EU interpreter says Greece deported him to Turkey in migrant rally

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ATHENS — For years, Greek officials have denied complaints from human rights groups that the country’s border agents mistreated migrants and forcibly pushed them back to Turkey. They have dismissed the allegations as fake news or Turkish propaganda.

Now a single case can force a settlement.

A European Union interpreter says Greek border guards mistook him for an asylum seeker in September, attacked him and then forced him, along with dozens of migrants, across the border into Turkey.

His allegation is particularly problematic for Greek officials, as he is a legal resident of the European Union and employed by the EU border agency Frontex. And he has turned over evidence to the agency to support his abuse allegations, according to European officials handling his case.

The European Union, which has mainly looked the other way at the abuse of migrants, is now being forced to tackle the problem.

The case, which surfaced in the wake of an acute migrant border crisis with Belarus, has attracted the attention of senior European leaders for weeks. Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Migration, said she called the interpreter on Friday to discuss his allegations.

“After a direct, in-depth discussion with the person on November 25, I was very concerned about his story,” Ms Johansson said. “Beyond his personal story, his claim that this was not an isolated case is a serious issue,” she added, saying he told her he had witnessed at least 100 migrants being pushed over the border and sometimes were shaken up.

A statement from the Greek government ministry, however, cast doubt on his story, saying initial investigations suggested “the facts are not as presented”.

The interpreter told The New York Times that he had lodged a complaint with Frontex, and European officials confirmed it. They said the complaint was treated as credible because of the man’s position and the documentation he had provided, including audio and video recordings.

The man asked not to be identified out of concerns for his safety and his livelihood. Two European officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to discuss the matter with reporters, confirmed his identity.

He said he and many of the migrants he was being held with were beaten and stripped naked, and police seized their phones, money and documents. His attempts to tell the police who he was were met with laughter and beatings, he said. He said he was taken to a remote warehouse where he was being held with at least 100 others, including women and children. They were then put on dinghies and pushed across the Evros River into Turkish territory.

His accusations were similar to those of human rights groups, along with mounting evidence gathered by migrants and reporters, all of whom allege that Greek authorities routinely detain and deport migrants without allowing them to complete asylum applications — often in an arbitrary and violent manner. . Greek authorities have also been accused of pushing back migrants in flimsy dinghies in the Aegean, sometimes turning off the engines and leaving the migrants to drift back to Turkish waters. Greece denies the allegations.

The man’s story came to light at a critical time in Europe’s reckoning with his practices in dealing with migrants, which have attracted renewed attention following a standoff at the Belarus-Poland border that killed 12 migrants. In an effort to put pressure on the European Union over a geopolitical deadlock, Belarus lured migrants to its territory, left them in an icy forest and encouraged them to cross into EU countries, including Poland. The Polish authorities repelled them, sometimes by force.

That crisis, along with a similar deadlock between Greece and Turkey last year with asylum seekers sitting in the middle, has exposed a growing gap between European laws and standards in the treatment of asylum seekers, and the reality on the ground.

Public opinion on immigration soured after the Syrian war in 2015-16 brought more than a million refugees to Europe. Yet in much of the European Union, politicians and citizens are resisting inhumane and illegal practices, such as rounding up migrants and deporting them without due process.

But governments on Europe’s borders, such as Greece, view migration laws and procedures as outdated and inconsistent with the current climate, claiming they were designed before the mass displacement of populations in recent years.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece rejected accusations of abuse of migrants by Greek authorities in remarks this month. He called his migration policy ‘tough, but fair’.

Ms Johansson said she had spoken to Greece’s civil protection minister, Takis Theodorikakos, on Monday and promised to investigate the interpreter’s claims.

“The independent National Transparency Authority will investigate and as always will be open about its findings, but preliminary investigations in this case appear to indicate that the facts are not as presented,” the ministry’s media agency said in a statement.

Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch MEP, said the interpreter’s accusations are part of a pattern of increasing EU brutality towards migrants and asylum seekers.

“With tens of thousands of victims drowning in the Mediterranean, thousands languishing in what have been described as concentration camps in Libya, the misery in the camps on the Greek islands for so many years, people drowning in the Channel or freezing to death on the border between Belarus and Russia and the EU, the European Commission can no longer claim that these are incidents, accidents, exceptions,” she said.

“It’s not a political failure,” she added. “It’s policy.”

Greece, one of the main gateways to the European Union for migrants, has long maintained that it is being asked to rescue, process and receive too many people coming from Turkey, a hostile neighbor that often encourages asylum seekers to Greece to get the government there and to push through its demands on the European Union.

Under Greek and EU law, the Greek authorities are required to assess asylum applications for anyone seeking protection, to accommodate asylum seekers in humane conditions and, if rejected, to repatriate them safely.

Efforts to distribute asylum seekers more fairly across the European Union have stalled as many member states prefer to send money to Greece and other border countries to receive asylum seekers and keep them away from their territory.

Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office are paying and deploying hundreds of workers to ensure the bloc’s external borders are guarded while respecting human rights laws.

The interpreter, originally from Afghanistan, has lived legally in Italy for many years. He was employed by Frontex as a member of an EU-funded team of experts deployed to help border guards communicate with asylum seekers.

He had been working in the Evros border area with Greek and EU guards, and was on his way to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, for a break when police pulled him and some migrants off a bus, he said. .

After being beaten, detained and forced into Turkey, the interpreter said, he managed to reach Istanbul, where he received consular assistance from the Italian authorities, and was eventually repatriated to Italy on September 18.

The Italian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A Frontex spokesperson said the agency was investigating the report and could not comment further as the investigation continues.

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