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Nowhere to run: Greece pushes back victims of Erdoğan’s crackdown, Turkey arrests them

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Bünyamin Tekin

Greek authorities on Friday forcibly pushed back five Turks after they fled across the border seeking asylum in Greece to escape a crackdown launched by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the aftermath of a coup attempt in 2016.

The asylum seekers were immediately apprehended by Turkish soldiers, who arrested four of them for entering a prohibited military zone and inexplicably released one.

The episode is the latest of many pushback incidents that have taken place at the border between Greece and Turkey, where Turks who are fleeing persecution try to reach safety and are met by armed, masked men who confiscate their belongings and force them back to their country, where authorities imprison them on bogus terrorism charges.

For years Greece has been accused of illegally pushing asylum-seekers back to Turkey, which it strongly denies.

But according to witness testimony and rights groups, summary deportations are taking place, and they are also hitting vulnerable victims of President Erdoğan’s crackdown on political dissent, which he launched using a failed 2016 coup as a pretext.

Thousands of post-coup crackdown victims had to leave the country illegally because the government had revoked their passports.

The people who wanted to flee the country to avoid the crackdown took dangerous journeys across the Evros River or the Aegean Sea. Some were arrested by Turkish security forces; some were pushed back to Turkey by Greek security; and others perished on their way to Greece.

In the latest incident, two women and three men fled Turkey to seek asylum in Greece early Friday morning but were met by Greek-speaking masked men who beat them up and took all their money and belongings, down to the medication of one of the victims who had diabetes, the husband of one of the women told TM. The man, who has taken shelter in an EU member country, said he wanted to remain anonymous due to security concerns.

Turkish authorities arrested four of the five and released his wife under judicial supervision, he said. 

The man said his wife was a high school teacher who was summarily dismissed from her job by an emergency decree in 2016. She also tried to flee Turkey in June 2021 but was similarly pushed back at the time. 

Crackdown victims fleeing Turkey comprise people accused of membership in the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, and Kurds who actively participate in the Kurdish struggle for recognition. They are branded as terrorists, a label frequently used by Turkish authorities to legitimize its targeting of critics, legal experts say.

According to a December 2021 report by Open Democracy, the number of Turkish asylum-seekers illegally sent back home by Greek border officials has risen dramatically amid a surge in migration that is fueled by Erdoğan’s crackdown.

“The other four I have little information about, but I know they either faced imprisonment or were fired like my wife. Once they were across the Evros River, they walked for hours on muddy terrain,” the man said. 

“They were exhausted and hungry. One of them had diabetes. They ran out of food and water. They desperately called for help from Greek authorities,” he said.

In a video posted on Twitter, the asylum seekers can be seen pleading for help.

The man said after it got dark, masked men came and took the five of them to another place where they were put with a group of asylum seekers, most likely Syrians, and pushed back to a military zone in Turkey.

“Once there, Turkish soldiers detained them for violating the military zone,” he said. “Four of them ended up getting arrested and my wife was released. We don’t know why they released her. It is so arbitrary,” he added.

‘Tough, but fair’

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in 2021 denied accusations of abuse against migrants by the Greek authorities, calling his migration policy “tough, but fair.”

However, according to data from the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), a total of 6,230 pushbacks by Greece took place between January 2020 and May 2021.

Greek border forces forcibly and illegally detain groups of refugees before returning them to Turkey, human rights watchdog Amnesty International said in a report released in 2021.

Among these asylum seekers are Turks and Kurds, who are at risk of persecution under the authoritarian rule of President Erdoğan. Pushing these people back to the countries they fled is illegal under the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids a country from forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.

Interviews and documents received from lawyers in Greece and Turkey as well as from the family members of victims and the victims themselves allege that Greece carried out at least 233 illegal pushbacks of Turkish nationals between May and December 2021 alone, compared to 98 pushbacks tracked in 2019.

All those pushback victims fleeing persecution in Turkey made it to Greece by crossing the land or sea border. They shared their locations with lawyers or family members via messaging apps, or sent pictures and videos of themselves in Greece, in a bid to prove that they had arrived in Greek territory and to avoid being returned to Turkey.

Greeks have a duty to give shelter to Turkish democrats fleeing Erdoğan: Varoufakis

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