Greek police beat us, stole our money, phones, even our shoes. Then they dumped us back in Turkey

Published by The Mail on Sunday (8th March, 2020)

Having fled one of Syria’s many bloodstained battlegrounds, Muhammad spent years struggling as a refugee in southern Turkey.

Last week, after hearing the country’s border gates were being opened, he achieved his long-cherished dream of reaching Europe. However, he soon discovered he had descended into a dark new nightmare.

This young man had crossed the Turkish-Greek border and walked for several hours through Greece. But his band of exhausted refugees was then pointed out by local people to police. ‘They took everything from us – including all our money, our clothes, our phones, our bags, even our shoes. They then started beating us,’ Muhammad said.

The assault became worse when the men tried to protect a pregnant woman. One suffered a broken nose, while others say they were hit repeatedly with rifle butts and batons before being dumped back in Turkey.

Muhammad lifted his shirt to show three ugly weals across his back. A companion with a badly bruised body claimed Greek officials stole his €1,000 of savings and passport – a complaint echoed by many other refugees who crossed the border.

‘The police hit my wife when she asked for her documents back, including her marriage certificate,’ he said, standing in Meric, by the narrow river of the same name that divides Turkey and Greece.

Welcome to Europe’s tensest frontline. At the heart of this crisis is the war in Syria, still dragging on after nine years. When it began, I spent time in the country’s capital, Damascus, with idealistic youngsters. But their hopes of democracy died in the carnage, chaos and utter despair of this century’s most depressing conflict that has caused an estimated 500,000 deaths and seven million displaced people.

Some analysts say the Syrian civil war has now shifted to the edge of Europe. Muhammad, like millions more migrants and refugees, is an unwitting pawn in a brutal power struggle stretching from Moscow to the Middle East.

It is being played out in ruthless style by a collection of despots, democrats and diplomats. And it threatens to engulf our continent in a new crisis over migrants that exposes the hypocrisy and impotence of EU leaders.

Turkey’s President Erdogan is trying to blackmail Europe by weaponising millions of migrants. As a result, some analysts accuse him of shifting Syria’s civil war from his country’s southern border with Syria to Turkey’s northern border with Greece. One thing is certain. Death and brutality have spread to the border between two nations which have already done among the most to aid those made homeless by the war.

Yesterday, there were more ugly scenes, with tear gas and smoke bombs cloaking the area. Groups of migrants chanted ‘open the gates’, some pushing desperately against perimeter fences, while Greek politicians said their country’s borders must be defended.

But refugees allege they are being terrorised by Greek police, aided by gangs of violent vigilantes. Relief charities believe far-Right groups are stoking bitterness between locals and migrants.

This latest crisis flared nine days ago when the deeply distrusted Erdogan threatened to flood Europe with refugees. He opened borders briefly, even assisting the flow.

There were pitiful scenes along the 120-mile land border and in the Aegean Sea as migrants in flimsy boats were confronted by Greek forces firing bullets, gas and water cannon.

It carried echoes of the 2015 migrant crisis when countless refugees came ashore in Greece – but Europe’s mood is much tougher today.

There were reports of migrants being chased, caught and beaten by locals armed with a gun. And video footage was released showing a Greek coastguard firing warning shots at migrant dinghies and poking those on board with poles to intimidate them.

Caught up in this sad saga is Abdul Razzak el-Muhod, his wife Etap and their five young children, aged one to ten.

I met them on Friday at Edirne bus station in Turkey, preparing for another miserable night on a nearby building site. They fled the ancient Syrian city of Deir Ezzor when it was besieged by Islamic State five years ago. Arriving in Turkey, they considered paying people-smugglers for a boat passage to the Greek islands but Etap did not want to risk their lives after a relative drowned.

Instead, they stayed in Turkey, with Abdul, a 40-year-old driver, taking piecemeal jobs. ‘It is not a life,’ he said. ‘It’s so hard and horrible.’

Like so many others, the family had pinned their hopes on reaching Europe. So learning that the border was being opened, they rushed north and crossed the river to Greece last weekend. For five days, they hid in forests and woods as they made their way north. And for five nights, they plodded through northern Greece, stifling any cries or complaints from their five weary children. But they were spotted and arrested by police.

‘They took our phones, our money, our bags, even the baby’s clothes,’ said Etap, 30, claiming they lost the equivalent of £500.

Now back in Turkey, they are no nearer joining relatives in Germany or Holland. ‘We were so happy when we heard the borders were open,’ said Abdul. ‘Now we have nothing again. It is just like when we arrived from Syria.’

This family, like so many others, are innocent victims: first of war, and now of the most cynical political games begun by Syria’s President Bashar Assad’s assault – aided by his Russian protector Vladimir Putin – on the last rebel stronghold in Idlib.

This led to Turkish intervention in support of the rebels – and 950,000 more displaced Syrians, many trapped by the nation’s border. Already 3.6 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey, alongside huge numbers of Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis.

I came across many Afghans hoping to cross the border into Greece –along with an Iranian woman architect, a student from Burundi, a Nigerian and two Moroccans who claimed to be Syrians until their accents gave them away.

This multi-national tide of humanity annoys some Syrians. ‘Everyone is trying to get to Europe in our name,’ said Sanir Shusan, 27, from Aleppo, who has been working as a blacksmith. ‘We only came because we want a safe life.’

At the centre of this awful situation remains Turkey’s President Erdogan, a prickly former professional footballer and religious conservative who has slowly strangled freedoms as he consolidates power in his vast new presidential palace in Ankara.

This cocksure character declared that he had ‘opened the doors’ to Europe for migrants, claiming Turkey needed other countries to share the burden.

Panicked European politicians recalled how, in 2016, Erdogan threatened to allow thousands of migrants into the EU if Brussels halted Turkey’s membership talks. Many of them are still dealing with the surge of nationalism that reshaped politics after the 2015 crisis.

Behind Erdogan’s move lay events in Syria. Last month, the Turkish strongman sent 7,000 troops into Idlib province to support the rebels. Their presence helped steel the resistance to Assad but they also suffered serious losses.

Erdogan is desperate for Turkey’s Nato allies to provide more support – at least in the no-fly zones and safe corridors – although it should be noted, however, that the mutual defence clause in Nato’s charter does not apply to attacks on member nations outside Europe or North America.

Yet Erdogan has annoyed the West by waging war on Syria’s minority Kurds, who led the fight against Islamic State, and by buying a Russian air-defence system in defiance of Washington. So he unlocked his border with Greece to stoke up the heat on Europe.

He has become locked also in a delicate – and dangerous – dance with Putin, who is always so quick to take advantage of any weaknesses or divisions in the West.

He refused to blame Russia for the attacks on his troops. Then the two autocrats met in Moscow on Thursday and claimed to have struck a deal to stop fighting in Idlib, which had pushed them to the brink of open battle.

Almost instantly, refugees in Turkey were told to ‘go home’ or ‘try smuggling routes’.

Few expect this agreement to hold – especially since it was made without any involvement from Assad. Meanwhile, there is growing internal opposition in Turkey over Erdogan’s use of troops to support Idlib’s rebels, since many of those still fighting the Syrian dictatorship are seen as extremists.

‘This has further soured Europe’s view of Turkey,’ said Soner Cagaptay, a US-based analyst and author of ‘Erdogan’s Empire’. ‘It is even boosting the unfortunate far-Right view that Muslims are invading Europe.’

Yesterday, the Turkish government said that, on safety grounds, it would stop any refugees crossing the sea to Greek islands such as Lesbos and Samos, which are struggling to support 42,500 migrants in grossly-crammed facilities built for only 6,178 people.

‘I can’t find words to describe the conditions,’ said Apostolos Veizis, of the Medecins Sans Frontieres charity. ‘It is so sad to hear children aged seven saying they want to die.’

Inevitably, the political climate in Greece has hardened against migrants. Last year’s election of a conservative government led to the recent suspension of all asylum applications. There are also signs that previous support among Greek islanders for refugees is starting to evaporate.

There have been scuffles over the construction of new migrant centres, attacks on refugees and hostility towards aid workers. Veizis said there are also worrying reports of far-Right thugs arriving from Germany to stir up unrest.

Among those I spoke with was Omer Ozkizilcik, an analyst at a pro-government think-tank in Istanbul, who insisted that what is happening is a triumph for Turkey and a wake-up call for complacent EU countries who have refused to share their refugee load.

‘We have repeatedly called for help but the EU only cares when refugees are on their border,’ he said. ‘We used to marvel that it was the leading humanitarian body with the moral high ground – but this new crisis has shown its real values.’

It is hard to disagree. Ever since the war started in Syria, the West has failed abysmally to find an adequate response either to the unfurling tragedy scarring the Middle East or to the flood of people driven toward its own borders as a result.

Brussels, in particular, has seemed torn between a professed aim of protecting human rights and the political desire to thwart populists from exploiting the issue of migration.

Yet the grim events of last week, deliberately inflamed by a self-serving autocrat in Ankara, has exposed yet again how the political establishment constantly tries to push away this difficult problem or fails to find any long-term solution beyond sticking plasters.

Ursula von der Leyen, the EU President, called Greece the continent’s ‘shield’ as she bunged some cash to Athens to help deal with the problem. Brussels has also promised billions more in aid to placate Turkey and prop up its 2016 deal to stop the westward flow of refugees.

All the while, as politicians pontificate and posture, the human pawns in this global chess game feel betrayed.

Amid the squalor of a bus station in this town on the Turkish-Greek border, infants sleep on sacks and their parents search for sticks to use for fires to cook on.

After I asked one Syrian about his reaction to the borders being briefly opened, then slammed shut again, he said: ‘I felt like a bird that had been set free. Now I am locked up again and dying a new death inside each day.’

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