This investigation deals with topics such as sexual assault, incest and physical violence. Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.
Corfu, Greece and Berlin, Germany – Clementine Ngono*, a 25-year-old Cameroonian, never wished for a life in Europe.
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She grew up dreaming of being a doctor, but when she turned 10 and got her first period, her father sat her down.
“He said, ‘You’re a woman now, my woman’,” Ngono told Al Jazeera.
He made her live with her uncle, who soon started to rape her.
It was, she now understands, a forced “marriage”.
At 11 she escaped and years later, having met her partner, fled Cameroon as her family was still trying to track her down.
The couple made a perilous journey to Turkey, where they had their first son. Then, they left for Greece, where Ngono experienced yet another horrific episode of abuse.
In the early hours of September 15, 2021, they boarded a grey rubber dinghy with 33 others and set sail.
They knew it would be dangerous, going out to sea at night in the unpredictable early-autumn weather. They were aware the 20km (12-mile) crossing from Turkey to Greece had become a graveyard for asylum seekers who risked it all on flimsy boats.
And they feared that should they cross the European Union border, Greek authorities might return them in a so-called pushback, an illegal and often violent move that would leave them helpless in the open waters.
That fear was realised, and worse.
They arrived on the Greek island of Samos shortly after sunrise.
“We were tired, we hadn’t eaten,” said Ngono, who now works as a seasonal chambermaid in a hotel on Corfu, a picturesque Greek island about 1,000km (620 miles) west of Samos.
“The children were crying in the sun, we didn’t have water to drink.”
In the courtyard of her shared apartment, she rested her head on her hands, and in a voice that trembled described how a group of five masked men, their faces covered with balaclavas, took the group on board a vessel of the Hellenic Coast Guard.
The refugees were made to crouch down. Then, one by one, the men forced them to stand up and undress, in front of everyone else.
Those who fought back were threatened and beaten with truncheons, she said. Their clothes were cut off and ripped apart while the men shouted at them: “Are you going to come back to Greece?”
Once fully naked, one of the masked men started to assault their bodies, touching their breasts and genitals.
Ngono tried to resist at first.
“But when they got on top of me, they hit me. So I pulled my pants down myself,” she told Al Jazeera.
“He searched us everywhere,” she said, pressing two fingers together and pointing to her abdomen.
“That’s how he put his hand in my vagina. And in my anus.”
The men used the same plastic gloves to search all of the refugees who had travelled together.
They took Ngono’s phone and the 500 euros ($530) she had carried with her.
Later, the group was shoved onto life rafts and abandoned, back on the Mediterranean.
“It was such a humiliation,” said Ngono, shaking her head in the shadow of a fig tree.
She has filed a lawsuit at a Greek court, alleging that the forced body and genital search was “extremely invasive and offensive”. The case is under pre-trial investigation.
Al Jazeera spoke with 13 refugees who described similar abuse – forced undressing and invasive genital searches during alleged pushbacks at EU borders.
These conversations, along with interviews with legal experts and NGOs, as well as internal documents of the EU’s border and coastguard agency, Frontex, point to a troubling pattern – that degrading practices appear to be aimed at humiliating asylum seekers and deterring them from trying to make the journey again, all the while stealing their valuables and money.
In Ngono’s case, and many others, the apparent tactic failed. Despite the traumatic experience, she and her family attempted the journey again, weeks later.
The men behind the searches are understood to be part of border guard systems, though they cannot conclusively be identified as they usually cover their faces and do not wear insignia.
‘The point was to humiliate us’
A year has passed since Meral Simsek, a 43-year-old Kurdish poet, arrived in Berlin.
An outspoken critic of the Turkish government, she said she regularly faced violence and persecution by state authorities.
In 2021, she was charged with “membership of a terrorist organisation” and “making terrorist propaganda”.
Facing up to 15 years in prison, she decided to leave her country.
On June 29 that year, she crossed the Evros river, together with a Syrian woman, Dicle.
They reached Feres, a small Greek border town, by foot and Simsek wanted to apply for asylum.
But the pair were soon detained by Greek police.
Simsek said four officers beat the women before taking them out onto a street. They forced Simsek to take off her clothes, right next to a construction site.
A policewoman searched her genitals, as the three other policemen watched.
“They looked right into my vagina,” she told Al Jazeera.
Some made comments in Greek while looking at her body, while their colleague probed her genitals with “mechanised” movements that caused her pain.
Next, with the same plastic gloves, they searched Dicle, who was menstruating.
They were handed over to a group of five masked men and forced back to Turkey.
“The point was to humiliate us,” Simsek said.
Simsek eventually made it to Germany last year, with the support of PEN International.
A Syrian woman, now living in Belgium, told Al Jazeera of another humiliating search.
Amira Haddad*, 42, left the Turkish city of Edirne on October 10, 2022, crossing the Evros river with seven others before allegedly being detained by Greek border authorities.
A female officer forced Haddad to undress while her male colleagues watched on, she said.
When she turned around after the body search, the rest of the group was completely naked, “just how God created them”.
Later, the police handed her over to a group of men who spoke Greek and Arabic.
They forced Haddad and the rest of the group to undress again.
“They touched our breasts, searched us completely,” she alleged, adding that women were also subject to sexualised comments.
“I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, but I could sense it from their tone.”
At the time of publishing, neither the Greek interior ministry nor the Ministry of Migration and Asylum had responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
But the Hellenic Coast Guard stated that “the operational practices of the Greek Authorities do not include such methods” as they would violate Article 257 of the Greek Code of Criminal Procedure.
Asked about allegations of forced body and genital searches, Frontex told Al Jazeera it “is aware of a handful of such cases in Greece and Bulgaria”.
‘Intrusive body searches in front of strangers’
Earlier this year, the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee (CPT) criticised cases of ill-treatment at EU borders during pushbacks.
According to its report, EU border authorities sometimes force asylum seekers to walk back “fully naked across the border”.
On Thursday, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) said some of its patients who arrived in Greece between 2021 and 2023 were forced, by uniformed individuals or unidentified masked men, “to undergo intrusive body searches in front of strangers”.
“Most of these people fled countries with a high prevalence of violence and persecution,” said Sonia Balleron, MSF head of mission in Greece.
“Many survived horrific journeys, including suffering war injuries, sexual violence and trafficking. For these already vulnerable people, violence or mistreatment at the border further aggravates the medical and psychological consequences of their horrific experiences.”
Al Jazeera examined several internal reports by Frontex’s fundamental rights officer that contain allegations and descriptions of forced undressing, mostly from the Evros border.
In a so-called serious incident report (SIR), with the number 10142/2018, dated November 18, 2018, Frontex states that a group of refugees was allegedly pushed back by Greek authorities after they were physically assaulted and “stripped naked”.
Another report, numbered 13400/2022, concerns a series of pushbacks by Greek authorities in July and August 2022, during which migrants and refugees were “forced to go back through the river after their valuables were taken away, after the men were stripped naked and after they were beaten”.
SIR report 15314/2022, from May 30 this year, describes several pushbacks at the Evros river. According to this report, a refugee who was “subjected to physical violence, theft and destruction of belongings, was forced to undress and instructed to irregularly return to Turkey” by Greek authorities.
Frontex states in the documents that it considers the statements in the reports to be “relatively credible”. If the accounts are true, the agency says, they would “likely amount to prohibited collective expulsion and inhuman and degrading treatment”.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2001 that body searches by law enforcement can be justified in some cases, for example, if they prevent criminal offences.
However, forced undressing and genital searches, which leave victims “with feelings of anguish and inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing him”, violate Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
According to human rights lawyer Nikola Kovacevic, who has been highly commended by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the allegations in this investigation could constitute a similar violation.
“You create a situation in which that person feels inferior,” he told Al Jazeera. “That’s one of the ways to send the message and to deter them.”
Kovacevic said he has also heard of cases of forced undressing and genital searches by border authorities, which he said are designed to send a message: “If you come again, it will happen again.”
He said sexualised body and genital searches likely violate the prohibition of “torture, degrading or inhuman treatment” as anchored in the EU Convention on Human Rights and UN Convention against Torture.
“Inhuman and degrading treatment is directed against human dignity,” he said. “You deprive a person of their dignity, you force that person to kneel down, you spit on them, you undress them, you create a situation in which that person feels inferior.”
According to Kovacevic, the legal line between torture and inhuman and degrading treatment is sometimes blurry.
But there are “no imaginable circumstances” that justify inflicting pain and suffering on a helpless person, he said.
Additional reporting by Ihab Al-Rawi, Charlotte Glorieux and Serdar Vardar.
This investigation was supported by Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU).