Foto: [M] Lea Rossa / DER SPIEGEL; Getty Images

Systematic Abuses at EU External Border Greek Police Coerce Refugees to Commit Illegal Pushbacks

New reporting exposes how Greek police are exploiting refugees to engage in illegal pushbacks of other would-be asylum-seekers at the EU’s external border. Witness testimony, satellite images and other documents provide evidence of how officials are taking advantage of people seeking protection.

Bassel M. has tried nine times in vain to get from Turkey to Greece. He claims to have been threatened and abused by Greek border guards. On his tenth attempt, he decided to join forces with his tormentors.

A man in his late twenties who fled Syria, Bassel M. had just crossed the Evros River on the Turkish-Greek border in an inflatable boat together with other asylum-seekers at the end of 2020 when Greek security forces intercepted the group. The Syrian claims that the officers beat the refugees and then hauled them off in a car without license plates to a police station in the border town of Tychero.

Bassel M. claims the refugees were ordered to strip and that police took their phones away before locking them in a cell together with 150 other prisoners.

An Unusual Offer

A police officer questioned Bassel M. and, the Syrian says, accused him of being the leader of a smuggling gang because he spoke English. The officer threatened him with a prison sentence, but then reversed course and made an unusual offer: The Syrian could work for the Greek police by helping the border guards in Tychero get refugees back to Turkey. In exchange, the authorities wouldn't pursue charges for alleged human trafficking and would issue him a 30-day residence permit.

The Syrian found himself facing one of the most difficult decisions of his life: Should he work together with Greek security forces who imprison refugees like himself, torture them and drag them back to Turkey? Or should he risk disappearing for years into a Greek prison? Bassel M. decided to cooperate with the police.

The Syrian apparently isn't the only refugee to have been recruited in this fashion by Greek officials. Joint reporting by DER SPIEGEL, the media organization Lighthouse Reports, German public broadcaster ARD's "Report München" and the newspapers Le Monde and the Guardian, has revealed that the Greek police are deliberately using migrants as their proxies in illegal pushbacks.

Proxies in Illegal Pushbacks

Rumors of the practice have persisted for years. Hundreds of pushback victims have told stories of being dragged back across the border by other migrants who spoke Arabic or Farsi. With assistance from the NGO Consolidated Rescue Group, the team of reporters managed to speak to six of these men for the first time after months of research. They independently admitted to having been forced into participating in pushbacks to Turkey. The information they have provided can be corroborated with the help of photos, satellite images and official Greek documents.

Residents of Greek villages located near the border report that it is an "open secret" in the region that refugees carry out pushbacks as proxies for the police. Farmers and fishermen who are allowed to enter the restricted area of the Evros River have repeatedly observed refugees performing such work. Migrants are not seen on this stretch of the Evros, said one local resident. "Except those who work for the police."

Three Greek police officers familiar with events also confirmed the practice to DER SPIEGEL and its partners. The Greek Interior Ministry and police did not answer requests for comment by publication time on Tuesday.

"This practice is a breach of all the values we stand for in the European Union. It would be difficult to surpass this approach in terms of unfathomability and brutality.”"

Luise Amtsberg, the German government’s federal commissioner for human rights and humanitarian assistance

Under European law, Greece is required to provide asylum procedures to people seeking protection who reach Greek territory. But the government in Greece, like other EU member states, has been systematically flouting this law for years.

The fact that the authorities now appear to be using third-country nationals as proxies in pushbacks represents a new dimension of the brutality. "This practice is a breach of all the values we stand for in the European Union," says Luise Amtsberg, the German government's federal commissioner for human rights and humanitarian assistance. "It would be difficult to surpass this approach in terms of debasement and brutality."

Bassel M. Claims He Watched as Victims Drowned

Bassel M. does not want to reveal his true name out of fear of reprisals. He claims that officers gave him clothing they had previously taken from other refugees and that he was forced to wear a balaclava. When he asked for a life jacket, they refused.

Foto: [M] Lea Rossa / DER SPIEGEL

The actions consistently proceeded in the same manner: Under the cover of darkness, he says the Greek police would take him to the river, where he would have to inflate a rubber dinghy. Under the watchful eye of Greek officials, he says he first had to bring rope to the Turkish side and attach it to a tree so that he could later use it to pull himself across. Then he and three other migrants who had likewise been coerced into participation would ferry the refugees back across the Evros River against their will, 20 per trip, sometimes as many as 150 people a night.

Bassel M. claims that he witnessed refugees drowning in the Evros River. He also describes how he once beat Afghans with a paddle after they attacked him. He says he was ashamed afterward and didn't speak to anyone for hours.

By his account, the authorities didn't pay Bassel M. for his work. He says he was only given food at irregular intervals and that he wasn't allowed to leave the police station on his own. Bassel M. claims he was beaten if he didn't carry out orders quickly enough. "They turned me into a slave," he says. Others forced to serve as proxies for the Greeks provided DER SPIEGEL and its partners with similar accounts of their experiences.