The number of Turkish asylum seekers illegally sent back home by Greek border officials has risen dramatically amid a surge in migration fuelled by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on opponents.
Figures obtained by The Telegraph show Greece has carried out 233 illegal “push-backs” of Turkish nationals since May alone.
Greek border agents have been routinely accused of illegally turning back migrants crossing from Turkey to the EU, sometimes blocking boats from crossing the Aegean Sea.
Most migrants making the journey are travelling through Turkey on the way from countries such as Syria or Afghanistan.
But diminishing political freedoms in Turkey have led to an alarming rise in Turkish nationals seeking refuge in Europe.
Despite political tension between Athens and Ankara, Greek border guards are now returning growing numbers of Turkish migrants thought to be fleeing an increasingly authoritarian regime.
Through sources on both sides of the border, a Telegraph investigation has tracked Turkish nationals who made it to Greece over several months.
‘Push-backs’ include men, women and children
A total of 98 such pushbacks were recorded in 2019. This has risen to 233 since May 2021, including 76 arrests forming part of a crackdown targeting Turkish and Kurdish dissidents. This number includes 61 women, 149 men, and 23 children.
These figures also comprise three Turkish men pushed back in September from 6.25 miles inland on the Greek Island of Samos. They were allegedly beaten by Greek officials on an illegal boat journey back.
The men swam a 2.25 mile shortcut with the help of a “sea-scooter” propulsion device from the Turkish coastal town of Kusadasi.
They then walked 6.25 miles to the centre of Samos where they say port police picked them up. Travel bans imposed by the Erdogan government meant they could not leave the country using legal means.
Athens has continually dismissed allegations of illegal pushbacks.
Anthimos Sideris, a Greek lawyer following their case, says there is “serious evidence to help launch an investigation into illegal pushback actions apparently committed by some members of the Greek coastguard”.
Sideris said Samos police denied any knowledge of the three men on the island when he contacted them.
Two of the men, Elvan Güzelkücük, and Oguzhan Yatar, were sentenced to prison when they returned, accused of being members of the Gulen Movement, a group Ankara claims is a terrorist organisation, and of masterminding the failed 2016 Turkish coup.
The Turkish authorities have long used the coup as cover to lock up opponents, critics have claimed.
Furkan Kurt, 35, was the only one released from Turkish police custody the day after the pushback because he was previously acquitted of terrorism charges and he has been waiting for the decision of a higher court under judicial control and a travel ban.
Recounting their journey, Kurt told The Telegraph: “A police car stopped and checked our IDs, then left us.
“Five minutes later, a car pulled up with two plainclothes police with pistols. One told us they were port police and showed his military ID. They then drove us to the port where they violently forced us onto the boat.”
Video clips the men took of themselves show they had arrived in the east-Samos town of Posidonia.
Another video clip reveals a Greek police car plate number and officers interacting with the men before the pushback.
Kurt added: “Both men stepped onto the boat with us; one of them forced us to lie facedown on the deck, then kicked and punched us on our ribs and genitals. It was freezing as they continued to beat us. I didn’t expect to receive such inhumane treatment in the EU.”
Despite being acquitted, he said he had little to return to following his acquittal.
“I was fired from my job even though I am innocent. I had no choice but to leave Turkey because the demonisation was so bad it left me socially dead.”
Rights groups have condemned Athens for making pushbacks of migrants a de facto border policy.
Since the failed 2016 coup, at least 600,000 people have been prosecuted over terrorism charges, and more than 1.5 million investigated, Turkish Interior Ministry data show.
Dr Lena Karamanidou, who has carried out field studies of pushbacks, told The Telegraph: “Our research suggests pushbacks have been taking place in the area for decades.”
But she said the real question is why the Greek government, the EU, and other actors such as Frontex, are denying existing proof of pushbacks.
Samos Police and the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum did not respond to a request for comment from The Telegraph