In October 2020, Salam*, together with 15 people from Syria and Afghanistan, crossed the Evros River from Edirne, Turkey to Greece. They walked until the next morning through the forest on the Greek side of the border area. When they rested for a few hours, they were discovered by the Greek border police.
“At 10 a.m., after two hours, I was very tired. When I slept, the 'commando' [Greek border police] told us 'Wake-up! Wake-up!' They had sticks. One of our group ran away and two 'commandos' caught him and struck him again and again.”
The Greek police officers threatened the group, beat them, and robbed them of all their belongings. After an hour all were brought to a prison. There the group was searched again and threatened with being killed if they hid any belongings. There were about 70 to 80 people in the prison none of the detainees was provided with water or food.
“The prison was not a [real] prison. It was a waiting room. No Food, no water, no beds. There were only two toilets, which were not clean. We stayed there from 1 p.m. and waited until midnight.”
At midnight, armed officers whom the respondent identified not as police but rather as a private army force, came to the prison. Using brutal violence, the people were forced to undress down to their underwear and all 70 to 80 were crammed into a van without windows. For an hour the group had to wait in the overloaded van until they were taken back to the river Evros.
Back at the river, the group had to sit in a row, still stripped to their underwear and without shoes, and were not allowed to look up. The officers tortured people for at least one hour.
„He [the 'commando'] told us: 'If you come back, another time to Greece, I will kill you! We will kill you!' We were around 80 and there were two [officers] on each side of us. [They struck us] for one hour or two hours, I don’t remember about this.“
They were then forced back onto a boat driven by two people who did not appear to be members of the Greek police:
„Two people were talking in Arabic and Turkish languages. They were not from the 'commandos' or the Greek police. They [drove] the boat across to the other side to Turkey. One took a rope from the trees on the Turkish side to the tree on the Greek side. He didn’t have to row, he could just pull the boat with the rope. […] When we got inside the boat, the 'commando' struck us and when we were in the boat, this person struck us. Struck, struck, struck us. All the time they struck us. My eye was swollen, and my leg, and my hand all were bad from this. After we crossed the river, he went back to the 'commandos'.“
Back on the Turkish side, Salam and others of the group were discovered by the Turkish police. The officers chased the group. Fortunately, Salam was able to escape.
The Pushback Helper System
Salam's experience of a pushback by the Greek police assisted by migrants is not an isolated case. The exploitation of the so-called Pushback Helpers, migrants who are coerced to work for the Greek police at the Turkish-Greek border and illegally push back other migrants, has been known for a long time.
Since 2020, the Border Violence Monitoring Network has been publishing testimonies from people on the move who have had similar experiences to Salam. In April 2022, Human Rights Watch published a report based on the experiences of 16 pushback survivors on the Evros River. They reported that the boats that brought them back to Turkey were steered by non-Greek men who spoke Arabic or South Asian languages common among migrants in this area. They all reported that Greek police were nearby when the men forced the migrants onto small boats. These non-Greek men were often described as wearing black or commando uniforms, as well as balaclavas to disguise their identities. An investigation by Der Spiegel published in June 2022 came to similar findings. The testimonies of six men who reported being forced to participate in pushbacks to Turkey were affirmed with the help of the reporter team.
The numerous testimonies of pushback survivors and the published investigations on the topic reveal a very precise pattern. The system behind the so-called pushback helpers is as follows:
When the Greek authorities arrest a group of people on the move who have just crossed the border into Greece from Turkey, they usually choose young men who speak English, but also Arabic or Turkish. They offer them money, reportedly around $200 per month, sometimes more, and a so-called "exit document" that allows them to stay in Greece or leave for another European country. In exchange, they have to help the Greek border police with illegal pushbacks for about three to six months. For many people on the move, the fear of another pushback to Turkey and the lack of prospects to get Asylum in Greece eventually leads them to cooperate with the Greek authorities. However, most have no choice but to accept, because if migrants refuse this offer, they are reportedly beaten up and deported back to Turkey. Also, not all people receive money for such "deals", but are forced to work for the Greek border police without payment. There are reports that people cannot move freely because the Greek police is controlling them. Some people are detained by the Greek police almost all the time and were only released at night to carry out pushbacks.
Their task is to push other migrants who have been caught by the Greek authorities and are detained in Greek security points or -centres back across the border. The pushback helpers drive the boats to cross the river Evros and bring the protection seekers back to Turkey. They are often forced to rob the helpless people and take their money, their mobile phones and their clothes or they get to keep the stolen things that the Greek authorities have taken beforehand. When the helpers are released after a few months, some get the promised papers and make their way to Europe. However, some migrants are reported to work for the Greek border police on a long-term basis. Gangs are formed to take care of the pushback of people on the move. They also serve as a deterrent for people who are still in Turkey and considering crossing the border.
This is a cruel, but profitable business for the Greek border police. The Greek officers do not have to cross the river Evros themselves. Firstly, it is life-threatening to cross the wide river with a small boat, and secondly, they do not have to go near the Turkish border themselves, which would lead to conflicts with the Turkish military during the pushbacks. The two countries have been in a territorial conflict for a long time.
Modern slavery of people on the move
Forcing people seeking protection back over a border is not only inhumane but also illegal. Pushbacks violate numerous human rights norms, such as the prohibition of collective expulsion, the right to asylum, and the principle of non-refoulment. This practice has become a regular pattern of human rights violations against people on the move by the European border regime. Although it has been proven several times in Greece that pushbacks are regularly carried out by the Hellenic Coast Guard and the Greek Border Police, the Greek government categorically denies that pushbacks exist, calling such claims "fake news" or "Turkish propaganda".
The fact that people on the move themselves are forced to carry out pushbacks represents a new level of brutality in the Greek pushback campaign. Not only are migrants systematically denied human rights, but they are also forced to participate in these illegal practices. Those seeking protection are exploited by the Greek authorities to carry out illegal operations on other people seeking protection. The dimension of the deployment is unknown. What is clear is that the Greek authorities are using the fear of pushbacks to Turkey by people on the move and the repressive asylum system to force people seeking protection to do their dirty work. This practice is effectively modern slavery and the dreadful reality of migrants trying to seek safety in Europe.
Since there are no safe and legal corridors into the EU and the asylum system in Greece is extremely restrictive, most people seeking protection have no choice but to try to cross the border between Turkey and Greece clandestinely. This lack of safe and legal corridors thus makes spaces for abuse of power and exploitation of people on the move possible in the first place. Those responsible for these human rights crimes must be held accountable immediately for these human rights crimes.