120 refugees pushed back at the Greek-Turkish land-border in the night from 12th to 13th of February 2016

On 4th of April 2016 refugees in Idomeni reported to us a push-back operation they experienced at the Greek-Turkish land-border in February. Among the witnesses are a 63-year-old woman and several families with small children.

In the night from 12th to 13th of February they crossed the land-border coming from Edirne/Turkey, fleeing to Greece. They arrived in Greece around 6am. It was a big group of about 120 refugees, among them many children and also several elderly. After the border-crossing they divided into three groups, each group about 40 persons, because it seemed too difficult to walk with the big group. They hide in a forest until it was dark again. At 8pm they started to walk and they walked until 6am.

This was the way the group had already walked by foot.

This was the way the group had already walked by foot.

After the whole night walking the smaller children were unable to continue. In their group of 40 there were 13 children and also 3 elderly, one of the woman sitting with us is about 63 years old, another couple was much older then her, in their 80ies. In this group all people were refugees from Syria, all Kurds from the region of Qamishli.

At about 6am they found a kind of closed compound, maybe belonging to the military (see GPS-position and pictures they had sent via WhatsApp to relatives).
This was near the Greek village Asimenio, between Orestias and Didimoticho. It rained heavily. They entered there, but there was nobody.

They found some pallets and they used them to light a fire, because everyone was wet and they were afraid the children would die of hypothermia, because it was very cold. They were very afraid that the children could die and so one woman called the Red Cross (maybe it was an international emergency number, we cannot say exactly because we did not speak with her).

GPS-location sent from their Smartphone

GPS-location sent from their Smartphone

After a while, at 7:55am, instead a doctor, police came. They say it must have been a kind of special force, because there was only one man who had military clothes (green) and mask, with a sign on his chest. The six other men were all dressed in civil clothes, 3 wear military trousers, all had black vests and carried weapons. The men took away all their belongings, their small bags, including mobile phones. One man told us that he tried to save his bag, because the IDs of his family were inside the bag. When he tried one of the men wanted to hand the bag to him, but another one intervened and he was beaten. The oldest woman was trying to calm the down. When she went crying to the armed men, she was pushed by one of them and they were shouting and abusing her.

They were brought to another hall,outside all bags and belongings were thrown into a fire. One woman had her family documents, proving her marriage, in the bag. Her husband is in Germany. Only very short they were held in the other hall. Then a military van, like a jeep with a cover in the back came.

Picture from the place they were detected by the borderguards.

Picture from the place they were detected by the borderguards.

They arrived after a short drive in a kind of police station. All were searched and kept in one cell all together. After about 1 hour white vans arrived. They were told they would go to a camp now. Instead they were brought in a 10 minutes drive to another police station. In this police station they met again the two other groups belonging to their initial group of 120 people.

Around 11am 3 military trucks arrived and all were put onto these trucks. 2 trucks went to the same place, a third truck to another place. They were with the group with the 2 trucks, but they met the other group later again on the Turkish side.

They were brought to the river-side were more police or military waited for them. All in black uniforms and all masked. They had to sit on the floor and were not allowed to look up.

Second picture from the place they were detected by the borderguards.

Second picture from the place they were detected by the borderguards.

They were not allowed to speak. One of the police-men was observing the other side of the river with binoculars. 3 young men were picked first. Three young men were picked first to board a small boat, they tried to refuse and they got beaten heavily with sticks.

They were forced to the boat. There were two boats going back and forth. All others were also beaten, every person at least one time beaten with a stick when boarding the boat, even if they did not resist at all. Most did not resist, because there were many children with them. They were brought to a kind of island in the middle of the Evros/Maritza river.

It took a while until they realized that it was a kind of island and surrounded with water. The first people tried to cross through the water to the Turkish side. They would not have managed with the children and the elderly, but people from a village in Turkey nearby assisted them. They helped them to get bus-tickets for everyone and they went back to Istanbul without being in touch with police on the Turkish side. The third group experienced a similar situation, for them it was obviously even more dangerous, because the water was deeper and they have been rescued by Turkish soldiers.

Only few days later, they went a second time, again the same group of 120 refugees. They crossed the border around midnight and at about 5am they reached rail tracks. On the rail track they were detected by a civil car and shortly after another car with 2 Frontex officers arrived, wearing blue armbands. They tried to calm them down telling them that they would be brought to a camp, but the refugees did not believe it after their last experience and decided to sit down at the rail tracks and to refuse to go. Two white vans arrived, looking similar to the white vans from the last time. Everybody was panicking. They believed they would be pushed-back again. There were more people coming, also in civil clothes. One of the women asked a woman who was in civil clothes to please make photos of them on the rail tracks, so that they have proves afterwards that they were already in Greece. They decided after some negotiations that three young men of their group would go with the police and check the place were they would bring them and call them to tell them where it is and how. The others would stay sitting on the rail track until they have news from them. The police agreed and the three young men called them after a while to tell them that there is really a camp and that UNHCR is also there. Some members of UNHCR made later interviews with some of them asking questions about the push-back.

Many of these families could not pass the border to Macedonia, because when they arrived there, passing was already only allowed for those who had identity documents from Syria and their documents had been stolen and destroyed during the pushback. They are now in Idomeni, protesting to open the border to finally reach their family members in Germany. Some are afraid that they might not be united with their families even if they would be able to apply for family reunification, because during the push-back they lost their IDs and marriage certificates.

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... is like a “paper boat”. We chose this as a metaphor for what we want to create and for the situation of refugees and migrants in Greece. The paper boat is a folded boat able to swim – for a while. Then you have to build a new one to go on travelling. A paper boat is symbolic for the journey of life, vulnerable but in your own hands and to be recreated again and again. It is simple, but it carries many hopes and dreams. It can dance on a turbulent sea. It belongs to everybody. And it might become the small version – like a first draft – of a welcome-space.

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