Rory O'Keeffe, Koraki
Greek government: the world’s largest people-trafficking operation?
To put it simply, it is increasingly difficult not to conclude that Nea Dimokratia, the Greek government, is Europe’s biggest people trafficker. It may well also be using blackmail to force people into slavery.
A joint investigation by the Guardian (UK), Le Monde (France), Der Spiegel and ARD Report München (both Germany) and Lighthouse Reports, has confirmed that the Greek police force – and by clear implication therefore the Greek government – is forcing people to become slaves and traffick people into Türkiye.
Six men from Syria and Morocco have – quite bravely, in fairness – responded to a call on Facebook from the Consolidated Rescue Group to speak out, and told the organisation and four news services that they were forcibly recruited or lured to Greece by a Syrian living in the container of a yard owned by the Greek police force, then used as ‘boatmen’ to forcibly carry other new arrivals back to Türkiye, from which they had fled.
The men described how they participated in pushback operations on the Evros river under duress, in return for a police note permitting them a month’s stay in Greece. Two described themselves as slaves, and most said they were threatened not only with being sent back to Turkey, from which they had fled, but also that they would ‘vanish’ on their return.
They also said they witnessed Greek police strip, rob and assault asylum seekers before they were forced into overcrowded inflatable boats that they (the men) were ordered to transport back across the Evros to Türkiye.
Of course, we and many others have reported regularly on the beating, robbing, abuse and pushback of new arrivals by the Greek police and Coastguard, and Human Rights Watch, among others, has reported that the Greek government is ‘recruiting’ people to act as traffickers on the Evros border.
But this is the first time that several people have come forward to describe in detail the process by which this crime is being committed by the Greek government, and done so to highly-regarded news sources in the UK, Germany and France.
The newspapers also managed to speak to members of the Greek police force, who remained anonymous for obvious reasons, and said that using these people was mainly to avoid ‘conflict’ between Greek police and Turkish border agents on the Turkish side of the river.
The Guardian reports that people who live close to the Tychero and Neo Cheimonio police stations spoke openly about masked men, all ‘foreigners’ who were used by police to act as traffickers, carrying out pushbacks for the Greek government.
One man, a Syrian who the news sources have named ‘Bassel’, said:
‘I spent three months in a police cell at Tychero, near the Greece-Turkey border, pushing people back.
‘I crossed the Evros into Greece, hoping to claim asylum. Greek police beat us with batons and drove us to Tychero police station. There ordered us to strip and crammed us into overcrowded cells.
‘They heard me speak English and pulled me out. They said they would charge me with human smuggling, or work for them. In return for a permit to remain in Greece for one month, I was locked up during the day and released at night to push back other asylum seekers.
‘They said the ‘work’ would be unpaid but I could take my pick of what the people had.’
Two other people told the same story of recruitment and that they and the people they were forced to traffick were beaten if anything went wrong.
Three Syrians held at Neo Cheimonio explained that they had paid up to €5,000 to an Istanbul middleman to cross into Greece via a smuggler, who said there would be a Syrian waiting for them with Greek police.
Only when they arrived were they told they must row people back to Turkey in exchange for being allowed to stay in Greece.
One of them, ‘Farhad’ said:
‘We were regularly threatened by a Syrian calling himself Mike, who worked at Neo Cheimonio, assisting police in illegal pushbacks and recruiting and coordinating asylum seekers.
‘I initially refused to participate but was told by Mike I would lose my money, be forced back to Turkey and would ‘vanish’ when I arrived there.
‘Mike lived in the police station grounds, and would search people who were being pushed back. He particularly wanted gold jewellery, and he got violent if people did not hand over valuables.’
‘Farhad’ described ‘Mike’ as well-built and with a tattoo of a Spartan helmet. Local residents and a shop owner identified him, and said they had seen him with police. The investigation has also seen photographs of him at the station.
Bassel was released and has now left Greece, but is traumatised by his time kept in a cell and brought out, masked, to row groups of desperate, often half-naked asylum seekers back to Turkey.
‘I call this stage the stage of slavery.’
In some ways, we feel this story should end on that quote: this man, and many others, were used as slaves to carryout illegal and despicable acts against others like them, who made the same journey they made, and for the same reasons.
They were forced to do so in order to save the Greek police the inconvenience of having to confront Turkish border guards who might have stopped their trafficking.
‘The stage of slavery.’
But we would be lax if we did not also point out that – even in the face of absolutely irrefutable evidence, the Greek government has both claimed not to carry out pushbacks and to have done so, claiming it is its right.
And in the course of its denials of carrying them out, it has consistently blamed the Turkish government, and accused NGOs, not just of not doing enough to stop ‘smugglers’ but of actively carrying out ‘trafficking’ and assisting ‘traffickers’.
Now. As we have pointed out many, many times, the people who sell places on boats to Greece are not traffickers. They are in fact not really even smugglers, but they are certainly not traffickers, because the people on board those boats do want to make the journey they are making. Trafficking involves forcing or tricking people into making journeys they do not, in fact, want to make.
And the point is, based on this report, that is precisely what the Greek government has done: used violence and the threats of violence to force people to make a journey – to Turkey – that they do not want to make.
This would mean that Nea Dimokratia, the Greek government is a people-trafficking operation, and more than that, is blackmailing and threatening other people to join its despicable and illegal activity. It is increasingly difficult not to conclude that this is precisely the case: that the Greek government is Europe’s largest people trafficking operation.