For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
As Ayşe Erdoğan reached for her mobile phone to film herself, she was already aware of the risk she was facing. She had managed to cross over into Greece from Turkey, meaning she had made it to Europe. But she still wasn’t home free.
On the morning of May 4, 2019, Erdoğan, a 28-year-old math teacher from Turkey, hid near the Greek village of Nea Vyssa. Accompanied by two Turkish traveling companions, she had succeeded in crossing the Evros, a wild river that forms a natural border between the two countries but whose current is so strong that it often sweeps migrants away to their deaths.
Erdoğan, who bears no relation to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had been sentenced to more than six years in prison in Turkey. Authorities there had accused her of belonging to the sect of the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gülen, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization. Erdoğan was allowed to leave prison until the start of her appeal, but only under the condition that she remain in Turkey.
Shortly after her release, she fled. She traveled to the north to reach Europe, just as thousands of other Turks who are persecuted as Gülen supporters have done.
Erdoğan wanted to file an application for political asylum. The Turkish national wanted to exercise the right the European Union grants to every individual who reaches European soil — at least in theory.
“We are Turkish political asylum-seekers,” Erdoğan said in one video she recorded on her phone. “We fled persecution back in Turkey. We are hiding near Nea Vyssa in fear of pushback.” She sent the videos to her brother Ihsan, who was already in Athens. A journalist later posted the video on Twitter, and the Greek daily Kathimerini also reported on her case.
Using WhatsApp, Erdoğan sent her location to her brother. She also sent emails to Greek human rights lawyers and the head of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. “If we push back to Turkey, our life will be in danger,” she wrote.
That same day, Erdoğan was taken back across the Evros. Turkish border officials apprehended her and the two Turkish nationals traveling with her the next morning at 8:10 a.m. and put them in jail. A court convicted Erdoğan the next day for violating the terms of her parole by leaving the country.
For the first time, Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, has reconstructed the precise events in the hours leading up to Erdoğan’s capture. DER SPIEGEL also interviewed the brother and Ayşe Erdoğan’s lawyers in addition to reviewing Turkish court documents.
The data and documents lead to just one conclusion: Ayşe Erdoğan had made it to Greece and was in the hands of Greek authorities before she was returned to Turkey. These were presumably Greek border guards or police. Erdoğan herself claims to have been picked up at a Greek police station by masked men.
Responding to a request for comment from DER SPIEGEL, the Greek police stated that they “always comply with Greek and European law in the performance of their duties.” Officials would not comment on the specific case in question. Back in December, DER SPIEGEL and Forensic Architecture analyzed videos showing how the illegal pushbacks along the Evros apparently take place: Masked men speaking with Greek accents are seen taking people who have fled to Greece across to the Turkish side of the Evros in motorized dinghies. Refugees who claim they were pushed back also say they were abused and that their mobile phones were rendered unusable.
All available evidence suggests that the Greek authorities are carrying out systematic pushbacks. DER SPIEGEL has previously reported on Turkish documents which suggest that Greece is illegally deporting tens of thousands of migrants and refugees. Following the revelations, the European Commission demanded an investigation into the accusations, though this has yet to happen.
The only person who has followed up on the pushback allegations is the Greek ombudsman, the agency responsible for independently monitoring the country’s authorities. The agency opened a general investigation into the issue in June 2017. It is now investigating more than half a dozen cases, including the videos published by DER SPIEGEL.
However, the Greek authorities have expressed little interest in the videos. A police spokesman told DER SPIEGEL in January: “There won’t be any investigation because there are no pushbacks on the Evros.”
But Ayşe Erdoğan’s case suggests it is very likely that this statement isn’t true. It underscores suspicions that Greek border officials are deporting even Turkish asylum-seekers without granting them any asylum procedures, even though these people are the subject of political persecution in their home country.
The pushbacks violate international law, European Union law as well as Greek law, since every refugee has the right to fair asylum proceedings. Moreover, those who apply for asylum cannot be sent back to countries where they could be in danger or threatened with persecution. That, however, appears to be exactly what happened to Erdoğan.
The fact that Erdoğan repeatedly shared her location with her brother on WhatsApp and took a selfie together with the two people accompanying her in the village center of Nea Vyssa has been helpful in the effort to reconstruct events. A government building can be seen in the photo, including its logo. Another lawyer, Nikolaos Ouzounidis, met with the group in Nea Vyssa and also took a photo of them.
In collaboration with the Greek NGO HumanRights360, Forensic Architecture analyzed the photos, videos, WhatsApp messages, emails, court files and police reports. Among other steps, the agency compared the photos to images from Google Earth. This made it possible to verify that Erdoğan had, in fact, entered Greece before her arrest.
There is no doubt that Ayşe and the two accompanying her had been in Nea Vyssa that day. “I saw them with my own eyes,” said Ouzounidis.
Erdoğan contacted the police station in Nea Vyssa, near the Turkish border, to apply for asylum. But Greek police brought them to a police station in Neo Cheimonio, a town 18 kilometers (11 miles) south of Nea Vyssa. This is evidenced in Erdoğan’s WhatsApp locations and her testimony in court, which has been obtained by DER SPIEGEL.
Ouzounidis tried to speak to Erdoğan at the police station twice — first on his own and later with her brother, Ihsan, who had come from Athens. Both times, police informed the lawyer that no one with that name was being held at the station. Officially, at least, there was never any arrest or charges filed.
At 6:53 p.m., Erdoğan once again shared her location with her brother on WhatsApp, with the pin pointing to the police station. It would be the last message that Ayşe Erdoğan would send from Greece.
“I thought Ayşe was safe,” said Ihsan Erdoğan. “But they just brushed us off at the police station.” Ihsan found out the next day from his parents that his sister had been deported to Turkey and arrested there.
The Turkish court documents provide details about how Erdoğan experienced her pushback. They describe how masked men put them in a car and took them back to the Evros River. “They put us in a car, took us to Meriç river (Eds. note: as the Evros is known in Turkey) again, put us in an inflatable boat, and took us back to the Turkish banks. Thus, we weren’t able to apply for asylum.”
Turkish police officers apprehended Erdoğan the next morning. A court in the province of Edirne convicted her the following morning on charges of illegally fleeing the country. The court transcript states that, “The accused violated the rules of her parole and left the country via illegal routes but was deported and returned to Turkey.”
As part of her defense, Erdoğan claimed that she had felt isolated after her release from prison, that she was no longer able to find work and that even her friends weren’t speaking to her anymore. She told the court that she regretted having fled. “I am the victim,” Erdoğan said, according to the court transcript.
Her brother Ihsan also denied to DER SPIEGEL that he or Ayşe were members of the Gülen sect.
Turkish President Erdoğan has blamed the Gülen movement for the attempted coup in July 2016. In response, the Turkish state ordered the arrest of tens of thousands of Gülen supporters.
Gülen, who has lived in exile in the United States since the 1990s, has denied the accusations. In public, he presents himself as a modern reformer of moderate Islam. His followers run schools, universities, media organizations, hospitals and foundations in more than 100 countries.
But people who have left the community have described it as a secret society. “Infiltrating state agencies, maximizing political influence and gaining control of the state is seen as the goal by all those who have been interviewed,” reads one document from Germany’s Foreign Ministry.
Tens of thousands of the Islamist movement’s followers have found refuge in European countries in recent years. More than 10,000 Turks have applied for asylum in Greece alone since 2016.
But it’s not clear how many of those applications have been approved. The Greek authorities don’t want to publish that kind of information out of fear of provoking Turkish President Erdoğan, with whom the Greek government already has a tense relationship.
However, Greek bureaucratic sources say that most of the Turkish refugees who apply for it are granted asylum in Greece. That had also been Ayşe Erdoğan’s hope. Instead, she now finds herself locked up by the Turkish government in a prison in the Gebze province near Istanbul.
Greece has already thrown out a lawsuit submitted by her lawyers. Erdoğan’s attorney, Maria Papamina of the Greek Council for Refugees, says that all the prosecutor did was obtain assurances from the Greek police that Ayşe Erdoğan had never been registered there.
She claims that evidence of the pushback wasn’t even taken into consideration. Papamina says she wants to appeal the case and take it right up to Greece’s highest court if she has to — and even further up to the European Court of Human Rights, if need be.
But the only likely real chance Ayşe Erdoğan would have of getting released from prison would be through her appeal to Turkey’s highest court, but her chances are slim. There’s much to suggest that Ayşe Erdoğan will spend years in a Turkish prison.