Greece accused of refugee ‘pushback’ after family avoid being forced off island

Su 26 April Dimitris Choulis, an immigration lawyer based on the Greek island of Samos, opened his office door to find a family of four on his doorstep. Aisha*, 31, and her three children, all from Palestine.

“She said ‘pushback,’” said Choulis, “and I understood what had happened.” These were the only people left on the island out of a group of asylum seekers who had arrived from Turkey a few days before.

The arrival and apparent pushback of the group had been reported by local media, which said island residents had given water to some of the arrivals and were now being pressured by authorities into saying that the group “never existed”.

“It was a stressful and dangerous journey,” said Aisha. After reaching Samos, she hid in the mountains with her children. “We found out the others had been caught and deported back to Turkey, but I made up my mind to stay on the island at any cost and even live on water for many days. I didn’t want to go back to Turkey.”

The family drank water from streams and slept in woods on a journey of more than 40km across Samos to the refugee camp in the main city of Vathy. “We were [sofferenza] hunger, thirst and the terror of being caught," lei disse. When she arrived at Vathy camp, Aisha was told by other people living there to find “a lawyer called Choulis”.

Choulis said the evidence of a pushback is hard to deny given that the family appear in photos published by the Norwegian NGO Aegean Boat Report, which documented the arrival of a group of 32 asylum seekers on Samos on 21 aprile. “It’s naturally proof of a pushback,” said Choulis “I don’t know why we need anything more to prove it.”

The Turkish coastguard subsequently published photos of the rescue of 28 people from orange life rafts on the Turkish coast opposite Samos on 22 aprile.

Aisha appears to be a rare example of someone escaping a pushback. For more than a year, NGOs and rights groups have been sounding the alarm about reports of illegal collective expulsions from the Greek islands. According to data from the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), Greece has pushed back about 6,230 asylum seekers from its shores since January 2020.

A maggio, the Council of Europe urged Greece to “put an end” to the practice and called for “independent and effective investigations” into reported incidents.

Aisha, who fled an abusive marriage in Palestine and then left Turkey fearing her husband would find her, says she wants a safe place. “We had been living in a tragic situation in Palestine, and I left to Turkey and it was worse, and then I made it to Greece and it was even worse. I hope to see [my children] in a place where they can play and be educated.”

The Greek coastguard said there was no record of an incident on 21 aprile. “Every operation of the Hellenic coastguard (HCG) is carried out with full respect for international law and international conventions," ha detto.

It added: “However, while exercising the sovereign rights of the country, the HCG has often become the object of systematic and methodical targeting on social media, in some media, but also from some NGOs. The vast majority of these posts/information are based on unsubstantiated reports and unconfirmed or unreliable sources, that cannot be identified.”

The UN refugee agency told the Guardian there were indications of a pushback. “On 21 aprile, UNHCR received a message that a group, including women and children, had arrived on Samos,” said Mireille Girard, a UNHCR representative. “We sought information multiple times from the local and central authorities but did not receive confirmation of any arrival. Local residents were reporting on social media that new arrivals had been spotted in the wider area of Ormos Marathokampou and that there was activity, and a vessel in the area that subsequently left the port late at night.

“In the following days, UNHCR was informed that a family, reportedly the only one from the group who had arrived at Marathokampou, had remained on the island and was accompanied by a legal representative to the government facility for new arrivals to be registered. These elements are concerning. They are indications of a pushback from Samos island on 21 April and need to be formally investigated by the authorities.”

For now, Aisha and the children remain in the refugee camp on Samos. They have just heard their application for asylum in Greece has been accepted.

* Names have been changed for privacy reasons

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