Syrian Refugees Vanish in Greece

Human rights activists are pressing the Greek government to explain what happened to about 150 Syrian refugees said to have simply vanished after appearing in a small village of Praggi in the northeastern part of the country, believed to have been sent back into Turkey.

The British newspaper The Guardian reported that the refugees had sneaked into Greece through a frequently-used dangerous alternative route, the fast-flowing Evros River, to get around a wall Greece constructed on the border, and said that soon thereafter Greek police vans showed up.

“Ever since we have lost all trace of them,” said Vasillis Papadopoulos, a lawyer who defends the rights of migrants and refugees. “They just disappeared. Our firm belief is that they were pushed back into Turkey.”

The irony is that the event came just as Greece was readying its role leading the symbolic European Union Presidency and said one of its priorities would be preserving human rights and immigrant rights.

Activists, lawyers, human rights groups, opposition MPs, immigration experts and international officials are becoming increasingly concerned about the heavy-handed tactics Greek authorities use to keep immigrants away, the paper noted.

In a recent report released by Amnesty International, Greece was strongly criticized for its “deplorable treatment” of would-be refugees, especially Syrians desperate to escape their nation’s descent civil war. Enforced deportations – highlighted by an alarming rise of migrant deaths – have spurred the criticism.

Greece has been accused of pushing back boats of would-be immigrants and ignoring others in peril while the government complains that the EU is doing too little to help the country, which is the arrival point of some 90 percent of illegals trying to get into the bloc because of its proximity to North Africa and the Middle East.

Last week, the Chief of the Greek Police suggested that irregular immigrants’ lives should “be made unbearable,” according to a leaked audio recording from a meeting of police officials publicized by the Greek magazine, Hot Doc.

“If (authorities) told me I could go to a country… and would be detained for three months and then would be free to steal and rob, to do whatever you want… that is great,” a man identified as the police chief says on the tape. Describing the police response, he continued: “We aimed for increased periods of detention… we increased it to 18 months… for what purpose? We must make their lives unbearable.”

More than 600,000 Syrians fleeing civil war at home have crossed the border into Turkey. From there, many pay human traffickers hundreds of dollars to bring them to Europe, where they may have family or friends.

The Christian Science Monitor, in a report analyzing the plight of the Syrian refugees, said Greece has been trying to squeeze them out. Greece is the easiest access point. So far, more than 17,000 Syrians have crossed, according to Greek police statistics from 2011 until today. It has also become a gateway for other asylum seekers from Africa and Asia.

But as Greece enters its seventh year of recession, xenophobia is running high, with immigrants being attacked and far-right parties, like Golden Dawn, surging. Syrian refugees say they are often afraid of even walking in the street.

For years, human rights groups have criticized the way Greece has been treating refugees and immigrants, and the leaked recording of the police chief has only added to their disquiet.

“If accurate, the deeply shocking statements attributed today to the Greek chief of police would expose a willful disregard for the rights and welfare of refugees and migrants seeking shelter and opportunity in the European Union,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia told The Monitor.

Greece signed the UN Convention on Refugees in 1956, promising to recognize and protect refugees and asylum seekers. Since last summer, Syrian refugees have been automatically granted a six-month permit that can be renewed. However, conditions for those who make it to Greece can be grim, the report added.

Refugees and irregular immigrants that arrive at the Greek islands are detained for days in overcrowded cells. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work and receive no government assistance. Entire families end up sleeping in parks, even in cold weather. While a few survive on money from wealthier family members living in western Europe or the Gulf, others get help from NGOs.

Until recently, even applying for asylum in Greece was a challenge. Refugees had to wait outside the police department that took applications, beginning to form lines as early as 2 a.m. Only a handful of cases a day were accepted. To help clear the backlog, a new Asylum Center run by the Ministry of Citizen Protection, opened last summer.

Last week, Greece was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for mistreating and illegally deporting a political refugee from Iran and for illegally jailing and mistreating another 13 asylum seekers from various countries that entered from Turkey. The court ordered Greece to pay 8,000 euros ($10,960) to the Iranian deportee and between 5,000 ($6,850) and 10,000 euros ($13,700) to each of the 13 asylum seekers.