BARCELONA, Spain – A Frenchwoman accuses Greek authorities of forcing her and other migrants to cross 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, who has Turkish and French citizenship, claims she and her husband were trying to flee Turkey to escape politically motivated prison sentences.
As so-called ‘pushbacks’ of migrants have become increasingly common despite breaching EU and international law, experts say the French woman’s story appears to be the first such case to come to court involving a European citizen.
“We have gone from allegations to a public secret in which the Greek authorities regularly engage in pushbacks,” said Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. “It would be quite a unique case… Because it would show how indiscriminate the Greek authorities are acting and how it affects people from all walks of life.
Under the principle of non-refoulement enshrined in European and international human rights law, people cannot be returned to a country where they would risk being tortured, punished or harmed. 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 issued a statement on 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, Greek Minister for Migration and Asylum.
The French woman’s story is told in court statements from her, her husband and her sister. The AP also relied on interviews with her sister in Paris and one of her lawyers; documents including his French passport, his French national identity card and his French marriage papers; emails, call logs and screenshots of texts and GPS data that 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 husband were among dozens of students arrested and charged with membership in the “Fethullahist terrorist organization” led by a US-based Muslim preacher. The couple deny all charges.
In June last year, the Supreme Court upheld his prison sentence of over six years. The couple sold family jewels to pay smugglers to bring them to Greece, a European Union country in the Schengen area, Europe’s visa-free travel zone.
As the couple crossed the eastern border from Greece on the morning of October 19, 2021, the woman’s family anxiously awaited news from their home outside of Paris. They tracked his movements on a real-time tracking app. At 9:38 a.m., the woman texted on WhatsApp: “We passed”.
His family contacted French and Greek authorities, saying the couple needed help.
“They are being persecuted by the current Turkish government,” reads their email, which they followed up with phone calls. “We are VERY VERY worried about them!
Shortly after, Greek officials arrested the couple, according to the lawsuit. The couple presented the wife’s French identity card, a copy of her French passport and a French family record book proving their marriage. Officers asked the couple to kneel. They then took the couple’s phones, power bank, clothes and food and cut their shoelaces, the statement said.
The woman says they were taken in the back of a truck to a ‘closed box’ inside a closed area and kept there for hours with other migrants.
Meanwhile, in France, her family grew increasingly worried. Her sisters were quick to call and email the Greek and French authorities. An official from the Greek embassy in Paris sent them an SMS 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 only knew 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 went unanswered. 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 herded into a truck, taken to the Evros River and forced to board a rubber boat without life jackets, the woman said.
“We continued to beg them not to send us back, explaining to them that I was French and that we were being persecuted in Turkey,” she said in her statement.
She spoke to officials in French and English, to no avail. They were captured by Turkish soldiers on the other side.
“We are totally disappointed with the Greek authorities,” his sister told the AP in Paris, asking to remain anonymous to protect her safety. “We didn’t think they would return a persecuted person to the persecutor.”
“We are also disappointed with the French authorities because we have been 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 “have maintained a close relationship with the (woman’s) family from the time the they were alerted to his situation.” They said they were also seeking a consular visit to the imprisoned woman in Turkey.
Catherine Briddick, senior lecturer in international human rights and refugee law at the University of Oxford, said the woman’s case “shows the absurdity of Fortress Europe”.
“(This) should give European citizens around the world pause to reflect on what these policies are doing to us and the people we are trying to keep out,” she said.
AP journalists Theodora Tongas in Athens, Greece and Elaine Ganley in Paris, contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration