“We come from a war where they dropped bombs and missiles at us, we left there to give our children a future and they do this to us in the middle of the night. So that we drown. Because, no matter what, return us by plane … But They didn’t even give us the opportunity to contact anyone. They took my phone and my passport. Now I can’t even ask for asylum. How am I going to go back to Syria for another? ” Nayma Jatib chains laments over the phone.
Last July, this widowed Arabic teacher from Idlib with two children and suffering from hypertension, became one of the nearly 1,000 people that Greece has secretly expelled in recent months. A wide collection of images compiled by human rights organizations and activists, several of them verified by EL MUNDO, shed light on a practice that Athens is intensifying under the cover of the coronavirus crisis .
A photograph published by the Turkish coast guard shows Jatib, being tended to by the agents’ patrol boat. She is flanked by an old man and another woman accompanied by a minor, in a motorboat covered with a kind of orange pergola, which has become a hallmark of this wave of expulsions. At least 22 people were traveling in it (Syrians, Palestinians, Congolese …). Among them, there were 15 minors, including Nayma’s two sons, Ibrahim, 12, and Mohammad, 13.
It is because of them that Nayma has not stopped crossing walls. The first, when Abd Monem, her husband, who had fled to Turkey to earn the bread with which to feed his family, called him announcing that the cancer he suffered was terminal and that, before dying, he wanted to see his offspring. “The fence was three meters long,” he recalls. ” I managed to enter seven times, but in all of them the Turkish gendarmes threw me out again . After two months of coming and going, I finally managed to enter Turkey.”
After a month, the father passed away. On his deathbed, explains Nayma, Ibrahim, the minor said that he would become a professor of medicine , specializing in Oncology; Mohammad promised to be a nuclear physicist. “There is no such thing in the country. We must go to Europe,” determined the mother, and conspired to achieve the goal. “Even if I sleep on the street. Even if I have to call all the embassies or put my children on a plane and let them go, my children will come to Europe to study .”
With this idea in mind, Nayma and her children concentrated all their savings and set sail for the Greek islands. On the first occasion, the smuggler did not appear; in the second, he regrets, the Greek coast guards intercepted them and towed them back to Turkish waters. In the third, on July 23, they reached the island of Rhodes. Another nightmare was beginning. They confiscated their documents and telephones and confiscated them in the port facilities. “For three days we hardly ate,” she complains.
“THEY PUT US IN A BOAT AND CUT THE ROPE”
The fourth day began with a promise. “They told us that we would go to Athens, but first we should stop on another island. At a certain point, armed men welcomed us and divided us into two groups and put us on a boat.” This one did not go to the capital. “After an hour we realized that they were not taking us to Athens, but to Turkish waters , to an area from where you could not see the coast. There they put us in a rubber boat, they put us orange vests and cut the rope “.
They were left alone in the middle of the night, in the waters of the Aegean.
“A two-month-old baby was suffocating. My son has poor eyesight and they threw his glasses into the water. They had no regard. The luck is that one of the occupants, a Palestinian, had managed to hide a mobile in his baby’s clothes “. First there was no signal. ” The water was coming in and there was no way to make it smaller . People were screaming in fury.” Finally, after four hours in the dark, they managed to call the Turkish patrol boats, who rescued them.
That trance has traumatized the Jatib. “My little boy used to tell me: ‘we will die, we will end up in the water and the sharks will eat us,'” recalls Nayma. “The question is why do the Greeks lie to us? Why don’t they let us call anyone and leave us in the middle of the sea? That a child has to end up begging you that you don’t want to die in the belly of a shark … If a dog dies in Europe, all of Europe cries. Nobody will do it for 15 children that, apparently, Greece wanted to drown on purpose. ”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis denies this, despite numerous evidence showing at least 31 expulsions like Nayma’s. “Greece has all the right in the world to defend its borders, we have a tough but very fair border policy,” she told CNN. Such allegations, he notes, are “insults to our Coast Guard, which has rescued tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants at sea. The islands have always provided shelter for people in need.”
Greek reception policy has for years, and despite scant European support, been crucial in serving tens of thousands of people in search of a better life. Agreements such as the Turkey – EU of 2016 , which gave Ankara the role of border gendarme in exchange for a series of partially fulfilled perks, and the patrols of the Frontex device significantly reduced the number of people who went to the Aegean in recent years , at the same time as in other routes they increased.
GREECE’S MIGRATION POLICY, MORE RESTRICTIVE
This trend began to break last February when, coinciding with a government offensive on the Syrian province of Idlib , Ankara responded by facilitating thousands of people trying to enter Greece through the land border. At least one of them was killed by fire from Greece, whose action was barely condemned by Brussels, under the orders of the center-right government elected a year ago. With Mitsotakis at the helm, immigration policy has tightened.
“The new government promised to stop the migratory flow and deport more than 10,000 in the first year, ” recalls the immigration lawyer Emmanouil Chatzichalkias. “The coronavirus crisis, the problems with the Turks and the closure of the borders have prevented deportations. Besides, the detention centers on the islands are completely saturated,” he adds. The new Executive, he adds, is making it difficult to apply for asylum that everyone arriving in Greece must be able to carry out.
According to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Greece has registered about 11,480 arrivals since the beginning of the year, almost 8,700 of them by sea. Which means that while not all those who arrive on Greek soil are deported back to Turkish soil, and a majority end up in crowded detention centers to end up trapped in Greece, there is a growing number of people who, after spending all their savings and risking their lives at sea, end up at the starting point.
Chatzichalkias stresses that the returns, “absolutely illegal under international law”, have been going on for some time. “One of my clients, detained in a Greek village after crossing the land border, was tricked in a barracks, promising to take him to Thessaloniki to be searched. Instead, they forced him back to Turkey via the Evros river.” The lawyer believes that, with the new Administration and under current conditions, this practice is expanding.
“To my knowledge, the Greek patrol boats detain immigrants in the middle of the sea, deactivate the engine of their boat and tow them back to Turkey. There are rumors that, now, they have also involved the Special Forces in these practices.” A recent study, published in the Greek digital Efsyn, draws attention to the tiny boats with orange roofs, allegedly lifeguards but which, despite official denial, are being left adrift to expel families like the Jatib.