So far the bodies of 19 migrants have been discovered between the border of Turkey and Greece. Frozen to death, they were found without shoes and little clothing. Turkey has accused Greek border enforcement of stripping the migrants before pushing them back out into the waters, exposed to intolerable conditions in a region recently hit by a storm.
For years, in Europe, border enforcement has become a phrase behind which abuse of humans has been justified. The violations of international law go beyond push-backs, which are the forced movement of migrants back across the border without consideration of asylum claims. Police and border officers in European nations like Croatia and Greece have been found to systematically subject migrants to beatings, sexual assault, theft and humiliation.
There is political tension between Turkey – that hosts the largest refugee population in the world, having taken in 4 million people – and Greece, which has adopted increasingly stronger measures against migration, including wall building.
The now well-documented violations against the migrants however fit a larger known pattern of abuse at the hands of Greek border units.
— Live Updates Family (@LiveUpdateSyria) February 5, 2022
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published reports detailing the harrowing abuse, which corroborate the Turkish accounts of pushbacks, and also of the theft of items like clothing, and the forcing of unclothed men and children back into the sea.
On the issue of theft, Amnesty’s report, “Greece: Violence, lies, and pushbacks” published last year reported that, “At the arrest/apprehension, in most cases officers demanded mobile phones, which were confiscated and not returned.” The report also suggested that backpacks and their contents, including ID, were also turned over, and “parents with infants or young children were forced to turn over their belongings with supplies like food, diapers/nappies, bottles, and formula milk.”
The first-hand and witness accounts of violence that Amnesty documented, included reports of “blows with sticks or truncheons, kicks, punches, slaps” and “reports of possible broken bones due to the beatings, including a man’s nose, another man’s foot and, in a particularly gruesome incident, one man’s spine and another man’s hand.”
The human rights organization attributed the violence to agents acting in an official capacity, saying that they believe the “violence was committed by individuals who – by reason of their demeanor and gear – presented themselves as exercising public law enforcement functions.”
The issue of clothing being taken from migrants, often accompanied by reports of sexual harrasment, is also documented in the report. Amnesty heard accounts of “men being forced to be naked to be searched, often in the presence of others including women and children.” They also reported that “In one case men were not only forced to undress but were not given their clothes back and were made to cross in their underwear.”
Migrants also reported to Amnesty that women were searched by male officers, and beaten if they did not comply. They were also subjected to molestation during this process.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published in March 2020 contained similar findings. The report bluntly declares that Greek security forces “have detained, assaulted, sexually assaulted, robbed, and stripped asylum seekers and migrants, then forced them back to Turkey.”
Migrants interviewed by HRW described how men, women and children had been subjected to “electric shocks, beating with wooden or metal rods, prolonged beating of the soles of feet, punching, kicking, and stomping.”
Giving credibility to Turkey’s claim that the migrants found deceased had clothing stolen from them, HRW stated that most of interviewees had reported that Greek border enforcement had “stripped them down to their underwear, including some women, and forced them across the Evros river back to Turkey.” Much of this abuse was confirmed in interviews with Turkish residents, who lived near where many of the migrants arrived in Turkey.
Late last year, as covered in detail previously by impakter, a collaborative investigation from Lighthouse Reports, involving contributions from various news outlets, confirmed the existence of a “shadow army,” bolstered by EU funds. This “army” consisted of masked security forces from Croatia and Greece, engaged in a range of abuses.
These include pushbacks and violent beating of migrants with truncheons “from the forests of the Western Balkans to the Aegean Sea.” The investigation managed to film Greek border security forcing migrants back onto boats without life vests, disabling the motors and pushing them back out to sea, as described by Turkish officials.
Harrowing, first hand descriptions contained in the Amnesty and HRW’s reports, which describe the abuse above in more detail, are not quoted in this article. They paint a troubling picture of sadism perpetrated in the name of EU border protection, going beyond the refusal to accept asylum applications, and venturing into active torture of those trying to enter Europe.
In a recent development, an Iranian woman, named Parvin, who was pushed back from Greece 6 times, has come forward with her experience of migrant abuse
In a video posted by the ECCHR Berlin twitter account, she details how she and other migrants were arrested, and packed into cramped cargo containers with little air, with no food or access to a toilet. She says that not only was she beaten, but so too were children and pregnant women.
She came to Europe for safety.
But was beaten, secretly detained & pushed back from #Greece 6 times.
Her fate won’t stay secret. She has photo & video evidence. And now she’s filed a complaint w/ @rights360, @ECCHR_Berlin, @ForensicArchi #PushbacksAreIllegal pic.twitter.com/vIBRMv65Lx
— ECCHR (@ECCHRBerlin) February 2, 2022
In Der Spiegel, who helped break her story, she describes how the phones and clothes of the migrants were taken. Although Parvin managed to successfully hide her phone, helping her to evidence her experience, her backpack and money were confiscated, along with her winter coat.
In an important step forward, she has also “submitted a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee” with the help of the ECCHR, in which she “cites Article 7 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),” which “bans torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.”
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The ICCPR is a treaty signed by 75 states including Greece, seeking to commit its signatories to provide certain rights to their citizens. Reports of non-compliance with the treaty are examined by the Human Right Committee [OHCHR,] who offer “concluding observations,” which are not legally binding.
As pointed out by the ECCHR lawyer representing Parvin, Hanaa Hakiki, and reported in Der Spiegel, the statements of the OHCHR may set precedents that will be applicable in other courts of law. Pressure should be maintained however by NGOs and other bodies on Greece following any HRC proceedings.
The EU has been accused of softness towards Greece and other countries violating international asylum laws, and for not holding Frontex, the EU’s border control agency, to proper account
Both the HRW and Amnesty international have released research exposing the failure of Frontex to properly examine abuses carried out at borders, even documenting instances where Frontex themselves have been actively complicit in human rights violations.
A Guardian investigation last year claimed that “EU member states,” supported by Frontex, “used illegal operations to push back at least 40,000 asylum seekers” during the pandemic period, linking them to 2000 deaths.
The EU, and Frontex, have not managed to hold states like Croatia, Poland, Greece and others for border abuses. This is despite the fact that a Frontex employee, an interpreter and Italian citizen, was mistaken for a migrant in September of 2021, during which time he experienced much of the abuse detailed above. Before being placed on a dinghy to join the other migrants being pushed back across the water, he was detained alongside migrants that had been beaten and stripped of clothing.
We are saddened by the recent reported deaths of migrants on the border between Greece and Turkey.
Saving lives and upholding the human rights of people on the move should remain the number one priority.
— IOM – UN Migration 🇺🇳 (@UNmigration) February 5, 2022
A strong response from UN bodies could be expected should the UN Human Rights Committee meet to examine the abuses, as requested by Parvin. The UNHCR, the UN’s Refugee Agency, has also previously expressed concern about the pushbacks, in 2020 issuing a statement in response to credible reports and testimonies of migrants being “left adrift at sea for a long time, often on unseaworthy and overcrowded dinghies, waiting to be rescued,” as may have been the case with the migrants recently found deceased.
Greece’s attitude towards migrants is problematic at every level
The detention of migrants in extrajudicial secret locations, or “black sites,” where they are held in dire conditions with no access to legal aid, the refusal to consider asylum claims, and the range of bodily abuses described above sets a dangerous European precedent.
The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) has repeatedly called on Greece to reform their detention centres which it says “could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment,” in which children and vulnerable people are being held in “appalling conditions with no appropriate support.”
As anti-fascists celebrate the news of Golden Dawn's leaders being found guilty of running a criminal organisation, we revisit the Pakistani migrant workers who’ve borne the brunt of far-right violence in Greece.
— AJWitness (@AJWitness) October 8, 2020
A report issued by the committee in 2020 examining the conditions of detention reported a number of accounts from migrants that had been “subjected to slaps to the head and kicks and truncheon blows to the body by members of the Hellenic Police and Coast Guard,” as well as threats and racist and abusive language. The report contained allegations that children had also been physically assaulted.
Civilian pressure has a key role given Greek government inaction towards migrant abuse
Despite the Greek government’s continued denial of migrant abuse, there has been condemnation from within the country, with hundreds marching through Athens on Sunday to protest the pushbacks, carrying an inflatable dinghy, which has become synonymous with the plight of asylum seekers.
A similar earlier protest organised by humanitarian groups in Turkey saw hundreds of protesters march in Istanbul towards the Greek consulate, behind a banner that read “Close borders to racism, open to humanity.”
People have gathered to protest against migrant and refugee pushbacks in #Athens on Sunday. According to the Open Assembly Against Pushbacks and Border Violence, today’s protest is a part of a broader EU campaign happening today. pic.twitter.com/yadZrWX1hn
— Daphne Tolis (@daphnetoli) February 6, 2022
The treatment of migrants by Greek border units has long been established as crossing moral and legal boundaries. Whilst European governments harden their approach towards migrants, the impetus may fall on civilians and NGOs to document and expose abuses at the border, and to boost the work of journalists investigating systematic government-sanctioned mistreatment.
The effectiveness of NGOs in exposing the abuses of nation states is demonstrated by the efforts to restrict and target them: Greece has attempted to convict NGO employees on the basis of trumped up criminal charges, and Poland created exclusion zones along its border with the aim of restricting the access of aid workers and media to migrants.
The engagement of bodies like the UN Human Rights Committee should be supplemented by continued condemnations from civilians of migrant abuse, in order to pressure the EU and state officials to hold themselves to better standards.
One would also hope that European institutions themselves would wake up to the issue, in particular the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). This is a deeply humanitarian issue and a clear blot on the European self-image of championing human rights across the world. It is high time to remove the blot and re-establish in Europe the basic moral values of care for fellow humans undergoing hardship.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Dangerous, cold water. The Evros River, not picture here, between Turkey and Greece, is where migrants are often forced into dinghies by Greek border units. Featured Photo Credit: Joshua Hoehne.