ATHENS – Adding to other claims by activists and human rights groups, at least 30 Cubans hoping to find sanctuary in Europe said they were violently pushed out of Greece by police, and that one was nearly drowned and others pushed out of boats into the Evros River and told to swim to the Turkish side.
A report in Al Jazeera piled more pressure on the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis who said repeated reports of pushbacks that would violate international law were fabricated, despite scores of eyewitness reports and video evidence, including from Turkey’s Coast Guard.
The news site reported speaking to two Cubans, one who said he was a doctor from Havana, and among those fleeing that Communist country where they said there was no freedom of expression, which they hoped to find in Europe.
The site said it’s reporting included interviews as well from rights organizations and allegations included stripping refugees naked, beatings, being deprived of food or water, confisciation of passports and other personal belongings and denied requests to seek asylum.
A spokesperson for the Greek Migration Ministry told Al Jazeera that “all people arriving irregularly to Greece can apply for asylum. Asylum seekers should report to the existing reception centres operating at border points to register on arrival to Greek territory, as required by law.”
The ministry said a “small number” of Cubans have arrived in Greece in recent months but said it “strongly denies any allegations that persons entering Greece have been expulse [sic] in any way.”
Al Jazeera also viewed photos and testimonies of the asylum seekers taken by NGOs on the ground to verify those claims, it said, the refugees now left in limbo in Turkey without passports and saying they got no help from Cuba’s Consulate.
The doctor, whose name wasn’t revealed to protect his identity, said he thought Greek police were going to kill him and the group as they were allegedly marched through a forest along Turkey’s border.
He said they were taken there by armed officers wearing balaclavas to hide their faces, and that at least one – who was naked – was beaten and then taken to the Evros River and had his head held under in an apparent drowning attempt by one officer before other police stopped him.
SWIM FOR YOUR LIFE
In a video call from Constantinople, he told the site that the group arrived through a circuitous route that began when they went from Havana to Moscow, to Serbia and then crossed into Greece from North Macedonia.
He said he was among three Cubans taken off a bus traveling from Thessaloniki to Athens bypolice and then to three detention centers and mixed with other Cubans, Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis and had their belongings stolen by police and beaten.
“I told the officers I was a doctor from Cuba and was there to seek political asylum. They just looked at me and laughed,” he said.
In a testimony given to Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN,” he said they were told after being put in the river that, “When you get to the other side (of the river) you are free, and you can walk towards the light and find the closest village.”
The treacherous river has seen many refugees and migrants drown trying to cross from Turkey in rickety craft. Under an essentially-suspended 2016 swqp deal with the European Union, Turkey is supposed to contain some 4.4 million people who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands, primarily Syria and Afghanistan.
Another member of the group, who didn’t want to be named to prevent retaliation against his family in Cuba, said the experience in Greece was “like a nightmare,” and that he left his homeland to find freedom.
“Now, I’m worried about being illegal in a country that I didn’t even choose to go to,” he told Al Jazeera during a Skype interview. “If I leave (Turkey,), which is what they want me to do because I’m not here with (documentation,) I could still be punished for it.”
He said he reported the expulsion to the Cuban Consulate in Turkey but claims he was told “the Greek government don’t deport any Cubans”, adding that Greek officers confiscated his passport and did not return it.
In August 2021, Human Rights Watch reported there was “mounting evidence that the Greek government has in recent months secretly expelled thousands of migrants trying to reach its shores”.
HRW said it “reviewed credible footage and interviewed victims and witnesses” describing scenes where authorities forced “people onto small inflatable rescue rafts and sending them back to Turkish waters.”