GR US

Human Rights Groups Line Up Against Greece Over Alleged Refugee Pushbacks

Αssociated Press

Afghan migrants watch from inside a life raft during a rescue operation by the Turkish coast guard, in the Aegean Sea, between Turkey and Greece, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

While Greece has repeatedly denied doing so, a coalition of human rights groups and activists are set to release a letter claiming the government is pushing back dinghies and boats carrying refugees and migrants.

The group, said the British newspaper The Guardian, includes Human Rights Watch and the Border Violence Monitoring Network, will include a demand for 

“disciplinary and criminal sanctions” to be brought against those “found to have engaged in such illegal acts,” without specifying who they might be.

They said pushbacks are a violation of international law including the convention relating to the status of refugees and the European convention on human rights. 

“What you are seeing is the illegal collective expulsion of refugees from Greek territory,” Satvinder Juss, a  Professor of Human Rights and International Refugee law at King’s College London told the paper. “It’s a catastrophe for human rights,” he added.

The group, as had the New York Times, said shadowy men in bloack uniforms are intercepting boats full of refugees that Turkey lets human traffickers send to Greek islands during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.

The refugees boats are then pushed back toward Turkey or left to drift after their engines were allegedly destroyed, ostensibly leaving them to their fate or to die at sea without evidence being provided beyond the claims or words of those said to be on the boats.

In some cases, refugees made it to Greece only to be sent back into the open seas, the groups said, those on board threatened with beatings or their boats swamped by wakes from larger boats making waves deliberately.

Greece is holding some 34,000 refugees and migrants on five islands near Turkey and another 66,000 on the mainland, almost all seeking asylum after the EU closed its borders to them and other countries reneged on pledges to help take some of the overload, unforced to do so in court.

In one case, refugees were left on a tiny island between Greece and Turkey for two days without food before being rescued was another allegation.

AlarmPhone, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that operates a telephone line and social media network for refugees in distress, said there's been a big increase in pushbacks, some 55 between March-August.

The Greek Helsinki Monitor said it submitted a report to the Supreme Court, naval court and military appeals court of Greece claiming nearly 1,400 people were pushed back between March and July, though the true number is believed to be far higher. It wasn't reported how the numbers were determined.

Minos Mouzourakis, legal officer at Refugee Support Aegean, is working on landmark legal cases at the European Court of Human Rights that date back to 2014, when eight Afghan children and three women died after their vessel sank near the island of Farmakonisi during a reported pushback. “This is a regrettable resurgence of those older tactics,” Mouzourakis told the paper.

THE ISLANDS BECKON

The numbers arrived on Greek islands have fallen markedly during the COVIOD-19 pandemic, some 8,860 since December, 2019 the report said, citing officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR.)

Stella Nanou, the agency’s Greek representative, acknowledged the “credible accounts” of pushbacks and called on Greece to “guarantee and safeguard the rights of those seeking international protection”.

Greece has been making it tougher on refugees and migrants, a problem compounded when the notorious Moria detention camp in the island of Lesbos was set on fire by refugees unhappy with a COVID-19 quarantine.

That left 12,500 instantly homeless, most moved into a tent city where they wills pend the winter, despite their insistence and those of local residents and officials they should be moved to the mainland.

Greece's government had planned to put a floating sea wall around part of Lesbos and is extending a wall on the land border with Turkey near the perilous Evros River where many refugees and migrants drowned trying to cross.

But the government has described accusations of illegal pushbacks as “fake news” from unreliable sources.

“Pushbacks are inherently violent, not only physically but mentally,” said Amelia Cooper, advocacy and communications officer for Lesbos Legal Centre, which is documenting pushbacks and providing legal support to survivors told The Guardian.

“Survivors are aware that these expulsions, and the abuses that they entail, are constitutive of both the European border and the EU’s political context with Turkey,” with Turkey regularly violating the 2016 pact by letting human traffickers continue to operate, the country going unpunished.

The ministry of maritime affairs and insular policy said its operations were in accordance with international law and that the agency has been subject to “systematic targeting by a portion of the mainstream media, NGOs and other social networking platforms, which tend to promote the relevant actions in a single dimensional and fragmentary way”.

Documents seen by the Guardian said a German navy supply vessel called the Berlin, which heads NATO's Standing Maritime Group 2 in the Aegean region, observed a boat with refugees being forced into Turkish sea territory by Greek authorities on June 9 and Aug. 15 but apparently did nothing about it.

Shortly after reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, a group of Afghan migrants say, their hopes for a new life in Europe were cut short when Greek authorities rounded them up, mistreated them, shoved them into life rafts and abandoned them at sea.

Associated Press journalists on a Turkish government-organized coast guard ride-along were aboard the patrol boat that picked up the 37 migrants, including 18 children, from two orange life rafts in the Aegean Sea on Sept. 12. Two other media organizations on similar government-organized trips in the same week witnessed similar scenes.

"They took our phones and said a bus will come and take you to the camp," Omid Hussain Nabizada said in Turkish. "But they took us and put us on a ship. They left us on the water in a very bad way on these boats."

Turkey, which hosts about 4 million refugees, accuses Greece of large-scale pushbacks — summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, in violation of international law. It also accuses the European Union of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.

TURKISH ESCORTING REFUGEES?

The Turkish coast guard says it rescued over 300 migrants "pushed back by Greek elements to Turkish waters" this month alone. Citing what they say are credible reports, international rights groups have called repeatedly for investigations.

Greece, which lies on the EU's southeastern border and has borne the brunt of migration flows from Turkey, denies the allegations and in turn accuses Ankara of weaponizing migrants.

In March, Turkey made good on threats to send migrants to Europe, declaring its borders with the EU open. In what appeared to be a government-organized campaign, thousands headed to the Greek border, leading to scenes of chaos and violence. Turkey's border with EU member Bulgaria was largely unaffected. Greece shut its frontier and controversially suspended asylum applications for a month.

Greece's Coast Guard says Turkey's Coast Guard frequently escorts migrant smuggling boats toward Greece, and has provided videos to back its claims. It says under a 2016 EU-Turkey deal to stem migration flows, Turkey has an obligation to stop people clandestinely entering Greece.

Greek Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nikolaos Kokkalas said its patrols regularly detect boats and dinghies carrying migrants trying to enter Greece illegally, and "among them many times there are also inflatable rafts such as those described" by the AP.

The life rafts are standard safety equipment on recreational boats, designed to keep passengers safe if they must abandon ship. They generally have no means of propulsion or steering.

"It must be underlined that in most of the cases, the presence of the Turkish coast guard has been observed-ascertained near the dinghies incoming from the Turkish coast, but without it intervening, while in some cases the dinghies are clearly being accompanied by (Turkish coast guard) vessels," Kokkalas said in a written response to an AP query.

Uneasy neighbors Greece and Turkey have been at loggerheads for decades over several territorial issues, and asylum-seekers have found themselves caught up in the geopolitical conflict.

Human Rights Watch has accused Greece of summarily returning migrants across land and sea borders with Turkey, citing interviews with asylum-seekers.

Other rights groups and refugee organizations, including the U.N. refugee agency, have repeatedly called on Greece to investigate what they say are credible reports and testimony of such expulsions occurring.

"UNHCR is particularly concerned about the increasing reports, since March 2020, of alleged informal returns by sea of persons who, according to their own attestations or those of third persons, have disembarked on Greek shores and have thereafter been towed back to sea," the agency said in August.

UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs, reiterating the call for an investigation, said that "with our own eyes on Lesbos, it was quite clear no boats were coming through" recently. 

Earlier this month, Greece's Shipping Minister Giannis Plakiotakis said Greek authorities prevented more than 10,000 people from entering Greece by sea this year. He would not elaborate on how.

Former Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas pressed for details from the current minister, Notis Mitarachi, in parliament Sept. 21, saying this appeared to violate Greek and international law. He asked directly whether the government carries out pushbacks violating laws.

The four Afghans on the life rafts seen by AP said they reached Lesbos from Turkey's western Canakkale province on the night of Sept. 11-12, and were caught by Greek law enforcement during daylight.

One of them, Nabizada, said police hit him while forcing him into the raft.

"They didn't say, 'there are children, there are families, there are women.' … People don't do this to animals. The Greek police did it to us," said the 22-year-old. He said he left Kabul in 2017 and crossed to Turkey via Iran, aiming for Europe.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)