Syrian Child Reported Dead as Asylum Seekers Left Stranded in Greece-Turkey Border Area

Tanupriya Singh
Refugees on Greece-Turkey borderPhoto shared of the group of Syrian asylum seekers stranded on Greek soil on July 25. (Photo: @g_christides/Twitter)

A 5-year-old Syrian girl has reportedly died as a group of 39 asylum seekers remained stranded on an islet on the Evros River this week. Some members of the group have been stranded for weeks after being pushed back and forth by the Turkish and Greek authorities

A five-year old Syrian girl reportedly died on Tuesday, August 9, as a group of 39 asylum seekers remained stranded on a Greek islet on the Evros River this week. The child died early on Tuesday after she was bitten by a scorpion. Another nine-year old child was reportedly in a critical condition and in need of urgent medical care. The islet was located on Greek territory near the border with Turkey in a highly militarized and restricted area.

On July 19, Human Rights 360 was first alerted to the presence of a large transit group of predominantly Syrian people who had been stranded on an islet in the middle of the Evros since July 14.

Members of the group stated that after they entered the Greek mainland, they were apprehended, forced to undress, and then pushed back into the islet by the authorities. The transit group reported that two people had died during the process as they were unable to swim.

The practice of pushbacks of asylum seekers is illegal, and thereby prohibited under international law.

On July 20, Human Rights 360 and the Greek Council for Refugees approached the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to seek interim relief. The court ruled in favor of the two organizations and ordered Greece to provide the asylum seekers on the islet with food, water and adequate medical care, and to ensure that they were not removed from Greek territory.

According to a report by the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) on July 27, despite relevant authorities being made aware of the court’s order, the asylum seekers were left on the islet for almost a week more without any assistance. Officials claimed that they could not locate the group, even as local citizens and journalists reported hearing screams for help on July 25.

The next day, the transit group reported that they had been pushed back to Turkey, in direct violation of the ECtHR order, despite evidence that they were on Greek territory and had expressed their intention to seek international protection.

On August 9, over three weeks after the first group was identified, it was reported that a transit group was stranded on the same islet. Its members included several people from the first group. A BVMN update stated that the group had been pushed back and forth by Turkish and Greek authorities to different locations on the Evros before being left stranded on the islet for days.

According to testimonies shared by Alarm Phone, the group reported being subjected to beatings by Greek authorities before being held in military barracks by Turkish officials, and then being returned to the Evros border.

On August 8, a member of the transit group reported that they were transferred to a second islet, where there were 40 people including children and pregnant women. The 70 people were dispersed into groups. On August 9, rights groups filed an updated application for interim relief to the ECtHR.

As of Wednesday, Greek authorities continued to claim that the group could not be located. Meanwhile, a journalist also confirmed that screams of the people stranded could be heard in the area. The same day, the ECtHR issued a second order mandating that the asylum seekers be provided food, water and medical care, and that they must not be removed from Greek territory.

On August 11, it was reported that the Greek police had approached Turkey to assist the asylum seekers, claiming that the coordinates it had received for the location of the islet lay outside of Greek sovereignty. However, the Greek Council for Refugees contested this claim on August 12, stating that the islet was on Greek soil according to Google Maps.

For years now, Greece has been accused of carrying out violent pushbacks of asylum seekers. In May, Greece’s Civil Protection Minister Takis Theodorikakos stated that the country had stopped 40,000 undocumented migrants from entering its territory via the Evros border in the first four months of 2022.

A classified report submitted by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) in February, a copy of which was accessed by organizations including Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel and Le Monde, has also revealed that the European Union’s border agency Frontex has been actively complicit in illegal push backs. The report found that not only was Frontex aware of the human rights violations being committed by Greece, it helped cover them up.

Under the leadership of its former head Fabrice Leggeri, the agency lied to the European Parliament and hid the fact that Frontex had provided support for pushbacks using European taxpayers’ money in at least six instances.

Meanwhile, the Greek police have reportedly also coerced third country nationals, who are themselves asylum seekers, into acting as proxies in pushback operations.

“As pushbacks in the Evros region become more systematized, violent, and life-threatening, access to asylum on the [Greek] mainland has become virtually impossible,” stated a report released by BVMN in July. In November 2021, Greece instituted major changes in the asylum process for people on mainland Greece, Crete and Rhodes. The existing Skype pre-registration system was terminated and all new arrivals were required to file their applications for international protection through reception and identification procedures.

The policy changes were enforced with only a single Reception and Identification Center in Fylakio, which has capacity for only 282 people. The center itself is located only 20 kilometers from the Evros border. BVMN took testimonies from people who were illegally pushed back from Fylakio as a direct result of requesting access to the asylum process.

People who are not recognized as having one of the 10 “vulnerabilities” under Greek asylum law are left with the sole option of registering their asylum claims via a police note – a document giving an individual upto 25 days to leave the country voluntarily.

People seeking international protection therefore need to present themselves to the authorities to obtain a police note, which they can then register at a Regional Asylum Office (RAOs). However, in practice, BVMN has found that police notes are issued inconsistently, and “people live in well-founded fear of Greek authorities due to pushbacks, detention and police violence.”

RAOs also function differently across the country, resulting in a majority of requests going unanswered. Other issues including discrepancies amongst actors and lack of up-to-date information also lead to substantive delays in access to international protection.

“As a result, the majority of people seeking international protection on mainland Greece are left undocumented, without access to basic food, accommodation or medical care. This leads to a high prevalence of homelessness, destitution, exploitation including sexual and gender-based violence, ill-health, and poor living conditions,” BVMN has stated.