‘I feared the Greek police more than the Syrian military’

The Greek coastguard is using the illegal and dangerous practice of push-backs to shut the door to Syrian refugees seeking safety in the EU. © GIANNIS POLITIS/AFP/Getty Images

By Amnesty International’s researcher on migration in the European Union

The snarled-up traffic on the bus ride from the airport gave me some much-needed time to reflect on my recent research trip, where I looked at how Greece is shutting the door to refugees seeking safety in the European Union (EU). 

Having just left Athens, I was now in Istanbul, where I would go on to meet many more families of refugees from Syria. They, too, told me how the illegal and dangerous practice of push-backs was dashing their dreams. 

The dreaded push-backs from Greece

I listened back to a recording of the testimony of X., a young Syrian of Palestinian origin, whom I met in a central Athens café where Syrian refugees have taken to gathering. He made it to Greece after two attempts – the first time was a terrifying ordeal where his boat was pushed back, and the second time he was ill-treated by police, which has left him living in fear. His deep voice came alive as I played back the interview, and he slowly but steadily recounted his harrowing tale.

“We almost died,” he told me, recalling how, a few months ago on his first attempt to cross from Turkey to Greece, he was among 45 men, women and children aboard an overcrowded plastic boat. Having fled the war in Syria, many of them had suffered untold horrors.

The sight of the Greek Coastguard approaching sparked panic amongst some in the group. Fearing they would all be sent back to Turkey, one of them drove a hole in the boat with a knife, and they all ended up in the water. Coastguards scooped them out of the sea, but left them wet and shivering from the cold on their vessel for four hours. Instead of bringing them safely ashore in Greece, X. described how the coastguards beat them for no reason before they were finally returned to Turkey.

Although he made it to Athens on his second attempt, his ill-treatment by Greek police upon his arrival has left him visibly shaken.

“I don’t want to apply for asylum in Greece. I was more afraid of the Greek police than the military in Syria,” he said.

The vast majority of the newly arrived refugees want to continue their journey to other European countries, as they realise there is no future for them in Greece.

While I was in Athens and elsewhere in Greece, I heard similar stories of push-backs, ill-treatment and people stripped of their possessions. But these stories also speak of courage and bravery as people and whole families with babies had to flee wars and danger. Many had lost loved ones during the war and had to go through great hardship to make it to safe ground.

Selling dreams to refugees

After traveling to Turkey, I found myself in Istanbul’s migrant neighbourhoods, Aksaray and Fatih. “Welcome to ‘little Africa’”, my interpreter said with a smile, as we started walking the crowded streets and talking to people who tried to make the journey to Europe via Greece. Many described how they tried, and failed, several times to cross the Greek border. Sometimes the Turkish police stopped them, but often it was the Greek police or coastguard who returned them to Turkey.

Every last one of them said that they will try again; they have no other option. Going back home is impossible and many by now realised that they might have to stay away for the rest of their lives. There is no future in the tents of the refugee camps which are already full and there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians in cities across Turkey already. As Turkey is not providing non-Europeans with permanent refugee status they see no viable future there for them and their families.

Some were still preparing for the journey to Europe, but many have now set their sights on Bulgaria as their intended destination.

People told me that the nearby parks are full of smugglers “selling dreams to refugees”, as somebody put it.

In their desperation to reach the EU, refugees and migrants passing through Turkey pay large amounts of money for a passport or simply to be led across the border to Greece or Bulgaria.

“A passport with a photo similar to yours is the most expensive; they start at USD$2,000 and go up to several thousand,” explained Alaa, a journalist of Syrian origin now documenting the situation of Syrian refugees in Istanbul.

Some EU countries have a particular cachet, as one refugee told me: “They easily ask for USD$20,000 or more if there are families to cross from Syria to popular European countries, there are prices for every option.”

I had no way of verifying the numbers, but other refugees in Istanbul and Greece told me similar stories. The sad fact is that all that money is ending up in criminal networks, which are taking advantage of people’s desperation.

Fortress Europe

The EU’s increasingly restrictive policies are contributing to this extortion and misery, as refugees and migrants are forced to take ever-more dangerous routes into Europe. The Syrian refugee crisis has exposed the ugly truth of the ‘Fortress Europe’ approach to refugees and migrants – while the EU champions human rights, it is doing precious little to help the huddled masses of Syrian refugees waiting on its doorstep.

These people should spend their money rebuilding their lives, not lining the pockets of “smugglers” who work for criminal networks. It should be spent on educating their children, and securing a future for their families. The EU should be helping to make this happen – it needs to open more and safer routes for refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and elsewhere.

Upon my return from Istanbul, I received news that another boat sank as it made its way to the Greek island of Lesvos. Six Syrians drowned, two more were missing, and a two-month-old baby was among the dead. So much wasted life – to what end

People who flee war should not drown off Europe’s shores in their search for safety.

Join Amnesty International in demanding an immediate end to the Greek authorities’ illegal push backs and ill-treatment along the Greek borders with Turkey.