BARCELONA, Spain — A French woman on Friday accused Greek authorities of forcing her and other migrants to cross the border into Turkey, violating her rights both as a person fleeing persecution and as a European citizen.
In court documents seen by The Associated Press, the 32-year-old, who has Turkish and French citizenship, claims she and her husband were trying to flee Turkey to escape politically motivated prison sentences.
As so-called ‘pushbacks’ of migrants have become increasingly common despite breaching EU and international law, experts say the French woman’s story appears to be the first such case to come to court involving a European citizen.
“We have gone from allegations to a public secret in which the Greek authorities regularly engage in pushbacks,” said Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. “It would be quite a unique case… Because it would show how indiscriminate the Greek authorities are acting and how it affects people from all walks of life.
Greek authorities did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent by the AP to the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, the Ministry of Citizen Protection and the Greek Embassy in Paris. However, Greece issued a statement on Thursday evening after a joint media investigation alleged a separate pushback involving two asylum seekers later found dead on the Aegean coast.
“Greece protects the external borders of the European Union, in full compliance with international law and in full respect of the Charter of Fundamental Rights,” Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachi said.
At least 21 migrants have died at the land border between Turkey and Greece since the start of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project.
The UN agency issued a statement on Friday saying it was “alarmed by the increase in migrant deaths and continued reports of pushbacks at the European Union (EU) border between Greece and Turkey.” .
“Such actions do not comply with and run counter to States’ commitments and obligations under international and regional law, such as breaching the principle of non-refoulement,” the IOM statement said.
The French woman’s story is told in court statements from her, her husband and her sister, including illustrations she made from prison. The AP also relied on interviews in Paris with the sister and one of the woman’s lawyers; documents including his French passport, his French national identity card and his French marriage papers; emails, call logs and screenshots of texts and GPS data that the woman shared in real time with a lawyer.
Born in France to Turkish parents, the woman left France in 2013 to pursue undergraduate studies in Turkey. In April 2018, she and her husband were among dozens of students arrested and charged with membership in the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization” or FETO. The couple deny all charges.
At the time, Turkey launched a massive crackdown on supporters of US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, after a failed military coup in 2016. The government designated the network a terrorist organization and condemned nearly 5,000 people to jail terms, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
The Frenchwoman was detained for 11 days but released on parole. A few months later, she was sentenced to more than six years in prison, which she appealed. In June last year, her prison sentence and that of her husband were upheld by the Supreme Court. They eventually decided to flee, selling the family’s jewelry to pay smugglers to Greece.
The woman’s family were confident that once she set foot in Greece, a country in the European Union and part of the Schengen area, Europe’s visa-free travel zone, she would be safe . As the couple crossed the eastern border of Greece on the morning of October 19, 2021, their family anxiously awaited news from their home 90 km from Paris. They tracked the woman’s movements on a real-time tracking app.
At 9:38 a.m., the woman sent an SMS on What’sApp: “We passed”.
His family then contacted French and Greek authorities, saying the couple needed help.
“They are being persecuted by the current Turkish government,” reads their email, which they followed up with phone calls. “We are VERY VERY worried about them!
Shortly after, Greek officials arrested the couple, according to the lawsuit. After presenting his French identity card, a copy of his French passport and the French family record book proving their marriage, the officers asked them to kneel. They then took the couple’s phones, power bank, clothes and food and cut their shoelaces, the statement said.
The woman says they were taken in the back of a truck to a ‘closed box’ inside a closed area and kept there for hours with other migrants, some from Afghanistan who were barefoot. She says the policemen slapped one of them.
Meanwhile, in France, her family had lost contact with her and became increasingly worried. Her sisters were quick to call and email the Greek and French authorities.
After expressing concern about their sister’s return to Turkey, an official from the Greek embassy in Paris texted in French: “Since she has a French passport, there is no problem (…) Calm down. There is no danger in Greece.
The man confirmed to the AP that he had been in contact with the woman’s family but said he was not authorized to speak to the press. Requests for comment to the Greek Embassy in Paris went unanswered. The woman’s family said they also exchanged several phone calls with the French consulate in Thessaloniki and sent an email with the woman’s last known whereabouts and a copy of her passport.
After being detained for several hours, the migrants were herded into a truck and taken to the Evros River, the woman said. They were forced to board a dinghy without a life jacket.
“We continued to beg them not to send us back, explaining to them that I was French and that we were persecuted in Turkey,” she said in her statement.
She spoke to officials in French and English, to no avail. They were caught by Turkish soldiers on the other side and taken to the police station, she said. The next day they were in jail.
“We are totally disappointed with the Greek authorities,” his sister told the AP in Paris, asking to remain anonymous to protect her safety. “We didn’t think they would return a persecuted person to the persecutor.”
“We are also disappointed with the French authorities because we have been abandoned,” she said.
Since then, she said, her family has written countless letters to French and European Union lawmakers and officials, and even to French President Emmanuel Macron, asking for help. The French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs told the AP in a written statement that officials in Paris, Greece and Turkey “have maintained a close relationship with the (woman’s) family from the time the they were alerted to his situation.”
They said they were also seeking a consular visit to the imprisoned woman in Turkey. There, she told her sister, she was stripped naked three times for searches. In the first prison she was taken to, she said, she shared a cell with mice.
Catherine Briddick, senior lecturer in international human rights and refugee law at the University of Oxford, said the woman’s case “shows the absurdity of Fortress Europe”.
“(This) should give European citizens around the world pause to reflect on what these policies are doing to us and the people we are trying to keep out,” she said.
Omer Shatz, a lawyer representing the Frenchwoman alongside Violeta Moreno-Lax and Francesco Gatta, says their client has been the victim of growing racial discrimination at Europe’s borders.
“She really begged them, showed them her (French) IDs and travel documents, but was ignored,” said Shatz, legal director of Front-Lex, which challenges EU migration policies. . “Why? Because she looks. Probably Muslim, probably looking like a refugee, probably not white.
Migration has been placed at the center of the French presidential campaign, with Macron and his right-wing and far-right opponents taking increasingly tough stances against irregular crossings. European countries have spent billions on surveillance technology at their borders, despite growing accusations of human rights abuses.
A spokesperson for the European Commission said it was not commenting on ongoing legal proceedings but was “concerned by any reports of pushbacks and ill-treatment… Effective border management must be firmly anchored in respect for human dignity and the principle of non-refoulement. The Frenchwoman’s family says they received a similar response to a letter they sent to the commission.
“The EU, unfortunately, has declared Greece to be the shield of Europe…this frees the Greek authorities from many constraints,” said François Crépeau, a professor at McGill University in Canada and a former special rapporteur for the United Nations on the Human Rights of Migrants. While in public many European officials will condemn the pushbacks as illegal, he said, “in fact, they’re quite happy that Greece is doing the dirty work for everybody.”
AP journalists Theodora Tongas in Athens, Greece and Elaine Ganley in Paris, contributed to this report.
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