"They took all our money and beat my sister": Migrants at the mercy of the Greek coastguard
When 17-year-old B’s sister and parents were killed in a bomb attack in Ghazni, Afghanistan in September last year, it didn’t take him long to realise it was time to get out.
Fearing for his own life and the lives of his two younger sisters and three small nieces and nephews for whom he was now responsible, he set out on an epic journey he hoped would take them to safety.
But their voyage turned out to be characterised by terrifying violence, and would see their lives once again placed in grave danger.
The family travelled to Iran where B worked for a few months to earn enough money to continue their journey to Turkey. He had heard that from there they would be able to get into the European Union, and that would mean safety and the chance to move on with their lives.
Finally, after crossing Iran, B and his family arrived in the city of Izmir on the east coast of Turkey, where he negotiated with smugglers to take him and his family across the Aegean Sea to Greece.
In late February this year, under cover of darkness, B, his family and 36 others – fleeing Syria, Sudan and Iran – boarded a dinghy. They were told that the light in the distance was a Greek Island and they should head in that direction. But they never made it.
“We left at 11:15pm. But we couldn’t reach the island. We were at sea for three and a half hours. Then the Greek boat with Greek police found us,” B told Amnesty researchers in March this year.
“They took us onto their boat,” he continued. “They beat us very badly. They took all our money, our mobile phones, our clothes. Everything we had. They beat my sister so badly she has bruises all over her now.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the story then took a more dangerous turn.
“At around 6am they took us back to Turkish waters,” B explained. “They put us back on our own boat, they scratched one side of our boat with their knife, they damaged our boat and they took away the motor and left us in the middle of the sea.
"We were 42 people all together. There were three small children with us: my niece and nephews. There were also other children… We were left in the middle of the sea, with nothing but a damaged boat,” he said.
Eventually they were rescued by the Turkish coastguard, taken back to land and locked up in a detention centre awaiting deportation to Afghanistan.
B’s story features in a new report from Amnesty Frontier Europe: Human Rights Abuses on Greece’s border with Turkey which examines the Greek authorities’ dangerous and unlawful use of ‘push backs’- when they turn groups of refugees and other migrants back across the border, denying them the right to have their individual cases heard or to challenge their expulsion.
Since March, Amnesty has spoken to nearly 30 people in Greece and Turkey who, in at least 39 separate instances, have been stopped trying to cross the Aegean or the northern land border between the two countries along the river Evros. That works out as a rate of about one incident a week.
Almost everyone Amnesty spoke to described how they had experienced or witnessed violence and/or other ill-treatment by the Greek authorities. Many said guards had taken their belongings, including money, family photos and heirlooms, and in some cases thrown them into the sea.
Greece is one of the main entry points to Europe. The route across the Aegean from Turkey has become more popular since last year when authorities built a 10.5 kilometre fence and deployed nearly 2,000 new border guards along the border at the river Evros, making that way in more difficult.
But it is a dangerous one. As well as the threat of push backs, since August 2012 more than 100 people – including women and children and mostly Syrians and Afghans - have drowned trying to reach Greece.
Those who do make it to Greece find that the sanctuary they seek is elusive. They are routinely detained in dark, dirty cells for months on end, where health problems are rife. When they are eventually released they risk being arrested in police sweep operations targeting migrants and are frequently victims of racist violence at the hands of supporters of far right parties like Golden Dawn.
Amnesty’s report is published today, in the same week as the Pope's visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa – another key entry point, only 80 kilometres from Tunisia - to pray for migrants who have drowned trying to make it to the EU. Last week, Malta asked the EU for help after a boat of nearly 300 asylum seekers landed on its shores.
It’s a shocking situation but the good news is you can do something about it. You can sign a petition to Greece's Minister of Public Order and Citizen Protection Nikos Dendias, calling for an end to such blatant human rights abuses against refugees and migrants at the gates of Europe.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.