At least 30 Cubans hoping to apply for asylum in Europe were forcibly deported from Greece to Turkey late last year, according to interviews conducted by Al Jazeera and human rights groups.
Al Jazeera interviewed two Cubans who also said police and border guards had used violence against their deportees during their deportation from Greece.
The allegations against Al Jazeera and the human rights group include forced stripping, beatings, detention without food or water, confiscation of passports, money and other personal items, refusal to register asylum claims and forced immersion in water before and during the deportation process.
Al Jazeera also looked at local photos and testimonies of asylum seekers taken by NGOs to verify the claims.
Those deported now say they have no identification or legal compensation in Turkey, although some of them have reported forced deportations to the Cuban consulate and Turkish authorities upon arrival.
‘like a nightmare’
Joel (name changed to protect his identity), a 38-year-old Havana doctor who wants to apply for asylum in Spain, said he feared being killed during his deportation from Greece.
In a video call with Al Jazeera from Istanbul, Joel recounted the two-day ordeal.
In the early hours of October 29 last year, Joel and two other Cubans entered Greece from North Macedonia, a 48-hour journey from Havana to Moscow to Belgrade, then a bus and trekking across Serbia and northern Macedonia.
Later in the day, Joel said, Greek police removed the three from a bus bound for Athens from Thessaloniki.
He recalled that the three, along with other Cubans, Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis, were taken to three different detention centres where their belongings were taken, forced to strip, searched, beaten and detained without food or water.
“I told the police that I was a doctor from Cuba and was seeking political asylum there. They just looked at me and smiled,” he said.
After being detained overnight, the group was driven to forests near the Turkish border.
Joel recalled that they were forced to form a line, led by officers with guns in balaclavas.
“I thought we were taken to be executed,” he said, adding that an officer attacked a naked young man as they reached the Evros River, which marks the border between Greece and Turkey.
Officers then dragged the man to the river, stuck his head in the water, and only pulled him out when other officers called.
The group, eight at a time, were then loaded into boats driven by plainclothes officers, taken halfway along the river, and forced to swim to the rest of Turkey by officers.
In testimony to the Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), Joel said the officer on the boat said: “When you get to the other side [of the river] You are free, you can go to the light and find the nearest village. “
Rainier, another member of the group, who prefers to give only his name because of concerns about his family in Cuba, said the experience “was like a nightmare.”
The 25-year-old worked in the government tax department before leaving Cuba.
Like Joel, he lives with his family and says it is “impossible” to live independently or make political expression in Cuba.
“Right now, I’m worried that it’s illegal in a country I didn’t even choose to go to,” Rainier told Al Jazeera in a Skype interview.
“If I leave [Turkey], which is what they want me to do because I’m not here [documentation], I could still be punished for it. “
Rainier said he reported the deportation to the Cuban consulate in Turkey but claimed he was told “the Greek government will not deport any Cuban”, adding that Greek officials confiscated his passport and did not return it.
August 2021, Human Rights Watch report There is “growing evidence that the Greek government has secretly deported thousands of migrants trying to reach its shores in recent months”.
Human Rights Watch said it “reviewed credible footage and interviewed victims and witnesses,” describing authorities forcing “people to ride in small inflatable life rafts and return them to Turkish waters.”
However, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis denied the allegations, telling CNN: “It didn’t happen. We have been victims of a major misinformation campaign.”
‘Ridiculous’ border practices
The Cubans’ accusations are one of many reports of a “violent campaign” by Greece to boycott and deport asylum seekers along its land and sea borders.
Natalie Gruber, a spokeswoman for members of Josoor and BVMN, a group supporting survivors of the Turkish boycott, said these latest so-called expulsions demonstrated the “ridiculous” nature of current border practices.
“We can’t talk about resistance anymore when one country is systematically letting people disappear into another country they’ve never been in before,” Gruber said.
“This practice is a serious violation of multiple laws, including arbitrary detention, violation of the principle of violence against refoulement and constitutes torture… [and yet] Has become the backbone of the European border system. “
Joel and Rainier knew of “at least 30” Cubans in a similar situation in Turkey. Testimonies from the seven Cubans taken by Josoor also showed that a similar number of Cubans in Turkey said they were expelled by Greece.
These practices are exacerbated by the challenges of obtaining asylum in Greece, explains Corinne Linnecar, advocacy manager for the Mobile Info Team, a Greek refugee support group.
“Most people in mainland Greece, Crete and Rhodes are currently unable to obtain asylum,” Linekal said.
“This forces people to remain undocumented and destitute and puts them at greater risk of being illegally and forcibly deported to Turkey by the Greek authorities.”
Linnecar added that while asylum seekers who did not arrive via island hotspots could previously register through the government-run Skype system, it was suspended in late November last year without clear information on an alternative system.
“Currently the only reception and identification centre on mainland Greece is a closed location in the Evros region with a mandatory 25-day detention period.”
A spokesman for Greece’s immigration ministry told Al Jazeera that “all people who arrive in Greece irregularly can apply for asylum”.
“Asylum seekers are required by law to report to existing reception centres at border crossings for registration upon arrival in Greek territory,” the spokesman added.
The ministry said a “small number” of Cubans had arrived in Greece in recent months, but said it “strongly denies any allegations that those who entered Greece were deported” [sic] in any way”.
“No freedom of speech”
Despite the circumstances, Joel and Rainier said they would not return to Cuba, citing economic instability and the political environment as reasons for their departure.
“It’s impossible to find affordable rent to be independent,” Rainier said. “Without freedom of speech…I can’t speak out publicly…I don’t think I really can take it anymore.”
Joel said he expected to be punished if he returned to Cuba.
Cuba is reportedly facing its worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a challenge compounded by the pandemic and U.S. sanctions.
The public outcry turned into a rare protest in July after the economy shrank by nearly 11% in 2020 and imports of food, medicines and consumer goods fell sharply.
These were followed by a government crackdown, in which at least one person was killed and more than 1,150 arrested.
Charlie Martel, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law, cited government “repression” and “friction” as reasons for Cubans to seek asylum in Europe and the United States.
Martel added that the Trump-era “remain in Mexico” policy (which U.S. President Joe Biden was forced to reinstate by a court order), as well as the impact of the pandemic-related Article 42 policy, has gained ground in Mexico. shelter. America is increasingly dangerous and xenophobic.
“Because of that, you’re going to see more asylum seekers who have the resources to go to different places or enter the U.S. in different ways,” he said.
“These desperate people will continue to seek refuge by any means possible.”
For Rainier, he’s just looking for a “better life.”
“When you’re trying to do things like this, get out of your country and look for a better life, sometimes you think they can catch us. But you never think that’s going to happen.”