Interview with Hope Barker from the Border Violence Monitoring Network: Northern Greece

Hope Barker is part of a community centre in Thessaloniki, providing food, clothing, hygiene items, among others. They’re participating in the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), which has been documenting violent border practices all over the Balkan in the past couple of years. The BVMN regularly publishes reports on their website as well as the Black Book of Pushbacks. The interview was taken in October 2021 in Thessaloniki.

How do you work as a part of BVMN?

Normally there are three people there every day, Monday to Friday in our community centre in Thessaloniki: Two Reporters and one translator. They work at the same time as the doctors team, so anybody who presents with injuries that are consistent with police violence are directly referred to the BVMN-team after their doctors treatment and then if they consent their testimony will be taken.

This follows a semi-structures format, where there are certain information that we have to get but the idea is to blend hard data, like geolocations, vehicle descriptions, medical reports about injuries, times and dates with a longer qualitative narrative report. This gives people the space to tell their own narrative of the story.

So injuries would be a signifier that a pushback had taken place?

Not always. It’s a 20-25 day walk from the Evros border. So, if people have been pushed back they have already waited in Turkey, regained their strengths, often gone back to Istanbul to make more money and then they’ve crossed back. So, by the time they get to us, it could have been more than a month, two months since they have been pushed back.

Mostly we try, if we hear about pushbacks, to directly refer them to Josoor in Turkey because obviously the quality is higher the sooner you take the testimony after the event. In person testimonies are better than us doing it over the phone.

The Evros pushbacks follow the same pattern since 2020. 90 per cent of the time they are arrested, detained and then they are put into the Evros border zone where there are all these black sites, military complexes, unmarked police stations, abandoned buildings that are used as detention spaces.

It is very different to Croatia, because there the pattern generally is: They pick up a group and push them back directly. In Evros they collect people until it’s a 100 or more. Many of them are in these detention places for 24 – 48 hours whilst more groups are being brought. In these detention centers, these incommunicado detention sites, is where the violence is normally being enacted. Officers dressed in black, wearing balaclavas would come in and there is a range of violent tactics that are being used. Reported there has been electric discharge weapons, shaving of heads, forced undressing, prolonged beating, one guy said he was tortured with electric discharge weapons and water immersion for six hours.

From there they are transferred to the river site where often more violence occurs, like beating them, putting their heads down to make them stay quiet and then they’re put into the boats. There is another change: it used to be Greek officials who were driving the boats, now its members of the pushed back group itself. So, they get people of the group to drive the rubber dinghy’s back to the Turkish site. This is a clever semantic trick by the Greek state, because now they can say “we are not driving people in dinghies over the Evros river”, while of course it is the authorities which are facilitating pushbacks. Another new thing is they don’t even go to the Turkish site, they just dump them on these islands on the middle of the river, these tiny islands where there is no food, not water, no shelter, up to 60 people on a tiny plot of land. Their choice is trying to swim back to Greece or to swim back to Turkey. A lot of them drown, as has happened recently with 12 people dead after being stripped, abandoned on an island and forced to swim back.

That started happening towards the end of last year (in 2020 editors note).

So, there is a pattern there?

Yes, that is completely systematic and the geographical reach is huge. I mean before 2020 nobody was pushed back from Thessaloniki ever, this was a safe space. As soon as the Covid lockdown happened they were rounding up people and pushing them back. For example, from the Diavata camp: They were going in, taking people and pushing them back. They took 40 people from our food distribution who were lining up for food and the next day they were in Turkey.

Local distribution spot in Thessaloniki, Northern Greece. The train carriages were used as accomodation, before frequent police raids kept people away (Hope Barker)

Does it make a difference if you’re registered?

It does not matter. Even if they have papers, they will take them.

So, there is a massive scale of forced disappearance and abductions from cities, from camps?

Yes, this is from 2020 onwards. It was really shocking. We definitely were not expecting this to happen so fast. I think Covid gave them the cover to do whatever they wanted and everyone was looking at the opposite direction.

It is striking that visibility offers no protection anymore so that even people who have been seen by everyone are still being pushed back.

Yes, it does not matter. Nothing gives protection anymore! Not even documents.

Who are the perpetrators in pushbacks normally, the Greek police and?

Yes, but there is also multiple testimonies which refer to German speaking officers, and even testimonies which speak about people with a light blue armband with the European flag on it.

At which stage of the pushbacks?

At the detention sites normally, in the border zone. We know that this is FRONTEX’ operational area. I don’t have the evidence and proof to come out and say FRONTEX are doing pushbacks in Evros, but they obviously know. There are German speaking officers, vehicles with German license plates. So, they are at the very least complicit through not stopping these human rights violations in a Frontex operational area, which is a breach of their code of conduct.

Do you have estimates about the number of victims of pushbacks this year?

I have here the stats of BVMN, this is what we’ve recorded and only the tip of the iceberg. We’re getting less testimonies at the moment, because many people might be going with smugglers, which is the only viable option left for many. In 2020 there were 87 from Greece to Turkey, which related to 4683 people, and since the beginning of 2021 we’ve taken 54 testimonies, which is an estimated 4007 people and this is just what we’ve taken.

It is happening to nearly everybody. When we get new arrivals coming, I normally ask them how many times they’ve tried to cross and its normally like 3-4 times. I don’t think anybody really makes it on the first time.

I was told by someone in Samos that they have problems collecting the evidence because people might have been pushed back up to ten times.

Yes, and then they confuse the stories, I know. This is one of the difficulties. Also, you have to tell people: This is not gonna help you in any way, this is not gonna help your individual case at all. It might help us advocate for things to change in the future, maybe, but it is not looking promising. If you think the amount of money and effort it takes to take one case to the European Courts of Human Rights or the European Court of Justice, and for one there is, I don’t know, 5000 others…

So, you have to build every case on an individual story?

Yes exactly. I mean there is this group which recently tried to file against Greece at the International Criminal Court for committing crimes against humanity, but I don’t think this will go anywhere.

The government is kind of denying and at the same time admitting to pushbacks as far as I understand?

Yeah, they switch between. Sometimes they’re like: It’s not happening, sometimes they’re like: yeah and?

But the thing is also that it is really bad when people take an advocacy line of “Greece is so awful. “EU come and safe us” – absolutely not! Greece is obviously playing its role in the system, but it’s coming from the EU. If you look at BVMN statistics both Croatia and Greece are the most violent pushback perpetrators with up to 90 per cent of case containing one or multiple forms of torture. Greece is at the edge of the EU and Croatia is at the border of the Schengen-Zone. So, if you look at this and the statistics it is obvious where the pressure is coming from.

Does the joint ministerial decision about Turkey change things?

I think yes, because basically what happens is that in admissibility procedures people’s asylum claims are already rejected and then they’re basically left in this state of protracted legal uncertainty, because they say you can’t ask for asylum here, therefore you can’t get documents. Obviously, it’s kind of arbitrary who gets pushed back, but if you’re undocumented it is much more likely. You’re also more likely to be detained in a pre-removal detention center, like the one in Paranesti or Drama.

They made the international protection act in 2019, a big legislative paper in Greece. That is when they started to use these pre-removal detention centers. If you’re undocumented and you’re picked up and you ask for asylum you will then be taken to one of these centers where legally you can be held for 18 months, whilst they process your case. If you’re then rejected you can be held for a further 18 months, waiting for removal. So just to ask for asylum, be rejected and wait for removal, you can be detained for 3 years, legally. The turn of the Greek state is towards mass incarceration, containment and control.

On top of this you have obviously all the camps turning into closed camps.

Like on the new camp on Samos?

Yeah. This is totally absurd, because in EU terminology it is called a “multi-purpose identification and reception center” and in Greek it’s a “closed controlled structure”. It is the same building, and they call it completely different.

New generation Hotspot camps: The „Closed Controlled Access Centre“ on Samos (CC BY-NC 2.0)

At times it seems to me that there is this very systematic practice of the government and other times it seems completely random.

This is the thing. In the past, there was really a line that we could follow. We knew what was happening, whereas now it is so random. I believe that is a tactic. In the past I could say to people: Look, if you do this, this will happen. If you do this, this will happen. Now, I just can’t give any advice. I can say: This is the law, but I would also have to say that this is probably not followed.

Deterrence full on. Block people out and when they’re here make it as uncomfortable as possible.

Yes, exactly. It is very disheartening.

What keeps you going?

I think you can’t unknown and then you can’t not do anything about it. I can do direct aid, but with the BVMN I get to do policy analysis and advocacy. Having both is really good.

Still, especially at the moment, it is very depressing. Everything, the deaths, the missing cases get worse in the winter.

What would make a difference? More people monitoring?

There needs to be truly independent border monitoring mechanism which is independently funded. In the new pact on Migration which came out last October, they spoke about this independent border monitoring mechanism, but they did not go into details. Now they’ve already tried it in Croatia and basically it was a complete mess. Croatia’s ministry of interior picks who gets the monitoring deals, so they choose who monitors them.

There is a new proposal which is now happening in Croatia – and Greece will be the second testing ground: There will be a limited number of visits per year and only to official border crossing sites. If they want to go to informal “green zones” they have to give five days notice of the exact time of their monitoring trip, so there will be no independent monitoring.

There needs to be an alarm system that people can trigger if their rights are in danger of being violated. If this would be allowed to happen and not criminalized, that is what’s needed.

Those who are doing the work on pushbacks and solidarity are criminalized if they go to border zones and are subject to insane lawsuits and media smear campaigns and painted as people smugglers and things that can hold very lengthy detention sentences.

What do they charge people with?

Espionage, human smuggling, trafficking, facilitating illegal entry, facilitating illegal stay. You have to be very careful.

The BVMN has already published two extensive Black Books of Pushbacks. Are you going to continue with these reports?

We already have enough Material to be working on a another one and we seek to honour our pledge to publish a new one every year until pushbacks end.

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