BARCELONA — A French woman is accusing Greek authorities of forcing her and other migrants back across 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 woman, who has Turkish as well as French citizenship, claims she and her husband were trying to flee Turkey to escape prison sentences that were politically motivated.
They crossed the Evros River by boat into Greece on the way to France, where the woman was born and raised. But she says Greek officials mistreated her and turned her back; she is now in prison in Turkey. From her cell, the woman, who asked to remain anonymous for her safety, plans to file a lawsuit against Greece on Friday at the European Court of Human Rights.
While so-called “pushbacks” of migrants have become increasingly common despite violating European and international law, experts say the French woman’s story appears to be the first such case brought to court involving a European citizen.
“We have moved from allegations to it being a public secret that pushbacks are engaged in by the Greek authorities on a regular basis,” said Hanne Beirens, Director of Migration Policy Institute Europe. “This would be quite a unique case…Because it would show how indiscriminately the Greek authorities are acting and how it affects people from all backgrounds.”
Under the principle of non-refoulement in European and international human rights law, people cannot be returned to a country where they would face torture, punishment or harm. 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 released a statement Thursday evening after allegations of 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,” said Notis Mitarachi, Greece’s minister of migration and asylum.
The French woman’s story is laid out in court statements from her, her husband and her sister. The AP also drew on interviews with her sister in Paris and one of her lawyers; documents including her French passport, French national ID and French marriage papers; emails, call logs, and screen shots of texts and GPS data the woman shared in real time with a lawyer.
Born to Turkish parents, the woman left France in 2013 to pursue undergraduate studies in Turkey. In April 2018, she and her now-husband were among dozens of students rounded up and accused of belonging to the “Fethullahist Terror Organization” led by a U.S.-based Muslim preacher. The couple deny all accusations.
In June last year, the Supreme Court confirmed her prison sentence of more than six years. The couple sold family jewelry to pay smugglers to get them to Greece, a European Union country in the Schengen area, Europe’s visa-free travel zone.
As the couple crossed Greece’s eastern border on the morning of Oct. 19, 2021, the woman’s family anxiously awaited news from their home outside Paris. They followed her movements on a real-time location tracking app. At 9:38 a.m., the woman sent a text message on WhatsApp: “We have passed.”
Her family contacted both French and Greek authorities, saying the couple needed help.
“They are victims of persecution by the current Turkish government,” read their email, which they followed up with phone calls. “We are VERY VERY worried for them!”
Shortly after, Greek officials stopped the couple, the lawsuit alleges. The couple presented the wife’s French ID, a copy of her French passport and a French family booklet that proved their marriage. The officers asked the pair to kneel. They then took the couple’s telephones, power bank, clothes and food and cut their shoelaces, according to the statement.
The woman says they were taken in the back of a truck to a “closed box” inside a gated area and kept there for hours with other migrants.
Meanwhile, in France, her family was getting increasingly worried. Her sisters scrambled to call and email both Greek and French authorities. One official at the Greek embassy in Paris sent them a text message in French: “Since she has a French passport, there is no problem(…)Calm down. There is no danger in Greece.”
The man at the number they gave, whom they knew only as Mr. Kortesis, 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 were not answered. The woman’s family say they also exchanged several phone calls with the French consulate in Thessaloniki.
After being detained for several hours, the migrants were rounded up onto a truck, taken to the Evros river and made to board an inflatable boat without life vests, the woman says.
“We continued to beg them not to send us back, explaining to them I was French and that we were persecuted in Turkey,” she says in her statement.
She spoke to officials in French and English, to no avail. They were caught by Turkish soldiers on the other side.
“We are totally disappointed with Greek authorities,” her sister told the AP in Paris, asking to remain anonymous to protect her safety. “We didn’t think they would return a persecuted person back to the persecutor.”
“We are equally disappointed with French authorities because we were abandoned,” she said.
The French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs told the AP in a written statement that officials in Paris, Greece and Turkey “had maintained a close relationship with (the woman’s) family from the moment they were alerted to her situation.” They said they are also seeking a consular visit to the woman in prison in Turkey.
Catherine Briddick, a lecturer in International Human Rights and Refugee Law at Oxford University, said the woman’s case “shows the absurdity of Fortress Europe.”
“(It) should give pause to European citizens everywhere to think about what these policies are doing to us, as well as to the people we’re trying to keep out,” she said.