First-ever Greek pushback hearing at the ECtHR: Will it change EU border policy?

Refugees arriving on 30th August 2015 in Kos Island
6 min read
09 July, 2024

Strasbourg - Greece has been interrogated by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) about its “systemic pushback” practice for the first time and the verdict concerning the cases of two asylum seekers, who were sent back to Turkey, is due to be announced in the coming months.

The controversial Greek practice has been slammed for being a “de facto border state policy” by Amnesty International, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, and by numerous other rights groups.

This unprecedented legal challenge at the ECtHR concerns the 'drift back' case of a 15-year-old Afghan boy, known as ‘GRJ,’ who was abandoned alone in the Aegean Sea by the Hellenic Coast Guard upon arriving on the Greek island of Samos on 8 September 2020.

Live Story

It also concerns the case of Ayse Erdogan, a Turkish woman and former teacher who was ‘pushed back’ to Turkey in May 2019 and then imprisoned for 22 months over allegations of her involvement with the Gulen movement - which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of carrying out a failed 2016 coup against the Turkish state.

Critical evidence regarding the latter case - obtained during an investigation by journalist Zubeyir Koculu - was presented at the ECtHR hearing in Strasbourg on 4 June.

The evidence was digitally mapped out, verified and presented as a 70-page technical report by Forensic Architecture - a research agency based at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

The court heard that Greek authorities had allegedly sent the two asylum seekers back to Turkey instead of processing their asylum applications.

Dr Niamh Keady-Tabbal from the Irish Centre for Human Rights is part of the legal team representing GRJ at the ECtHR. She told The New Arab that “the case is part of broader efforts to seek the truth about the violent and illegal expulsions asylum seekers are exposed to, which are consistently denied by the authorities”.

Europe's deadly borders
How Greece is criminalising solidarity with refugees
What does a fair immigration system look like?

Tabbal said the lack of legal solutions for pushback victims in Greece forces many asylum seekers to seek accountability and justice through the European Court, a process that can take years. 

“The sense of powerlessness and limbo that pushback victims face during this time is one of the most challenging aspects. In the case of GRJ, he was stranded in Turkey as an unaccompanied minor for over a year after his illegal expulsion from Samos [and] without legal protection or state assistance.”

Ayse Erdogan, then 28, also sued Athens for sending her back to Turkey through the Evros River, which marks the land border between Turkey and the EU.

She blamed Greek authorities for “hiding her illegally” in police custody after she attempted to apply for political asylum at Cheimonio Police station with two other asylum seekers. She also alleged that Greek authorities “confiscated” her personal belongings and “forced” her and her two companions onto a boat and back to persecution in Turkey.

The Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) raised a legal complaint against Greek authorities, presenting video and photographic evidence that Ayse had taken of her arrival in Greece outside an official Greek building. This evidence represented proof of her presence in Greece and of her pledge urging local authorities and the United Nations to let her stay in the EU country.

The controversial practice of pushbacks has been slammed for being a 'de facto border state policy' by rights groups. [Getty]

The video was published on X on 4 May 2019, the day she went to the police station after sharing her location with her twin brother.

Forensic Architecture researcher and visual practitioner Stefanos Levidis said this visual evidence is significant to Ayse Erdogan’s case.

“She managed to document her crossing, send this video to her brother, who preserved it and then give [the evidence] to us for analysis. So, it was really a rare case five years ago, proving their crossing into Greece with GPS location information, photos and videos.”

Tabbal said asylum seekers generally face considerable difficulty documenting proof of being pushed back because “Greek officials actively conceal evidence by confiscating their phones. Civil society is [also] kept [away] from the border to prevent eyewitnesses”.

GCR lawyer Klotildi Prountzou - a legal representative for Ayse Erdogan at the Greek courts and ECtHR - told The New Arab that it became necessary to appeal to the higher European Court because despite the evidence, Greek courts had concluded “Greece was not conducting any pushbacks”.

"Legally representing an imprisoned victim in another country was very complicated given the fact that we had limited access to the inmate, but her family's assistance made it possible for her to be heard by the top human rights court of Europe," said Prountzou.

Live Story

The video, photo, and GPS evidence Ayse Erdogan provided helped Forensic Architecture map out and timestamp the group's movements. But Greek government representatives during the ECtHR hearing rejected this evidence by claiming it was “fake” because it was derived “from unreliable sources” with no metadata to prove the digital fingerprints of the visual evidence.

It was also asserted that Greek authorities were unaware of the claimants’ presence in the country; that Greece has been “protective” of EU borders because of mass migration from the Middle East; and that pushbacks were not a reality in Greece.

The court responded by asking Greece to clarify its Greek police forensic report, which included metadata of Ayse Erdogan’s video that was published on X.

The court was told that Athens was unaware of this evidence and required more time to respond.

Levidis said he was confident that “easy denials after this point wouldn’t hold up in a court that was committed to examining detailed pieces of evidence”.

According to the latest UNHCR data, there were 187,178 refugees and asylum seekers residing in Greece by February 2024. Syrians, Afghans, and Ukrainians have made most asylum applications in the country.

Head of GCR Vasilis Papadopoulos told The New Arab that the fight to bring the pushback case to the ECtHR has culminated “after a long judicial fight in Greece.”

He added: “It’s truly a relief that this case was heard at the highest level. We hope this procedure will stop the policy of pushbacks.”

Tabbal also agreed that the ECtHR’s acknowledgement of “systematic violations would be a significant milestone for pushback victims and those working to bring an end to border violence”.

Levidis - who has investigated several pushback incidents on the Greek-Turkish border - said it was a relief to see that “finally, there is a serious discussion in the top European court” regarding the practice.

“What is justice in the end? There is justice to be served in Ayse’s case and she deserves to be recognised for what she endured at the hands of the Greek authorities. But justice would only be achieved if pushbacks stopped. Given that justice is collective and not limited to this one case, it wouldn’t be justice unless the Greek government acknowledges that they are violating human rights on the border and stop this practice.”

Anu Shukla is a freelance journalist based in London. 

Follow her on X: @AnuShuklaWrites

Zübeyir Koculu is an investigative journalist based in London. He focuses on Turkey, the Middle East, Europe, migrants, asylum seekers, police brutality, human rights violations, cross-border stories, and beyond.

Follow him on X: @zubeyirkoculu