, panic ensued. As the respondent said: “they started screaming, and the police were saying to them don’t scream.” Under such duress, two men fell unconscious and drowned. This was despite the effort of one member of the group who swam into the water to try and return the others to safety.
After the survivors returned to the riverbank – thanks, in part, to the effort of this one man – a new dinghy was brought downstream. However, not wishing to create another scene that could alert the Turkish soldiers, the Greek soldiers strung a rope between the bank and the dinghy in the river, so that everyone “could come easily”.
Once on the Turkish side of the border, the respondent – still without shoes – sought refuge at a petrol station. The first settlement he recalled seeing was Edirne.