Two deaths, hundreds of injuries, thousands of victims: Yet, no explanations
DUVAR - It is dark... A group around 400 people, including children, is walking into the darkness. The refugees have the Greek border ahead, and the gendarmerie behind, waiting to be sure of that they will not come back. Syrian Muhammed walks with his family following the gendarmerie's "move" order. He neither remembers the time nor does he know anyone in the group: "It was bitterly cold, the children were crying because of cold." Muhammed doesn't care about the cold. "One cannot easily achieve his or her dream, after all." He thinks so and continues to walk towards Europe, leaving the İpsala Border Crossing behind. Greek soldiers meet the group roughly after 15 kilometres. The 7-person Al Awas Family's dreams leave their place to pain and despair after that moment.
BORDER CROSSING IN COMPANY WITH STATE AUTHORITIES
Thirty-three soldiers lost their lives as a result of the attack against the Turkish Armed Forces in Idlib on February 27. Therefore, Turkey decided not to block the refugees from crossing the border. The opening of borders in their minds, thousands of refugees started to walk towards the Turkey-Greece border hearing the news in the media. The refugees, who were able to cross to Greece, confronted a series of human rights violations such as violence, extortion and detention. Two refugees, at the very least, died and one disappeared in the wake of incidents at the borders. Not knowing what to do, most of the survivors were injured, homeless, with no money and no furniture.
Greece's unlawful attitude while sending refugees back to Turkey and Greek law-enforcement officers that use violence on refugees received widespread media coverage in the meantime. Well, what is the role of Turkey? Refugees' statements and the reports on the topic reveal that Turkey government agencies and officials behaved in an organized way for refugees to cross the border.
RIDING PROVINCIAL IMMIGRATION AUTHORITY VEHICLES
Unaware of where they were being taken, Pakistani Nigar was travelling with a group of about 50 refugees on Edirne Provincial Immigration Authority's bus. Saying that two gendarmeries got on the bus after a while, Nigar conveys that the gendarmeries said: "You want to go to Europe, here we are now taking you to Europe." According to what Nigar stated, the bus follows the gendarmerie vehicle. She couldn't believe that she was going to the border, where she was caught and handed over while illegally crossing to Greece in early February, in company with the gendarmerie from the Removal Center. Stopping in the Alibey Village (Edirne), the bus set the refugees down near the village mosque. Nigar says that three civilians, whom she thought were villagers, came about 15 minutes later. She says: "They took us to another civilian by the river. That civilian wanted 100 liras per person to cross. We came from the centre; we don't have any money." None of them has money; they are left destitute on Turkey side of Evros (Meric) River - at the 1st-degree military zone.
Muhammed's little daughter's arm was broken during the Greek soldiers' attack.
GREEK SOLDIERS BREAK THE LITTLE GIRL'S ARM
Being in Greece around the same time with Nigar, Muhammed and his family were subjected to severe violence of the Greek soldiers while Nigar was thinking about what to do. Saying that everybody was turned over one by one and all their belongings were taken, Muhammed states: "They threw my phone and my wife's bag into the river with 12 thousand liras in it. They beat us while we were getting on the vehicles. And my little daughter's arm was broken." A group of about 400 people, including Muhammad and his family, was sent back to Turkey.
THE EU IGNORES THE LASHING ON THE BACK OF REFUGEES
The EU senior officials visited the Edirne-Greece border to make observations on March 3 when refugees were pushed violently back from the borders. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who came upon the invitation of Greek Prime Minister, Kiryakos Miçotakis, making a statement on behalf of the group, sent a message supporting Greece. Making a statement to the press following the day of the visit, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited Greece and the EU to respect the refugees on their lands, in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Then both Greek and the EU officials, criticized Turkey through the messages one after another. Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas accused Turkey of publishing fake news. High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell stated that Turkey's encouraging refugees to the border crossing is not a good way to get more support from the EU.
TURKEY PLAYS THE REFUGEE CARD
The political tension between Turkey and EU countries goes back to The EU-Turkey Agreement of March 18 2016, which is about immigrants. The statement signed between Turkey and the EU countries aims to send refugees, who illegally reach Greece islands, back to Turkey. Turkey made a commitment to prevent refugee crossings at land and sea borders within the scope of the statement. In return, the EU has made various commitments from a major monetary fund transfer for the refugees to the visa liberalization. Turkey threatened several times with opening borders by criticizing the EU since it didn't fulfil its obligations under the statement. Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu put forward the last of these. Speaking to the Bild, Çavuşoğlu said that the EU has not yet paid even the half of 6 billion euros promised for the refugees in Turkey and Turkey could open the borders, according to AA news on January 23. Turkey opened its borders as a result of an attack against the Turkish Armed Forces in İdlib on February 27. This is not the first time of Turkey using the refugees as a political trump. As a matter of fact, making a statement to the press after the attack, President Tayyip Erdogan reminded that they had warned the EU many times about the borders. He said that they wouldn't close the borders from now on.
Salim witnessed his friends being beaten.
THERE IS A COST OF REACHING PAZARKULE BORDER CROSSING
Uninformed of the political dispute between Turkey and the EU, the Afghan Salim and his friends go to the Evros (Meric) River. He is baffled to see 'people down-at-heel and with broken legs' there. He gives up crossing by boat. However, the gendarmerie confronts them when they decide to return. Moving away from the riverbank, the group walks towards Pazarkule - sometimes passing through the fields and the roads. As soon as he sees the vehicle in front of them in the morning, Salim runs: "On that desolate road, either the thief or the gendarmerie would stop us." He states that the gendarmerie, coming with sticks in his hands, beat two of his friends. When we asked Salim "Why would the gendarmerie beat?", he answers: "They beat people so that they do not return, they attempt to cross to Greece."
Muhammed and his family with his daughter, who had surgery on her arm, have to return to Istanbul after staying at the gas station for 20 days.
'NO RETURN, YOU WILL GO TO THE BORDER CROSSING'
Like Salim, Muhammed and his family couldn't reach where they want to go. They decided to return to Istanbul. Muhammed, whose daughter's arm is broken, explains that they did not have many options. The soldier they asked for help to go back directed them to İpsala, and the police they asked for their way in İpsala directed them to the City Hall for free food. The hungry Al Awas Family excitedly arrived at the hall. However, they could find neither food nor water: "It was very crowded. The gendarmerie said, 'no return, you will go to the border.' They forced people into vehicles. They even carried people with garbage trucks."
İSTANBUL OR THE RIVER
In his journey started days ago to arrive Pazarkule, Muhammed finds himself and his family in a gas station in Uzunköprü. The family cannot move for a long time since their daughter had a broken arm. Muhammed, with the help of the gas station staff, takes her daughter to a hospital in Uzunköprü. The hospital asks money for surgery. Fortunately, the doctor examining his daughter agrees to covers the surgery expenses and performs the surgery. They stay at the gas station for 20 days following the operation. "We had no money and no place to go anymore," says Muhammed. He also says that the number of those staying at the gas station increased in time. "One day, the gendarmerie came to ask us to evacuate the gas station. We were given two options: Either İstanbul or the River. They tore our tents apart. We had to get on a bus to Esenler Bus Terminal."
Haluk and his friends who crossed the border to Greece were beaten and sent back.
LOCALS WHO TRY TO HELP
Al Awas Family had never reached Pazarkule Border Gate, but Afghani Haluk stayed there for a month. His arrival at Pazarkule had never been easy. He recalls, "I came to Edirne with my friends actually to go to Pazarkule. But the police did not allow us. We waited for the police to clear the road for 5 hours. They showed the busses nearby and said, 'Go to Doyran Village, you'll pass there.'" Out of desperation and their desire to get some rest, Haluk and his friends get on the bus that the police has shown. They realize that the bus belongs to Edirne Provincial Migration Authority, "We saw papers indicating Edirne Provincial Migration Authority right next to the driver." Without stopping the village, the bus goes directly to the Evros River. A civilian approaching the bus asks how many refugees are on the bus, then points the boats to the passengers. Next to the boats wait for civilians, and when they are asked whether they are migrant smugglers, they answer, "We are locals who just try to help." Haluk and his friends wait two days on the Evros Riverbank and cross the border to Greece. But they are captured, beaten and sent back to Turkey all naked.
HOW TO CALCULATE THE NUMBER OF REFUGEES PASSING TO GREECE?
When the Minister of Internal Affairs Süleyman Soylu revealed the number of refugees passing to Greece on March 26 as 150,600, he also raised many question marks. How this number was calculated became a topic of discussion. At the same time, the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees declared 2,850 illegal passings. This was quite low compared to the Minister's declaration. Turkey opened the borders to refugees who mostly stop by the Doyran Village. I spoke to a local fisherman who would like to remain anonymous and suggested that Minister Soylu was telling the truth. He said, "Soldiers came to the village and asked those having a boat to transport refugees. If the soldiers ask you to do this, you'd better do it. What if they cancel my licence for fishing? It is so hard to get a new one! I saw with my own two eyes; civilians were keeping a record of illegal passings on the Evros river bank and reporting to the police station. So they knew exactly how many people passed from each village and each point."
HELP, INCENTIVE, FACILITATION
Many NGOs that are active on-site, including the Amnesty International, İstanbul Bar Association, Human Rights Watch, have indicated in their reports that Turkey has been encouraging refugees to cross the border. On a declaration published on March 17, the Human Rights Association revealed true stories of 8 refugees and the fact that Turkish soldiers and police have helped them for passing to Greece. In an Amnesty International report entitled "Caught in a Political Game", it is indicated that "Turkish border police and security forces have been systematically facilitating and encouraging refugees' movement towards the border." This allegation was not tackled in the report prepared after the visit of the GNAT's Sub-Committee for Migration and Integration at the border. However, the Directorate General of Migration Management shared 38 videos on its social media account showing the borderline and refugees crossing the river. They showed how the refugee groups waited on the riverbank and crossed the river to Greece by using a boat and ropes that are fixed on both sides of the river.
THOUSANDS OF REFUGEES LEFT HOMELESS
The process starting on February 27 ended in exactly one month, on March 27, when approximately 5,000 people waiting in Pazarkule were sent to guest houses due to Covid-19 outbreak. In this process which left thousands of refugees homeless, broke, unemployed, and in desperation, neither Greece has paid for the incidents of violence it caused, nor the role of Turkish governmental institutions and authorities has been sufficiently investigated. An anonymous member of the solidarity network who stayed in Edirne for a month to help the refugees pointed out the role of village mukhtar in this process who had been organizing the boat passings. He said, "Refugees were transported with the vehicles belonging to the Municipality or the Provincial Migration Authority. They were sometimes brought to the villages on the banks on Evros River or the river bank for direct passage. Village headmen played an active role in transporting the refugees to the riverside and passing the river by boats. A village headman showed me a message including details of who will transport the refugees by boat and when. They helped those who were beaten and sent back, and they encouraged these people to cross the river again. I spent a month on the borderline spanning from İpsala to Pazarkule. Refugees coming for crossing the border were sometimes subject to abuse of the police. There were even some cases of batter. Not just me, but many volunteers who were in the region to help the refugees witnessed these incidents."
SO MANY QUESTIONS LEFT UNANSWERED
To get to know more about the subject, I addressed to many public bodies from the Minister of Internal Affairs to the GNAT's Sub-Committee for Migration and Integration. I requested answers to many questions including how many police officers and soldiers were assigned in Edirne in March, whether any proceeding started against the officers who acted outside their job description, how many migrant smugglers were caught in this period. The Edirne Provincial Police answered my questions that I submitted to the Ministry through CİMER. The e-mail they sent me included a link to the official website of statistics about "irregular migration" (https://www.goc.gov.tr/duzensiz-goc-istatistikler) while leaving other questions unanswered.
Then, I submitted my questions to the Public Relations Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Weeks have passed but, and I still haven't got any answer. I reached out Atay Uslu, Chairman of GNAT'S Sub-Committee for Migration and Integration. Still, he hasn't given me any answers yet, either. I tried to reach out to the authorities to ask the allegations about the refugees being transported to the border with the vehicles of Edirne Provincial Migration Authority, and I was told to first talk to the Edirne Governorship. So I contacted them to ask my questions. I still haven't got any answers by the time this coverage was prepared for publication.
This exclusive coverage was prepared within the scope of investigative journalists scholarships concerning the right to information offered with the support of P24's FNF Foundation.