At least 30 Cubans, hoping to claim asylum in Europe, were forcibly expelled from Greece to Turkey towards the end of last year, according to interviews conducted by Al Jazeera and rights organisations.
Al Jazeera spoke to two Cubans who also said that, during their expulsion from Greece, police officers and border guards subjected those they were expelling to violence.
Allegations made to Al Jazeera and rights organisations include accounts of forced undressing, beatings, detention without food or water, confiscation of passports, money and other personal belongings, refusal to register asylum claims, and forced water immersion prior to and during the expulsion process.
Al Jazeera also viewed photos and testimonies of the asylum seekers taken by NGOs on the ground to verify those claims.
Those expelled now say they are left in limbo in Turkey without identification or access to legal reparations, despite some of them having reported the forced expulsion to the Cuban consulate and Turkish authorities after their arrival.
‘Like a nightmare’
Joel (name changed to protect identity), 38, a doctor from Havana looking to claim asylum in Spain, says he feared being killed during his expulsion from Greece.
In a video call with Al Jazeera from Istanbul, Joel recounted the two-day ordeal.
In the early hours of October 29 last year, Joel and two other Cubans crossed into Greece from North Macedonia on a 48-hour journey which had taken them from Havana to Moscow, then to Belgrade, then by bus and on foot across Serbia and North Macedonia.
Later that day, Joel says all three were removed from a bus travelling from Thessaloniki to Athens by Greek police.
He recalled being taken to three different detention centres where the trio, as well as other Cubans, Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis had their belongings taken, and were forced to undress, searched, beaten and detained without food or water.
“I told the officers I was a doctor from Cuba and was there to seek political asylum. They just looked at me and laughed,” he said.
After spending the night in detention, the entire group was driven to the forest near the Turkish border.
Joel recounts they were forced to walk in a line, led by gun-carrying officers wearing balaclavas.
“I thought we were being taken to be killed,” he said, adding that as they arrived at the Evros River – which marks the border between Greece and Turkey – an officer hit a young man who was brought there fully naked.
The officer then dragged the man to the river and pushed his head under water, pulling it out only when called out by other officers.
The group, eight people at a time, was then loaded onto boats manned by plainclothes officers, taken halfway across the river before being made to swim the rest of the way into Turkey by the officers.
In a testimony given to Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN), Joel said the officers in the boat said “When you get to the other side [of the river] you are free, and you can walk towards the light and find the closest village.”
Stuck in limbo
Another member of the group, Reniel, who preferred to give only his first name due to fears for his family in Cuba, said the experience was “like a nightmare”.
The 25-year-old was working in the government tax department before he left Cuba.
Like Joel, he was living with his family and said it was “impossible” to live an independent life or to exercise political expression in Cuba.
“Now, I’m worried about being illegal in a country that I didn’t even choose to go to,” Reniel told Al Jazeera during a Skype interview.
“If I leave [Turkey], which is what they want me to do because I’m not here with [documentation], I could still be punished for it.”
Reniel said he reported the expulsion to the Cuban consulate in Turkey but claims he was told “the Greek government don’t deport any Cubans”, adding that Greek officers confiscated his passport and did not return it.
In August 2021, Human Rights Watch reported that there was “mounting evidence that the Greek government has in recent months secretly expelled thousands of migrants trying to reach its shores”.
HRW said it “reviewed credible footage and interviewed victims and witnesses” describing scenes where authorities forced “people onto small inflatable rescue rafts and sending them back to Turkish waters”.
However, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis denied the allegations, telling CNN in an interview: “It has not happened. We’ve been the victims of a significant misinformation campaign.”
‘Absurd’ border practices
The Cubans’ allegations are among numerous reports of a “violent campaign” of pushbacks and expulsions of asylum seekers by Greece, across both its land and sea borders.
Natalie Gruber, spokesperson for Josoor, an organisation supporting survivors of pushbacks in Turkey, and BVMN member, said these latest alleged expulsions demonstrate the “absurd” nature of current border practices.
“We can’t speak of pushbacks any more when a state systematically disappears people into another country they had never set foot in before,” said Gruber.
“This practice constitutes grave violations of numerous laws, including arbitrary detention, violations of the principle of non-refoulement violence amounting to torture … [and yet] has become a pillar of the European border regime.”
Joel and Reniel know of “at least 30″ Cubans in a similar situation in Turkey. Testimonies of seven Cubans taken by Josoor also revealed a similar number of Cubans in Turkey who say they were expelled by Greece.
Corinne Linnecar, advocacy manager at Mobile Info Team, a refugee support organisation in Greece, explained that these practices are exacerbated by challenges in accessing asylum in Greece.
“There is currently no access to asylum for the majority of people on mainland Greece, Crete and Rhodes,” said Linnecar.
“This forces people to remain undocumented and destitute and leaves them at increased risk of being illegally and forcibly expelled to Turkey at the hands of Greek authorities.”
Linnecar added that while asylum seekers who did not arrive via the island hotspots could previously register themselves through a government-run Skype system, this was suspended in late November last year with no clear information on a replacement system.
“The only Reception and Identification Centre currently on mainland Greece is a closed site in the Evros region with a mandatory 25-day detention period.”
A spokesperson for the Greek Migration Ministry told Al Jazeera that “all people arriving irregularly to Greece can apply for asylum”.
“Asylum seekers should report to the existing reception centres operating at border points to register on arrival to Greek territory, as required by law,” the spokesperson added.
The ministry said a “small number” of Cubans have arrived in Greece in recent months but said it “strongly denies any allegations that persons entering Greece have been expulse [sic] in any way”.
‘No freedom of expression’
Despite their situation, Joel and Reniel said they would not return to Cuba, pointing to the economic instability and the political environment as reasons for leaving.
“It’s impossible to find affordable rent to become independent,” said Reniel. “There is no freedom of expression … I couldn’t speak out publicly … I felt like I couldn’t really take it any more.”
Joel said he expects he would be punished if he were to return to Cuba.
Cuba has reportedly been facing its worst economic crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union, with the pandemic and US sanctions intensifying challenges.
After the economy shrank almost 11 percent in 2020, and imports of food, medicines and consumer goods slumped, public outcry spilled over into rare protests in July.
These were met with a subsequent government crackdown, in which at least one person was killed and more than 1,150 arrested.
Charlie Martel, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, cited government “repression” and “friction” as reasons behind Cubans seeking asylum in Europe and the United States.
Martel added that the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, which US President Joe Biden was forced to reinstate by a court order, along with the effects of a pandemic-related policy known as Title 42, has made access to asylum in the US increasingly dangerous and exclusionary.
“Because of that, you’re seeing more asylum seekers, who have resources, resort to going to different places, or coming into the US in different ways,” he said.
“These desperate people are going to continue to seek refuge in any way that they can.”
For Reniel, he was just looking for “a better life”.
“When you try to do something like this, leave your country and find a better life, sometimes you think they could catch us. But you never imagine that something like this would happen.”