"Come with us and we will issue you new papers," a Greek police officer told Bakhtyar on a Wednesday morning in late April. The 22-year-old Afghan man believed the offer was the key to realizing his dream of starting a new life in Europe.
Two months earlier Bakhtyar had crossed the Evros River, a border between Turkey and Greece, and a key route for refugees seeking to reach the European Union. He continued onward to Diavata, the official refugee camp set up on the outskirts of Greece's second-largest city, Thessaloniki. Upon arrival he was careful to register with the Greek police, the precursor to seeking international protection — and a first step in the asylum process. A photograph of his document shows the date to be February 12, 2020.
The coronavirus lockdown had closed most public services, and Bakhtyar says he had been anxious for the office to reopen so he could make an official asylum claim. He would not get the chance to do so.
Recalling his encounter with police in April, Bakhtyar says he was put in a white van and taken to a police station in the center of Thessaloniki. Instead of getting the crucial papers as he was promised, Bakhtyar says the police confiscated all his belongings, including his phone. He was later relocated to another police station where, he says, officers slapped and kicked him before putting him onto the back of a truck. Bakhtyar remembers a sheet being pulled down to prevent anyone seeing who was inside the truck. He did not realize it at the time, but the truck was heading east — retracing his arduous journey back towards Turkey.
When the truck stopped, Bakhtyar realized he was not alone. Other asylum-seekers like him were lined up along the banks of the Evros River. He recalls seeing young men loaded onto dinghies, 10 at a time. The boatman, Bakhtyar says, spoke in Greek to people he assumed were police, and to the asylum-seekers in their native Dari. DW could not independently verify that the men were Greek police officers. For Bakhtyar, he says it was clear it was not the boatman's first such crosing to Turkey.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the border between Greece and Turkey is closed. All official deportation procedures have been put on hold. When Bakhtyar and other asylum-seekers reached the far bank on the Turkish side, there was nothing and no-one waiting for them.
DW meets pushback victims
When DW met with Bakhtyar for this report, he was staying in Istanbul's Esenler district, home to a substantial Afghan population. The city was under lockdown at the time and it was hard to move around. Wearing a red T-shirt with "New York" written across the front, Bakhtyar appeared sad and upset. He wants to get back to Greece as soon as possible to pursue his dream of living in Europe.
Read more: Greece exploits coronavirus in refugee dispute with Turkey
Bakhtyar's experience is not an isolated story. In a joint investigation between DW, the Dutch news publication Trouw, media nonprofit Lighthouse Reports, and the independent verification collective Bellingcat, we were able to locate Bakhtyar and other young men in Turkey and verify that they had been forcibly returned after previously being in Greece. Their accounts, all given separately, establish a clear pattern: male, under 30 and traveling by themselves. Most of them are from Afghanistan, some of them are from Pakistan and North Africa. They were either arrested in the Greek camp of Diavata or picked up seemingly at random by local police near the camp.
Together with our news partners, we met with and interviewed multiple eyewitnesses in Greece and Turkey, collected Greek police documents and established a chain of evidence, from the refugee camp in Diavata to the streets of Istanbul. Using publicly available data, including refugees' social media posts, which were time-stamped and featured photographs of landmarks in Greece that were geolocated, we were able to corroborate key elements of witness testimony.
In total we contacted six people in Istanbul who recounted their experiences with "pushbacks" — the forceful return of refugees and migrants across a border — and located another four elsewhere in Turkey, all of whom could prove their previous stays in Greece.
Pushbacks are deportations carried out without consideration of individual circumstances and without any possibility to apply for asylum or to put forward arguments against the measures taken, according to the European Convention on Human Rights.
One of the other men we met in Istanbul is Rashid, who fled his native Afghanistan three years ago and made his way to Turkey. He worked as a packer and mover in Ankara, the Turkish capital, before heading to Istanbul where he found work as a welder. He has temporary protection status in Turkey but is not provided with medical assistance or housing.
"In Turkey, life is full of uncertainties for young Afghan men who lack access to basic healthcare and social services," Zakira Hekmat, co-founder of the Afghan Refugees Solidarity Association in Turkey, told DW. "They are precariously employed in low-paid jobs without permits. It is modern slavery." Afghan men in Turkey mostly toil in the underground economy working tough, physical jobs in construction, transportation or textiles.
Hoping for a better future, Rashid left Turkey for Greece at the beginning of 2020. He recalls crossing the Evros River with about 20 other people on a boat. He says he stayed in a tent for roughly two months next to the refugee camp at Diavata. But everything changed for him in late March when he was returning from Friday prayers.
Rashid says he was stopped by Greek police who told him to wait. He then describes to DW how a white van pulled up and armed men without uniforms appeared. They told him to get in. Rashid says he did not even know who the men were and that he only found out later that they were working with Greek police after he was taken to a police station. DW could not verify the connection between the men and the police.
His Greek documents, originally valid for one month, had expired but renewal during the coronavirus outbreak had not been possible as immigration offices were closed. At the station, Rashid says, the police confiscated all his belongings.
"They didn't even give me a glass of water at the police station," he recalls. Rashid was not asked to sign any papers by the Greek authorities. He says he was later driven for hours in a van across Greece and then forced onto a small boat to cross the Evros River back into Turkey.
Recognizing a pattern
Reports on alleged pushbacks, especially at the Evros border, are numerous. The witness accounts we have gathered with our news partners corroborate reports from human rights organizations working with the Border Violence Monitoring Network, an independent database. They indicate that there were at least five police raids carried out in Diavata camp between March 31 and May 5, resulting in the seemingly illegal deportation of dozens of migrants. In almost all cases, police appear to have targeted young, single men from Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Africa.
Vassilis Papadopoulos, president of the Greek Council of Refugees and a migration official in a previous administration, sees a clear pattern in the pushbacks.
"Police vans come to the camp and the officers carry out a brief check of the people who are not yet registered. They ask for their papers [...] they detain them and tell them that they will be taken to the station, to either check their papers or to provide them with new papers and instead of that, according to the complaints, [these people] are returned to Turkey," he says.
"What is important and unprecedented in these allegations, if proven valid, is that we are talking about pushbacks from [deep] inside the country and even so from a camp without any formal deportation procedure being followed."
When DW confronted the Ministry of Migration and Asylum with the reports of illegal pushbacks, spokesperson Nikoletta Kritikou denied them. "The allegations about human rights violations by Greek law enforcement personnel are fabricated, false and uncorroborated," she said.
Sealing the borders
Greece has been under intense pressure at its borders since the end of February when Turkey signaled the end of its 2016 agreement with the EU over restricting refugee and migrant flows. Ankara had encouraged migrants to head towards the land and maritime borders with Greece. Athens responded by sealing its borders and suspended access to asylum during March. While the asylum system officially resumed in April, the number of arrivals is 97% below levels for the previous April, according to statistics from the Ministry of Migration and Asylum.
In early May, Greek media reported that the government was said to be pursuing "aggressive surveillance" aimed at preventing refugees from arriving. The government has not specified what this entails.
DW approached the Ministry of Migration and Asylum for further details on the extent of the government's activities. The spokesperson Kritikou said, "measures taken so far have been proportionate to the gravity of the situation and pursued legitimate aims, such as, in particular, the protection of national security, public order and public health."
Read more: Greek civilian militias patrol border amid migrant and refugee crisis
Notis Mitarakis, the Greek Minister on Migration and Asylum, has defended the government's harder line on asylum and migration. Speaking to state television during a visit to Samos on April 28, he said: "There have been zero arrivals to our country in April 2020 thanks to the very big efforts made by our security forces."
On the same day, however, residents of the Aegean island reported on local media and Facebook that they had seen newly arrived migrants in the village of Drakei. Lighthouse Reports and Bellingcat analyzed video footage from the Turkish coast guardand refugees that indicated a boat carrying 22 asylum-seekers arrived at a cove on Samos at around 7:30 a.m. that day.
Pushed back from Samos island
Jouma was among the refugees who climbed the steep path up from the remote cove on Samos to the village. This was the fourth time the young man from Damascus, Syria had tried to reach Greece. For a few hours on the morning of April 28 he believed he had finally made it.
In a detailed account, Jouma recalls what he experienced after the refugees reached Samos. He says that a girl from the group who spoke a little English asked a local to notify Greek police that they had arrived. The new arrivals expected that they would be taken to the Samos' refugee camp. Instead, the police who came detained them and took their phones. They were driven to a port where they were transferred between boats before being loaded onto a black-orange life raft without an engine or paddles. Jouma says they were towed towards Turkish waters. The raft was set adrift in the open sea with the waves pushing them back towards Greece and a Greek vessel pushing them towards Turkey.
The worst thing, Jouma says, was a Greek power boat maneuvering around them trying to push them into Turkish waters, while the Turkish coast guard was just observing. "The Greek coast guard would retreat to make room for their Turkish counterparts to come and take us, but they wouldn't come, and it went on all night," Jouma says.
The group was eventually picked up at noon the next day by the Turks. The port authorities on Samos told DW that there were no arrivals of asylum seekers to the island on April 28. The apparent use of orange life rafts in previous pushback operations was reported by Greek national newspaper Efimerida Ton Syntakton on April 7.
Are pushbacks in compliance with EU law?
Greece, like other EU border states such as Croatia, has long been dogged by accusations of pushbacks. Dimitris Christopoulos, who was until recently the president of the International Federation for Human Rights, says that the new intensity of incidents and the number of witnesses raises questions to what extent Greek authorities have been authorizing these pushbacks and how much the EU is aware of what is happening on the Greek border.
Read more: Refugee crisis in Greece: Anger and foreboding grow on Lesbos
"Obviously, these tactics are violating the Greek Constitution and customary international law, yet they seem to be tolerated by the EU since they serve the purpose of preventing further people from crossing the Aegean or the River Evros into Europe," says Christopoulos.
When DW again questioned the Ministry of Migration and Asylum about the legality of the government's tactics, spokesperson Kritikou categorically denied that such operations were taking place. "Greece has been complying, and will continue to do so, with its obligations under international law, including all relevant human rights treaties to which it is a party, also mindful of its obligations under the borders, migration and asylum EU legal framework, as enshrined in the EU Treaties."
Jürgen Bast, Professor of European Law at the University of Giessen in Germany, calls such a pushback strategy a clear violation of the law "This goes against everything European law stipulates." The pushbacks, as described by the refugees, break all the rules of the official return directive, Bast says, referring to the orderly procedure that an asylum request entails, including a personal interview and the right of the individual to stay in Greece until a decision is madeThe destination country, Bast continues, must also be informed and may have the right to refuse rejected asylum-seekers from third countries.
None of the young men DW met said they had been notified ahead of time that they would have to leave Greece; nor did they give the impression that they had been informed of their legal rights. Instead, the experiences recounted by Bakhtyar, Jouma, Rashid, and the others interviewed suggest that forceful pushbacks across the Greek-Turkish border have become an increasingly common pattern.
Desperate to get to Europe
Rashid now lives in a cramped Istanbul flat with 10 other young Afghans. As an undocumented migrant in Turkey, he faces the threat of being deported back to Afghanistan. According to official statistics, 302,278 Afghans have been apprehended by security forces in Turkey in the last two years. Since 2018 it has become extremely difficult for Afghans to register for asylum in Turkey.
Surrounded by what appear to be dead ends for him in Turkey, Rashid is desperately searching for a way to once again reach Europe. "I do not know what I will do here. We are not guilty. Of course, I want to cross the border again," he says. "I have to."
Lighthouse Reports, a media nonprofit that runs investigative newsrooms, the independent verification collective Bellingcat and the Dutch news publication Trouw contributed to reporting on this piece.