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New York Times Says Greece Pushing Back, Abandoning Migrants at Sea

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(Photo by Eurokinissi/ Tatiana Bollari, file)

Citing sources that includes Turkey's Coast Guard – without mentioning Turkey is allowing human traffickers to keep sending refugees and migrants to Greece – The New York Times reported that Greece's New Democracy government expelling migrants, including abandoning 1,072 in the open sea.

The reports have been made sporadically without mentioning Turkey's role in sending scores of thousands of migrants and refugees to Greek islands holding more than 34,000 of them.

They had gone to Turkey fleeing war and strife in their homelands, especially Afghanistan and Syria's civil war as well economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and other countries hoping to find work in Europe.

But the European Union closed its borders to them, dumping the problem on Greece during a long economic and austerity crisis as the hordes began arriving in 2015.

In March, 2016, the EU struck a deal in which Turkey, holding as many as 5.5 million refugees and migrants was supposed to contain them but human smugglers kept sending them, the numbers falling, even more during COVID-19.

The Times, citing an analysis of evidence it says was gleaned from three independent watchdogs, two academics and Turkey said the secret expulsions have been going on for months during the pandemic.

The paper said 1,072 people were sailed to to edge of Greek territorial waters and abandoned in inflatable and sometimes overburdened life rafts but it wasn't said where that was as Greek islands – especially five with detention centers and camps – are so close to Turkey some are within sight of the Turkish coast.

Indeed, Turkey is claiming waters around those islands during a maritime deal with Libya dividing the seas between them, leading to fears of a conflict in the Aegean – where the report indicated the migrants and refugees were dumped, Turkey also claiming East Mediterranean seas.

The paper said since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began and Greece went into a lockdown, that there were at least 31 expulsions, citing allegations from survivors in five episodes and a review of photo evidence from all of them.

“It was very inhumane,” said Najma al-Khatib, a 50-year-old Syrian teacher, who said masked Greek officials took her and 22 others, including two babies, under cover of darkness from a detention center on the island of Rhodes on July 26 and abandoned them in a rudderless, motorless life raft before they were rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard.

“I left Syria for fear of bombing — but when this happened, I wished I’d died under a bomb,” she told The Times.

Unlawful under international law, “The expulsions are the most direct and sustained attempt by a European country to block maritime migration using its own forces since the height of the migration crisis in 2015, when Greece was the main thoroughfare for migrants and refugees seeking to enter Europe,” the paper said.

Greece's government denied it. “Greek authorities do not engage in clandestine activities,’’ said government spokesman, Stelios Petsas. “Greece has a proven track record when it comes to observing international law, conventions and protocols. This includes the treatment of refugees and migrants.”

The report said migrants have been forced onto sometimes leaky life rafts and left to drift at the border between Turkish and Greek waters, while others have been left to drift in their own boats after Greek officials disabled their engines.

“These pushbacks are totally illegal in all their aspects, in international law and in European law,” said Prof. François Crépeau, an expert on international law and a former United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

“It is a human rights and humanitarian disaster,” Professor Crépeau added.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February and March sent 10,000 migrants to the land border along the Evros River and encouraged them to try to cross into Greece before they were stymied by riot police and army units.

With more than 100,000 refugees and migrants in camps and centers, including on the mainland, and virtually all seeking asylum after the EU locked them out, people have waited two years or more for applications to be processed.

That has led to frequent violence in camps on the islands where Greeks initially welcomed the newcomers and people who tried to save them at sea were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

TURKEY SAYS SAVED MIGRANTS

But compassion fatigue has set in, even more so during the pandemic when people are fearful for their own lives and worried that the Coronavirus will spread in the camps as cases are rising across the country after being held down.

Since the election of Kyriakos Mitsotakis as Prime Minister in July 7, 2019 snap elections in which he ousted the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA, his Conservative government has taken a harder line in dealing with the numbers in the camps.

The Greek government said Turkey is using the refugees and migrants as political pawns to gain an even further advantage over the EU which has backed off hitting Erdogan's government with sanctions for provocations in the seas.

For years, Greek officials have been accused of intercepting and expelling migrants, on a sporadic and infrequent basis, usually before the migrants manage to land their boats on Greek soil, the paper said, but there's no evidence.

Now, said The Times, hundreds of migrants have been denied the right to seek asylum even after they have landed on Greek soil, and they’ve been forbidden to appeal their expulsion through the legal system while the EU has done little to help even though the current and former migration chiefs are from New Democracy.

“They’ve seized the moment,” Professor Crépeau said of the Greeks. “The Coronavirus has provided a window of opportunity to close national borders to whoever they’ve wanted.”

“Migrants landing on the Greek islands from Turkey have frequently been forced onto sometimes leaky, inflatable life rafts, dropped at the boundary between Turkish and Greek waters, and left to drift until being spotted and rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard,” which said it rescued them from the Greeks.

“This practice is totally unprecedented in Greece,” said Niamh Keady-Tabbal, a doctoral researcher at the Irish Center for Human Rights, and one of the first to claim to have documents proving it.

“Greek authorities are now weaponizing rescue equipment to illegally expel asylum seekers in a new, violent and highly visible pattern of pushbacks spanning several Aegean Islands,” Keady-Tabbal said.

She told the paper she entered Turkey in November, 2019 with her two sons, 14 and 12, fleeing the advance of the Syrian Army. Her husband, who had entered several weeks earlier, soon died of cancer,  she said.

She said her family tried three times to get to Greece from Turkey and landed on Rhodes on July 23 where she and other passengers said they were detained by Greek police and taken to a detention center.

Using footage filmed at this site by two passengers, a Times reporter was able to identify the facility’s location beside the island’s main ferry port and visit the camp, the report said.

On the evening of July 26, she and the other detainees said police officers loaded them onto a bus, telling them they were being taken to a camp on another island, and then to Athens.

But instead they said, masked Greek officials transferred them to two vessels that ferried them out to sea before dropping them on rafts at the Turkish maritime border, a group with two babies as water came into the raft.

The group was rescued by Turkish Coast Guard, its officials claimed, producing a photograph of those on the raft.

Despite that ordeal, she said she tried a fourth time to back to Greece but was stopped on Aug. 6 off the island of Lesbos where the Moria camp is holding 18,000 people, apparently none of whom have been put into boats and pushed back toward Turkey.

She said Greeks on a boat took the fuel out of the refugees boat and toward it back to Turkish waters.

There were similar claims by others who said they were refugees and migrants, including 30 who said they were intercepted off the island of Samos, so close to Turkey you can hear morning prayers on that side.

Migrants have also been left to drift in the boats they arrived on, after Greek officials disabled their engines, survivors and researchers said, the paper's report also added, or twice dumped on Ciplak, an uninhabited island within Turkish waters, instead of being placed on life rafts, saved by Turkey's Coast Guard.

Several activist groups, including Human Rights Watch, said they too have documented Greek authorities rounding up migrants living legally in Greece and secretly expelling them across the Evros River into Turkey.

Ylva Johansson, who oversees migration policy at the European Commission, the civil service for the European Union, said she was concerned by the accusations but had no power to investigate them.

“We cannot protect our European border by violating European values and by breaching people’s rights,” Johansson said in an email. “Border control can and must go hand in hand with respect for fundamental rights.”