At least 30 Cubans hoping to claim asylum in Europe were forcibly expelled from Greece to Turkey by the end of last year, according to interviews conducted by Al Jazeera and rights organizations.
Al Jazeera spoke to two Cubans who also said that during their expulsion from Greece, police officers and border guards subjected those who expelled them to violence.
Allegations made to Al Jazeera and rights organizations include accounts of forced eviction, beatings, detention without food or water, confiscation of passports, money and other personal belongings, refusal to register asylum claims, and forced immersion in water before and during the eviction process.
Al Jazeera also viewed photos and testimonies of the asylum seekers taken by NGOs on the ground to verify those claims.
Those now suspended say they were left in limbo in Turkey without identification or access to legal repairs, despite some of them reporting the forced eviction after their arrival at the Cuban consulate and Turkish authorities.
‘Like a nightmare’
Joel (name changed to protect identity), 38, a Havana doctor who wants to claim asylum in Spain, says he feared being killed during his expulsion from Greece.
In a video call with Al Jazeera from Istanbul, Joel spoke about the two-day ordeal.
In the early morning hours of October 29 last year, Joel and two other Cubans from northern Macedonia crossed Greece on a 48-hour journey that took them from Havana to Moscow, then to Belgrade, then by bus and on foot across Serbia. and North. Macedonia.
Later that day, Joel says that all three were removed by the Greek police from a bus from Thessaloniki to Athens.
He recalls being taken to three different detention centers where the three, as well as other Cubans, Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis, took their belongings, and were forced to pull out, search, be beaten and detained without food or water.
“I told the officials I was a doctor from Cuba and was there to seek political asylum. “They just looked at me and laughed,” he said.
After spending the night in detention, the whole group drove to the forest near the Turkish border.
Joel says they were forced to walk in a row, led by gun-carrying officers wearing balaclavas.
“I thought we were being taken to be killed,” he said, adding that when they arrived at the Evros River – which marks the border between Greece and Turkey – an officer found a young man who had been brought there completely naked. , hit.
The officer then dragged the man to the river and pushed his head under water and only pulled it out when other officers called out.
The group, eight people at a time, were then loaded onto boats manned by civilian officers, taken halfway across the river before being allowed to swim by the officers the rest of the way to Turkey.
In a testimony given to Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), Joel said officers in the boat said: “When you get to the other side [of the river] you are free, and you can walk to the light and find the nearest town. ”
Vas in limbo
Another member of the group, Reniel, who chose to give only his first name due to fears for his family in Cuba, said the experience was “like a nightmare”.
The 25-year-old worked in the state tax department before leaving Cuba.
Like Joel, he lived with his family and said it was “impossible” to lead an independent life or to exercise political expression in Cuba.
“Now I’m worried that I’m illegal in a country I did not even choose to go to,” Reniel told Al Jazeera during a Skype interview.
“When I leave [Turkey], which is what they want me to do because I’m not here [documentation], I can still be punished for that. ”
Reniel said he had reported the eviction to the Cuban consulate in Turkey, but claimed that he had been informed that “the Greek government is not deporting any Cubans”, adding that Greek officials had confiscated his passport and did not return it.
In August 2021, Human Rights Watch reported that there was “increasing evidence that the Greek government has been secretly expelling thousands of migrants trying to reach its coast in recent months.”
HRW said it had “reviewed credible footage and interviewed victims and witnesses” describing scenes where authorities “forced people on small inflatable life rafts and sent them back to Turkish waters”.
However, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis denied the allegations and said in an interview with CNN: “This did not happen. We were the victims of a significant misinformation campaign. “
‘Absurd’ border practices
The Cubans’ allegations are among numerous reports of a “violent campaign” of repulsion and expulsion of asylum seekers by Greece, across both its land and sea borders.
Natalie Gruber, spokeswoman for Josoor, an organization that supports survivors of setbacks in Turkey, and BVMN member, said these latest alleged evictions demonstrate the “absurd” nature of current border practices.
“We can no longer talk about setbacks when a state systematically disappears people into another country in which they have never set foot,” Gruber said.
“This practice involves serious violations of numerous laws, including arbitrary detention, violations of the principle of non-depositional violence amounting to torture.” [and yet] has become a pillar of the European border regime. “
Joel and Reniel know of “at least 30” Cubans in a similar situation in Turkey. Testimonies from seven Cubans taken by Josoor also revealed a similar number of Cubans in Turkey who say they were expelled by Greece.
Corinne Linnecar, advocacy manager at Mobile Info Team, a refugee support organization in Greece, explained that these practices are exacerbated by challenges in gaining access to asylum in Greece.
“There is currently no access to asylum for the majority of people on the continents of Greece, Crete and Rhodes,” Linnecar said.
“It forces people to remain undocumented and needy and leaves them at greater risk of being illegally and forcibly expelled from Turkey by the Greek authorities.”
Linnecar added that although asylum seekers who did not show up via the island hotspots could previously register themselves through a government-run Skype system, it was suspended at the end of November last year with no clear information on a replacement system.
“The only reception and identification center currently on the mainland of Greece is a closed premises in the Evros region with a mandatory 25-day detention period.”
A spokesman for the Greek Ministry of Migration told Al Jazeera that “all people who arrive in Greece irregularly can apply for asylum”.
“Asylum seekers must report to existing reception centers operating at border crossings to register on arrival in Greek territory, as required by law,” the spokesperson added.
The ministry said a “small number” of Cubans had arrived in Greece in recent months, but said it “strongly denies any allegations that persons entering Greece have been suspended. [sic] in any way “.
‘No freedom of expression’
Despite their situation, Joel and Reniel said they would not return to Cuba, citing economic instability and the political environment as reasons for leaving.
“It is impossible to get affordable rent to become independent,” Reniel said. “There’s no freedom of expression … I could not speak in public … I felt I could not really stand it anymore.”
Joel said he expected to be punished if he returned to Cuba.
Cuba is apparently facing its worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the pandemic and US sanctions exacerbating challenges.
After the economy shrank by nearly 11 percent in 2020, and imports of food, medicine and consumer goods declined, public unrest spilled over into rare protests in July.
They were met with a subsequent government repression, 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 Carey School of Law, cited the government’s “oppression” and “friction” as reasons for Cubans seeking asylum in Europe and the United States.
Martel added that the Trump-era “Stay in Mexico” policy, which U.S. President Joe Biden was forced to reinstate by a court order, coupled with the consequences of a pandemic-related policy known as Title 42, access to asylum in the US increasingly dangerous and exclusive.
“That’s why you’re seeing more asylum seekers, who have resources, turn to going to different places, or coming to the US in different ways,” he said.
“These desperate people are going to continue to seek refuge in any way they can.”
For Reniel, he was just looking for “a better life”.
“When you try to do something like that, leave your country and have a better life, you sometimes think they can catch us. But you can never imagine that such a thing would happen. “