Athens/Skopje, 27 November 2021 (BIRN/MIA) – The Italy-based Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration, ASGI, told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) on Friday that Greek police and Frontex officers had illegally stopped its team from conducting a technical-legal visit to the Greek-North Macedonia border on November 6, near the village of Idomeni, on the Greek side.
The delegation of two ASGI lawyers and two legal advisors was forced to return on foot to North Macedonia, having legally entered Greece from there, without explanation, the Italian legal advisor in the team told BIRN on Friday.
“We received no documents explaining why were we told to exit the country. Everything was done in an informal way. Obviously they did not allow us to get in touch with any lawyers and any people who could provide us with legal assistance,” the Italian told BIRN.
“Since the situation was very tense, we did not feel OK to make phone calls, or do something that would be considered unacceptable in their view,” he added.
On Thursday, ASGI informed the public and condemned the treatment of its members.
“ASGI denounces the treatment suffered by the four Italian citizens removed from the territory of the European Union without justification, in an illegitimate manner and with informal procedures,” it said in a press statement.
“ASGI expresses its concerns regarding the rights violations and systematic violence against non-European citizens on EU borders,” it added.
The incident happened on November 6, shortly after the team had crossed the Evzoni-Bogorodica border crossing and entered Greece, having presented all the necessary papers to the Greek border authorities, including COVID-19 certificates.
After visiting migrant transit centres in North Macedonia, the team intended to visit the border village of Idomeni and the nearby town of Polikastro in Greece.
After visiting Polikastro, the team drove by taxi closer to Idomeni, where the migrant transit area is located.
After the taxi dropped them at the train station near Idomeni, “We continued along the railway track [towards the border with North Macedonia], so we were close to the transit area, and then we went back”, the Italian legal adviser told BIRN.
From 2015, thousands of refugees and migrants have used this railway track as a guideline to traverse Greece and then North Macedonia on their way north, until the borders were closed in 2016.
“While we were crossing a field on our way back we were approached by a Frontex agent, we gave him papers and he asked about our purpose.
“After a while, a Greek policeman came who had an aggressive, rude tone, asking what we were doing there, saying that this was a military area. He accused us of crossing the border [illegally] on foot, and we tried to explain that we crossed legally, which would have been easily proven by checking at the border crossing.”
Later, the four delegation members were put in a Greek police vehicle, in the presence of more police officers and Frontex agents.
“After a while, the Greek police border van came, the policeman who was driving, got off the truck and start shouting, so we were taken to the police station in Idomeni. Once there, we stayed outside the police station, waiting for the police to control the documents. Then we realised there were also six migrants on board in the same truck,” the delegate said.
The team was then loaded onto the same vehicle and transported back to the Evzoni border crossing, escorted by other police and Frontex vehicles, where they were forced to walk on foot towards North Macedonia’s border.
“We tried to be as polite and gentle as possible and not do anything that could aggravate the officers, although we asked many times what the reason for taking us in custody was,” the delegate told BIRN.
“The only explanation we have is that there is an atmosphere of mistrust towards people involved in migration issues close or near the border. Our presence made them uncomfortable and we feel this was a warning to all the others who would want to collect information on this issue,” he said.
A Greek police official told BIRN on Friday that the area of Idomeni, some 500 meters from the border with North Macedonia, is considered a military area.
“You need a special permit from the army to be able to go in there and do research or reporting,” the police official said.
However, he also added that to be deported or expelled from Greece, “you must have entered the country illegally and a deportation order must have been issued”, which he said could not have happened in the case of the Italian citizens.
“Italian citizens cannot be deported, because they are European citizens,” he said.
BIRN has contacted Frontex as well but it did not reply by the time of publication.
This part of the border, located along the Balkan migrant route, was in the spotlight in 2016 when a wave of mainly Middle Eastern refugees and migrants was stopped by North Macedonian police from entering the country.
Violent clashes emerged and North Macedonia and Greece exchanged barbs about who was to blame.
The clashes happened after North Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia earlier that year began to restrict passage through their borders, allowing only asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to pass. As a result, thousands of people were stuck on the Greek border with North Macedonia, specifically in Idomeni.
Idomeni hosted one of Greece’s largest makeshift camps holding more than 13,000 migrants and refugees. In May 2016, Greek authorities evacuated the camp and relocated the people to alternative accommodation in Greece.
During these incidents, observers and media were largely allowed to visit the area and report. The border is now indeed heavily guarded, North Macedonian police told BIRN on Friday.
“Our border police are deployed there and constantly backed by the Army in securing the border area … Over the past year we have not seen any massive attempts to breach our border, but we are now more focused on preventing illegal border crossings by smaller groups or individuals who hope to get smuggled through North Macedonia and later continue north, toward EU countries,” North Macedonia’s police said.
In 2019, as security in the area was boosted, another round of clashes emerged, on Greek soil, near Thessaloniki, involving the Greek police who tried to prevent the people from heading once more en masse towards North Macedonia.