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Does UNHCR enable the torture of refugees by Greek police?

UNHCR has consistently and strongly criticised the Greek government and its uniformed officers for their barbaric, illegal, pushbacks against people who arrive in Greece.

So why does UNHCR Greece hand the same authorities details about the locations of those men, women and children?

A boat carrying 38 people, amongst them at least 17 children and two pregnant women people landed west of the village of Skala Sikaminea on Lesvos north, on Sunday 1 May, at 21.30. Immediately after arriving they fled to the woods to hide, scared that if found by Greek police, they would be pushed back to Turkey.

The group, mostly families, all Afghans, stayed together. They contacted Aegean Boat Report at 21.45, and asked for assistance. We gathered necessary information from the group: pictures, videos and location data, and there was no doubt, the group was on Lesvos.

We do not usually give advice on where people should go, but since they were only 4km from the quarantine camp in Megala Therma, we advised them to move towards it.

It was dark, not many people use the dirt track at night, and it would have taken them about one hour to walk. Considering the alternatives, which were to stay outside in the woods all night, and most likely be found by police the following day, we firmly believed that this was their best option.

Unfortunately, they were reluctant to walk in the dark, and decided to wait until daylight, try to find a better solution. Perhaps they thought the walk would be difficult in the dark, especially for the children. Little did they know about the dangers ahead.

Aegean Boat Report maintained contact with the group throughout the night. They had stayed in the same place all night, and in the morning, they reached out to the UNHCR through their shoreline duty phone, and asked for help.

The duty phone operates 8.00-20.00 seven days a week, to receive information about new arrivals. What assistance – if any at all – UNHCR actually can give to new arrivals contacting this number is difficult to say, especially since most of those who have tried asking UNHCR for help, have ended up drifting in life rafts in the Aegean Sea.

Some may see this as a coincidence, I beg to differ.

A member of this group told us that a UNHCR representative had been in contact, asking for permission to give their location to the Greek authorities.

At first they refused, but after several calls and messages on WhatsApp, in which UNHCR had insisted this was the only option available, the person told us they had agreed. This approach raises a lot of questions regarding UNHCR’s standard operating procedures in Greece.

Do they actually provide the location of new arrivals to the Greek authorities?

What measures have UNHCR taken to ensure the safety of new arrivals , after they give information to the Greek authorities? Do UNHCR staff go to these locations to protect people, to make sure that legal procedures are followed in accordance with international law?

UNHCR criticised Greece for brutality pushing back people on land and sea several times in the last two years.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi spoke out against “the increasing number of incidents of violence and serious human rights violations against refugees and migrants at various European borders,” and the multiple deaths they have caused.

UNHCR’s new High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, speaks at his first press conferance as head of the agency.

Gandi also called out Greece directly. “We are alarmed by recurrent and consistent reports coming from Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, where UNHCR has recorded almost 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the beginning of 2020.”

So why, after all this, would UNHCR Greece, whose core mandate is to “ensure the international protection of uprooted people worldwide”, which claims to promote the basic human rights of refugees and ensure they will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they face persecution, give information to Greek authorities on the whereabouts of new arrivals? This, surely, just assists them to push back refugees?

The communication between UNHCR and the 38 refugees on Lesvos would have been stored on the phones used, but this information was lost to everyone after the police found them and confiscated those phones.

We believe UNHCR procedures are the same every time refugees contact them after arriving, at least on Lesvos.

Just a few days after this incident another group of new arrivals contacted UNHCR on Lesvos and asked for assistance.

In this case, the refugees took screenshots of the conversation, and provided them to Aegean Boat Report. They said: “We don’t trust that UNHCR are giving us good information and advice.”

They were correct, 18 people ended up floating in a life raft outside Ayvalik, Turkey.

Aegean Boat Report lost contact with the group of 38 Afghans on Lesvos north at 13.00 on Monday 2 May. We hoped they had been found and taken to camp, but when we received information that no Afghans had been registered that day, this hope vanished.

At 19.30 on 2 May, the Turkish coast guard reported they had found and rescued 38 people, all Afghans, from two life rafts drifting outside Karaburun, Turkey, just south of Lesvos.

We compared the pictures and videos received while they were on land on Lesvos, with those provided by the Turkish coast guard when they found them drifting at sea. There is absolutely no doubt that this was the same group, nor any doubt on who was responsible for placing them in these life rafts.

So why would UNHCR Greece provide information to a government which repeatedly and systematically violates international laws and human rights? A government UNHCR has criticised over and over again for pushbacks in the Aegean Sea?

We asked UNHCR Greece for a statement on this issue. Their answers didn’t come as a huge surprise, or shed any light or provide any information other than that UNHCR Greece believes it has done nothing wrong while dealing with new arrivals.

They basically state that they take no responsibility for any harm to vulnerable people who call on them for help, nor do they provide any protection for people who they turn over to the Greek authorities.

So why should anyone arriving in Greece contact UNHCR, when they facilitate pushbacks for Greek authorities in the Aegean Sea? A few days ago, Aegean Boat Report managed to reconnect with members of the group, who are now in Turkey.

The group confirmed they gave permission for UNHCR to inform authorities on their location, and that UNHCR promised to come to their aid to protect them.

UNHCR, on the other hand, claims to have made no such promises.

UNHCR Greece says that they inform authorities in cases where people are in distress to prevent loss of life.

In this case, the group was on land and there were no known medical cases that would suggest that there were any threats to their lives.

The only known threat to their life at that point was the Greek authorities, to which UNHCR turned them over without any consideration for their safety.

At 13.00 the group agreed that UNHCR should provide information to the Greek authorities on their whereabouts. At 15.00 their hideout deep in the woods was stormed by 10 masked men in dark uniforms carrying guns.

UNHCR promised to come to us”, the man said from Turkey. “They told us we just had to be patient, they said they would be there before five, but they lied, the only one who came for us was the police, they came and tortured us and threw us back in the sea. Why would UNHCR do that?”

That’s actually a very good question. Why would UNHCR turn people over to the Greek authorities to be tortured? It’s not as if they don’t know how Greek authorities treats refugees after they arrive: this is well documented in several statements by UNHCR over the last two years.

Perhaps UNHCR Greece didn’t ‘get the memo’.

When police arrived at the location all hell broke loose, they were shouting and shooting in the air, forcing everyone to lie face down on the ground, even the children.

One man wasn’t quick enough to do as he was told, they beat him severely and broke his leg.

Another disabled man didn’t understand what was going on, they hit him several times in the face with the back of a rifle and broke his nose. There was blood everywhere, the witness explained.

Please remember that these people aren’t criminals, just normal families with small children fleeing for their lives, and this is how Greek authorities treat them.

They were all searched, the men had to take off all their clothes in front of the women, “we had to lay down on the ground, naked, face down with our hands on our heads, I feared they would shoot us, Taliban in Afghanistan treated people like this, I didn’t expect to experience this in Europe.

“They were shouting and screaming, shooting in the air, everyone was terrified, children and women were crying, some so terrified that they wet their pants. That seemed to amuse some of the masked men, who laughed and called them names.”

The women were sexually abused.

The masked men searched them for hidden phones and money, especially thoroughly on their breast and between their legs, while speaking in Greek between themselves, laughing.

“It seemed to amuse them to torture us,” the witness explained.

When the police were satisfied with their search, the group had to pick up everything that had been thrown around, clothes, personal belongings and garbage from the ground, and carry it to the police car.

“They took everything from us, our bags, papers, money and phones, nothing was given back, they even took the clothes from our backs, especially jackets, it was cold and people were freezing.”

The police had arrived in five cars: an official white and blue police car, two vans – one black and one blue – and two private cars, both silver. They also had three motorcycles.

The group was split, 19 people were forced into the back of each of the vans.

There were no seats, they had to sit on the floor in the dark. The windows were painted black and they couldn’t see out.

They drove for a very long time, about two hours, and when they stopped, they were in some kind of port. They could see some fishing boats close by.

Everyone was ordered to look down, if they didn’t the police would beat them, so they did not see much of their surroundings.

“If you come back to Greece we will kill you, we will rape your women in front of you and then kill them,” the men in balaclavas said, before they turned them over to the Greek Coastguard.

A white two engine boat took them out to a bigger ship in two groups.

The ship was marked with the ID ΛΣ 090, a Stan Patrol 5509 vessel belonging to the Hellenic Coast Guard.

“We were placed outside in the back of the vessel, they pulled a big black plastic tarpaulin over us, and we had to sit on our knees with our heads down, like when we are praying. If we moved or spoke they would beat down on the tarpaulin with sticks.”

After one hour the coast guard vessel stopped, people were forced into two life rafts floating in the sea behind the vessel, the smallest children were thrown down from the vessel into the life rafts, because they were too small to go down themselves. When everyone was onboard, the coast guard vessel turned on the engine, making waves behind the vessel, and the life rafts drifted away.

“They left us in the middle of the sea in these rubber tents, they left us to die”.

Usually, we do not get much footage of these events at sea, because Greek authorities are very thorough when searching people, removing especially phones because this can document their crimes.

In this case they had overlooked one phone, and when the Greek Coastguard vessel moved away to a safe distance, they filmed to document what had happened to them, and who was responsible.

The man filming wasn’t sure if people onboard the Greek Coast Guard vessel could see him filming in their binoculars, so he tried to hide the phone between his fingers, but the footage leaves no doubt on what happened and who is responsible. The Gavdos (ΛΣ 090) can be clearly seen in the video.

The international community is officially condemning what we refer to as pushbacks, but on the other hand supporting countries performing these violations, funding their operations, supporting them with Frontex personnel and equipment, because they are doing the dirty work of Europe, keeping people out by all means possible.

Many believe that humanitarian organisations, especially the biggest and most powerful of them all, the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR), would refrain from assisting governments in such crimes against humanity, but we can only wonder if UNHCR Greece has lost its way, blinded by money and greed, or been heavily influenced by the right-wing government’s propaganda machinery.

At the end of 2021, Maria Clara Martin took office as UNHCR’s new Representative in Greece, and she praised the efforts and compassion of the Greek authorities in dealing with refugees, as if they actually were doing a great job.

She said: ““Greece has been receiving refugees and asylum-seekers for many years, showing solidarity and compassion to the most vulnerable. I look forward to working together with the Greek authorities, partners, municipalities, civil society, and local and refugee communities towards protecting, supporting and finding long-term solutions for the men, women and children who are forced to flee their homes and seek sanctuary in Greece”.

The Greek authorities are definitely not doing a great job.

From 1 March 2020 to 30 April 2022, the Greek government has pushed back 37,571 men, women and children. In fact, the number is probably far greater. In the same period, it has registered as new arrivals just 7,264 people. That is, the Greek government, in direct breach of international law, has pushed back 83.8 per cent, more than four in every five, people who have arrived in Greece via the Aegean Sea.

Nor is this some kind of ‘standard’ breaking of the law: Greek uniformed officers beat these people. They rob them, strip them, in some cases sexually assault them. They ridicule them, injure them, and in some cases kill them. It is hard to imagine how any government could possibly behave worse to people seeking safe places to live, learn and work.  

We can only wonder how an organisation whose core mandate is to ensure the international protection of uprooted people worldwide, promote the basic human rights of refugees and ensure they will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they face persecution, could assist the Greek authorities to do this.

Even if people in positions like Ms Martin’s are forced to be ‘diplomatic’ in their public statements, we must ask: why is UNHCR helping the Greek government to carry out pushbacks?

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