Advocates demand an investigation as refugees report violence by Greek police — including incidents in which masked men pushed people back across the border. Authorities have refused to explain documented incidents.
Greeks who live near the Evros River, which forms a natural border with Turkey, have grown used to tensions on the international boundary. In recent years, displaced people have increasingly attempted to cross the river from Turkey into Greece, keen to avoid getting stranded at notorious asylum application centers on islands such as Lesbos, Samos and Chios — risking death to completer their journeys into the European Union.
"I've pulled dozens of corpses from the river," a local fisherman told DW, showing pictures of bodies on his smartphone. Of those who do make it across, some end up freezing to death while hiding from Greek border police along the banks of the river.
Locals have seen displaced people arrive in the border region since the Gulf War in the early 1990s. And since then, they have regularly found the bodies of people who have drowned in the river or died along its banks. But Marianthi Tasouli, who lives in the village of Mikro Dereio, says the situation has deteriorated in recent times. He says locals have always helped asylum-seekers by providing them with food and clothes.
"Four men threatened my son with a knife, telling him to take them to the next village," Tasouli said.
A local in the nearby village of Roussa told DW that displaced people had occupied his house while he was away. "They made a fire inside to warm themselves but this damaged my home," he explains.
Dimitris Kazantzis, who runs a cafe in the town of Nea Vissa, recalls how he found a handwritten note and a €10 ($11) bill in front of his cafe one morning. He says that asylum-seekers had taken firewood and left money to pay for it.
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People 'illegally deported'
According to NGOs, one reason why many of these people attempt to avoid registering with authorities is that police units are reported to carry out operations in which they illegally push refugees back across the border in order to prevent them from reaching Greece in the first place — or arrest and then forcefully deport them back to neighboring Turkey.
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Many people who live near the river feel that they must stay silent about the authorities' aggressive operations. However, one cafe owner in the village of Praggi, a stone's throw from the river, told DW: "Everyone here knows that delivery vans without number plates belong to the police and that refugees are illegally deported."
A 19-year-old man from Afghanistan told DW that he made it across the river on his fourth attempt. The man, who made his way to the Greek city of Thessaloniki, told DW: "The first two times I was caught by Turkish police, the third time by Greek police. They beat me and destroyed my phone, and then sent me back to Turkey.”
In December, the German weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel published security camera footage that appeared to show operations involving masked men along the Evros pushing displaced people back across the border. An officer patrolling the Greek-Turkish border for the EU's border agency, Frontex, told DW the footage looks authentic.
"People who arrive on Greek soil are often taken by police van to sites with 60 or even up to 100 other individuals," Selma Mesic, of the Mobile Info Team, a Greek NGO dedicated to assisting displaced people and documenting operations to push them back across the border, told DW. They are held captive and taken back to the river in the evening, she said. "Asylum-seekers have told us they were then met by masked men, who put them on boats and pushed them out onto the river," she added.
In December, the Border Violence Monitoring Network, which documents such efforts along the so-called Balkan migration route, reported on an incident from November 2019 in which two men from Morocco, aged 25 and 26, reported that they had crossed the river Evros with a third individual. They say Greek police officers caught the third person, tied his hands and feet with cable ties and threw him in the water.
One of the men told the organization that he does not know whether the man is alive or died as a result. The two Moroccans, meanwhile, were forcefully returned to Turkey. DW's request for Greek police to comment on the accusations was rejected.
Mesic has called for an investigation. "Many independent organizations and EU institutions have gathered considerable quantities of data on illegal deportations," she said. "All of them have concluded that reports of illegal push-back operations are credible. People from various countries have reported very similar incidents at many different times." She said the operations appeared to be part of a larger border strategy. "It is highly unlikely that so many different people would invent incidents that conform to this exact pattern," she said.