In March, eight Turks reached Greece by boat, fearing persecution in their homeland. The UN urged Greece to provide protection, but instead the men were pushed back to sea and into the arms of the Turkish police.
Seven Turkish ex-soldiers and a teacher, convicted this year in their native Turkey over alleged links to the man accused of masterminding a failed 2016 coup, had previously tried to request asylum in Greece but were pushed back to sea by Greek authorities having already made land, a letter sent by the United Nations refugee agency reveals.
Since the coup attempt, blamed on followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has presided over a dramatic purge of soldiers, army officers, journalists, teachers, and other public sector employees deemed sympathetic to the Gulen movement. Courts have issued several thousand life sentences and more than half of a million people have been tried or investigated to the concern of rights groups and the European Union over the conduct of such trials.
Despite this concern, seven former soldiers and a teacher who arrived by boat to the Greek island of Samos in March were denied the internationally-guaranteed right to request asylum and pushed back to sea, according to the findings of an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, in collaboration with Greek investigative outlet Solomon.
The seven former soldiers are currently behind bars in Turkey.
The UNHCR letter obtained by BIRN and Solomon shows that the agency, contacted by family members of the eight Turks, wrote to the Greek authorities and asked for an assurance that the men “would be given due access to the asylum procedure and be protected from refoulement.”
There was no response. The UNHCR letter cited a lawyer for the families as saying the eight were forced to board a Greek Coast Guard boat and taken back to sea, where they were arrested by Turkish authorities and brought to trial.
Greece has persistently denied engaging in so-called pushbacks. In December 2021, however, openDemocracy reported at least 233 such cases involving Turkish citizens over a period of just six months.
‘Fear of persecution’
The letter from the UNHCR is dated April 1, 2022 and was sent to the Greek ministries of foreign affairs, civil protection, maritime affairs and migration and asylum.
It makes for damning reading.
BIRN and Solomon are in possession of the full letter but have decided to publish only the main excerpts in order to protect sources.
The UNHCR wrote that it had been contacted early in the morning of March 26 by relatives of eight Turkish asylum seekers. The letter listed their names and dates of birth. The youngest was born in 1991.
The relatives shared the coordinates of the eight asylum seekers, as well as audiovisual material of their presence on Greek territory. Photos, videos, and messages sent via WhatsApp by the relatives and seen by Solomon and BIRN confirm the presence of the eight Turks in Samos for some hours.
The families requested the UNHCR’s assistance in ensuring that the Turks would be allowed access to the asylum procedure in Greece “due to fear of persecution in their country of origin on account of their social and political profile.”
In its letter, the UNHCR said it had notified the Greek coast guard, the local and state police, as well as the EU border agency FRONTEX and the Greek migration ministry’s Reception and Identification Service “through three consecutive communications on the same day”.
The UNHCR requested confirmation that the eight would indeed be given access to asylum procedures and protected from refoulement – the act of forcing a refugee or asylum seeker to return to a country or territory where he or she is likely to face persecution.
Pushed back to Turkey
The UN agency continued receiving calls from the Turks’ family members into the evening. The relatives reported losing contact with the men.
There was no response from the Greek side on March 26 or 27. According to the letter, a lawyer representing the families informed the UNHCR that the eight Turks had been “apprehended” in Samos and brought back to sea by a Greek coast guard vessel, where they were detected by Turkish authorities “and subsequently arrested and put on trial.”
Turkish media reported their arrest on March 28.
The relatives’ lawyer, Anthimos Sideris, told BIRN and Solomon that, at the time of publication of this story, seven of the eight are in prison having been convicted of membership of the Gulen movement, considered a terrorist organisation in Turkey, after a trial in Kusadasi on the Aegean coast. The eighth, the teacher, is not behind bars but subject to strict restrictions on his movement.
Sideris said he had presented to Greece’s independent National Transparency Authority, NTA, the written testimony of one of the eight describing the pushback.
In the official documents on their arrest, including remarks written by the Turkish Gendarmerie and seen by BIRN and Solomon, the eight are described as being found with “wet and dried clothes, in areas where there is salinisation due to wetness from sea water”.
One of the men had a bruise on his left eye and his glasses were broken; they carried no extra clothing or baggage.
According to documents, nine people were arrested by the Turkish Gendarmerie at the same time, including the eight alleged Gulen Network members – former military officers and a teacher who were purged after the failed coup attempt in 2016.
All were convicted by Turkish courts of being members of what Ankara calls the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation, or FETO for short.
In the documents, the Gendarmerie cite the witness testimony of the ninth person, an Afghan national, writing: “Together with the people whose names are mentioned above, in the interview, they got on the boat coming from the sea… and crossed to the Greek Samos Island. They got off the boat and were caught and beaten by the Greek forces, and after they were put on another boat and searched, their mobile phones and personal materials were confiscated and they were left again in the Sazlik District of Dilek Peninsula.”
Solomon and BIRN asked the UNHCR to confirm the authenticity of the letter and the latest information on the fate of the eight, as well as for data on pushbacks in general concerning Turkish asylum seekers.
The UNHCR said it “does not comment or respond to specific questions about individual cases of asylum-seekers for reasons related to their protection and confidentiality of information”.
However, the agency added that “in line with the mandate entrusted by the UN General Assembly to oversee implementation of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, UNHCR has submitted a number of reports of informal forced returns concerning people of various nationalities to the relevant Greek authorities asking for the incidents to be formally investigated and cooperates in investigations when asked to do so”.
“While all States have the sovereign right to manage their respective borders, this is not incompatible with their obligation to protect refugees and safeguard the right to seek asylum,” it said.
Contacted by BIRN and Solomon, Greece’s foreign ministry forwarded questions for this story to the ministry of maritime affairs.
That ministry said that it had been informed by the foreign ministry about a meeting between a foreign ministry official and the UNHCR’s representative in Greece, Maria Clara Martin, concerning the case. “Checks were carried out in order to identify the aforementioned persons, with negative results,” it said.
In February 2022, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the agency had registered nearly 540 pushbacks at Greek sea and land borders since the start of 2020.
An interactive map produced by Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths University of London, reports 1,018 pushbacks in the Aegean sea between March 2020 and March 2022.
Frontex accused of complicity
In October 2022, a confidential report by the EU anti-fraud agency, OLAF, alleged Frontex involvement in cover-ups of pushbacks from Greece and Malta.
Previously only available to members of the European parliament, the report – based on internal correspondence and analysis of Frontex’s internal databases – leaked to several media outlets last month.
One aspect of the report concerns Frontex’s false claims of not being informed by UNHCR about possible pushbacks.
When the investigators pointed out to Frontex officials that UNHCR had documented many cases of possible pushback, which Frontex had not investigated despite an obligation to do so, Frontex responded that is “is not aware of the exact information observed by UNHCR and referred by it for investigation of the Greek authorities. Frontex has never received any information from UNHCR, therefore no investigation has been launched related to this material.”
OLAF reported, however, that the UNHCR had provided its investigators with a list of several emails that the agency sent to Frontex regarding possible violations of fundamental rights in Greece between December 2018 and February 2021, including references to journalistic reports and reports by NGOs, international organisations and UN agencies.
Frontex’s Fundamental Rights Officer confirmed they had shared a number of these messages with the relevant departments. OLAF concluded that the UNHCR information “was available within the Agency”.
Cases of Turkish asylum seekers being returned to Turkey have been documented since at least 2017. That year, the Hellenic League for Human Rights, HLHR, reported on the case of Turkish journalist Murat Capan of Nokta magazine, who reached the Greek city of Didymoteicho but was returned to Turkey and given a prison sentence of 22 years and six months.
The Greek government at the time, then led by the now-opposition left-wing SYRIZA party, issued the same denial that the current ruling conservative in the New Democracy party uses today: “The Greek government does not do pushbacks.”