It took less than two hours for the border guards to find them. Parvin A., a young woman from Iran, snuck through the forest near the Greek-Turkish border on the evening of Feb. 18, 2020. Thirteen refugees, most from Iran and Afghanistan, were traveling with her. They crossed the border river, the Evros, near Edirne, Turkey, into Greece, where they wanted to apply for asylum in the European Union. Parvin recalls how she hurried from tree to tree, taking cover in the darkness. But then they came to a clearing in the forest.
Parvin still remembers the headlights that suddenly shone on them. As she laid on the ground, she could see the border guards' boots and hear dogs panting. The men confiscated Parvin’s backpack with her savings, 1,000 euros, which she had wrapped in a small bag. Parvin says she was also made to hand over her winter jacket and power bank. The only thing they didn’t take from Parvin was her mobile phone, which she had hidden in her bra and, later, in her shoe. That’s the only reason she can now prove what later happened to her.
Greece shares a 212-kilometer (132-mile) border with Turkey in southeastern Europe. The EU’s external border is a restricted military area and reporters can only enter the area with permission.
Dozens of refugees die each year trying to cross the Evros. But the border also isn’t impermeable. During the dry months, the water in the river is only waist high. The Greek border guards monitor the fields with thermal imaging cameras. They often don’t manage to apprehend many of the refugees until hours or days after they cross the border.
Complete surveillance: The command center for Greek officials in EvrosFoto: Nicolas Economou / NurPhoto / IMAGO
The EU and its member states have set precise rules for these cases. Even after an irregular border crossing, refugees like Parvin still have the right to a fair asylum process. Border guards are not allowed to deport them without reviewing whether they are in danger in the country where they are to be sent. This is dictated by Greek, European and international law.
In its extensive reporting on the issue, DER SPIEGEL has revealed that Greek border guards are systematically violating these laws with the goal of keeping out migrants. At the Evros River, they load the asylum-seekers onto small inflatable dinghies and transport them back to the Turkish side of the river. In the Aegean Sea, they hoist people onto inflatable life rafts, pull them into Turkish waters, and then set them adrift at sea.
Human rights activists and lawyers call the actions pushbacks. The Greek government, meanwhile, denies that they are taking place. For this reason, the actions are conducted in a clandestine manner. And they appear to be getting a lot more brutal.
Parvin A. claims she was the subject of forceful pushbacks six different times.Foto: Marco Urban / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL spent weeks researching Parvin’s case together with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Greek NGO Human Rights 360 and the investigative research agency Forensic Architecture/FORENSIS. Researchers with Forensic Architecture/FORENSIS analyzed Parvin's location data, voice messages and videos, matched them with satellite imagery and statements from other refugees and created a 3D model of the police station where she had been held.
The research sheds light on a lawless space: Greece has created a system at the EU’s external border where guards can apparently conduct violence against refugees without having to fear punishment. Lawyers are calling it torture.
Trapped in Neo Chimonio
Parvin shares her story on a gray December day in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood. She’s a petite woman, 30 years old, although she looks much younger. She wears a turtleneck sweater and headband. A pin hangs from her backpack: "My body, my choice."
Parvin tried to escape to Europe six times in the spring of 2020, and six times she got intercepted by Greek border guards and deported back to Turkey – one time at sea in the Aegean. It wasn’t until the seventh attempt that she succeeded in making it to Germany without getting caught.
She now lives in the eastern city of Dresden in a shared apartment. Parvin has since submitted an asylum application. And she's now setting her sights on holding the Greek government accountable. The lawyers at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), a Berlin-based NGO, have taken on her case and are assisting Parvin in her challenge against the Greek authorities.
Parvin has clear memories of the cell Greek border guards placed her in. A urine-soaked mattress was on the floor. She and the other refugees sat at the top of bunk beds to escape the filth. Sewage had seaped into the room from a toilet. "It was very dirty, disgusting," says Parvin.
Parvin captured the conditions in the cell in two videos. She was the only refugee who had managed to smuggle a mobile phone into the police station. At 2:27 a.m. Turkish time, she sent the videos and shared her location with acquaintances. Her Turkish SIM card still had reception in Greece.
Parvin’s geolocation data shows that the border guards had taken the group to a police station in the Greek village of Neo Chimonio. It is located just a few kilometers across the border – and appears to be one of the key locations in the Greek pushback system near the Evros River.
Parvin says she wasn’t given a chance to apply for asylum in Greece. She claims the police officers asked her where she was from but didn’t even bother to write it down. She says that no one wanted to listen to the fact that she feared for her life in Iran – or cared that the Turkish authority had not given her a refugee status despite the fact that the UN Refugee Agency had deemed her in need of protection.
She claims she was treated inhumanely each of the six times she was the subject of a pushback. She describes dirty containers in which she barely had enough air to breathe. And officials who treated the refugees like cattle. But nothing was worse than what she experienced inside the Neo Chimonio police station.
Beaten and Tied Up
Parvin’s first pushback ended on the morning of Feb. 19, 2020, when she was transported back to the Evros River in a truck with other refugees. The men in the truck, she says, were wearing military-style clothing and balaclavas. She says that one grabbed her by the neck and threatened to kill her if she ever came back. Then, she says, the men drove her back to the Turkish side of the river in an inflatable dinghy.
Parvin’s claims about the officials' behavior are consistent with videos of the Evros River area DER SPIEGEL was able to analyze together with Forensic Architecture in 2019. The images show hooded men driving from the Greek side of the Evros to the Turkish side of the river. The men used motor-powered inflatable rafts, one spoke English with a Greek accent.
Neither the Greek government nor the Greek police responded to a detailed request for comment from DER SPIEGEL. In a statement, the Hellenic Coast Guard, which is only responsible for the Aegean Sea, said that, "according to the registered records of our bureau, no such incidents, as described in the journalist's request, took place."
There is no definitive proof of Parvin’s allegation that she was mistreated in the police station – though there is considerable evidence that she is telling the truth. Parvin can prove her detention in the police station through videos and location data. After the pushback, she also photographed her body. Bruising is visible on her legs and face.
Parvin’s accounts also match those of aid organizations. The Border Violence Monitoring Network has been documenting pushbacks along the Evros River for years and questioning victims. In the past year, internal statistics show, every single interviewee has described violent behavior by the Greek border guards. Those who are caught know what is in store for them. Refugees have long been circulating advice not to look the officers in the eyes to avoid provoking them.
So far, the Greek government has simply ignored the evidence of the pushbacks. The European Commission and other European countries only rarely make critical statements. The EU hasn’t even stopped its millions in payments for Greece's migration management efforts.
For her part, Parvin is unwilling to let this go without a fight. With the help of ECCHR, Parvin has submitted a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee. In it, she cites Article 7 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Greece has also ratified. Among other things, it bans torture and inhuman or degrading treatment.
"The violence experienced by Parvin during her arbitrary detention by Greek officials falls clearly within this category," says ECCHR lawyer Hanaa Hakiki. She says Greek institutions have shown themselves to be totally unwilling to sanction the pushbacks. Hakiki is hoping to set a precedent with the proceedings at the UN Human Rights Committee that can then be invoked by other courts.
For Parvin, the legal proceeding is also personal. She says that something in her was broken in that police station. She recalls feeling miserable and powerless.
"But I am still alive" she says. "I want my voice to be heard. And I want to be there when this pushback center is closed forever."