Greek law enforcement officers are returning refugees and migrants on the border with Turkey during the COVID-19 pandemic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, joining other critics who complained despite Greece rejecting the reports.
The officers in some cases used violence against asylum seekers, including some who were deep inside Greek territory, and often confiscated and destroyed the migrants’ belongings, HRW alleged, reported Eurasia Review.
In June, The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urged Greece's New Democracy government to investigate multiple reports of pushbacks by Greek authorities at the country’s land and maritime borders, said its spokesperson Babar Baloch.
These allegations about Greece forcibly returning migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey after they have reached Greek territory have increased since March, the UNHCR official noted. Baloch added that many of these reports have been confirmed by NGOs and direct evidence, even though the migration influx to Greece has fallen sharply.
Forced repatriations run counter to Greece's international obligations and could put people at great risk, the agency said.
In reviewing nine cases, HRW said it didn't find evidence authorities took any precautions to prevent the risk of transmission of COVID-19 or among the migrants while in their custody although no cases have been reported.
HRW claimed, however, there's plenty of proof of abuses collected by nongovernmental groups and media, involving hundreds of people intercepted and pushed back from Greece to Turkey by Greek law enforcement officers or unidentified masked men.
The group said that violates international laws including against collective expulsion under the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Greek authorities did not allow a nationwide lockdown to get in the way of a new wave of collective expulsions, including from deep inside Greek territory, ” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Instead of protecting the most vulnerable people in this time of global crisis, Greek authorities have targeted them in total breach of the right to seek asylum and in disregard for their health.”
HRW said it interviewed 13 victims and witnesses who described incidents in which the Greek police, the Greek Coast Guard, and unidentified men in black or commando-like uniforms, who appeared to be working in close coordination with uniformed authorities, violently pushed migrants back to Turkey in March and April 2020.
Six of those interviewed said Greek police officers rounded up people in the Diavata camp for asylum seekers in Thessaloniki, 400 kilometers (248.55 miles) from the land border with Turkey near the Evros River.
That's the area where Turkey earlier this year, in violation of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union, sent 10,000 migrants and urged them to cross before they were repelled by Greek riot police and army units.
On June 10, the International Organization for Migration reported receiving allegations of migrants being arbitrarily arrested in Greece and pushed back to Turkey and asked Greece to investigate.
Greece is holding more than 100,000 refugees and migrants, virtually all seeking asylum, including more than 34,000 on five islands near the coast of Turkey, which has allowed human traffickers to keep sending more.
Part of the COVID-19 lockdown measures closed the detention centers and camps to prevent the spread of the virus which oddly hasn't seriously affected the vastly overcrowded sites that human rights groups said are unfit for humans.
HRW said it sent letters to the Greek police and Coast Guard on June 29, presenting authorities with a summary of findings but received no response, the group calling for judicial authorities to investigate reports.
During a debate in the European Parliament about rights at the Greek border, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, said that incidents should be investigated and that a new system may be set up to monitor the reports.
“Greece has an obligation to treat everyone humanely and not to return refugees and asylum seekers to persecution, or anyone to the real risk of inhuman and degrading treatment or worse,” said Cossé. “Putting a stop to these dangerous incidents should be a priority for the Greek government and the European Commission as well.”