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NGO Sues Greece in EU Court for Alleged Refugee Sea Pushbacks

Αssociated Press

FILE- Refugees and migrants on a plastic boat approach a Greek Coast Guard ship during a rescue operation early Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, near the Greek island from Samos. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ΑΤΗΕΝS -- The Non-governmental organization Legal Centre Lesvos has filed a suit in the European Court of Human Rights accusing Greece of unlawfully pushing refugees and migrants back to sea as they tried to reach Greek islands.

That’s the latest in a number of similar claims by activists and human rights groups who also said that the European Union border patrol Frontex was complicit in what it said were systematic attempts to keep out refugees and migrants.

Nothing has been said about Turkey allowing human traffickers to keep sending them to Greek islands in violation of an essentially-suspended swap deal with the EU which gave Turkey 3 billion euros ($3.63 billion) to contain them.

There are some 4.4 million refugees and migrants in Turkey who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardships in their homelands, especially Syria and Afghanistan, using that country as a stepping stone to the EU.

But Europe closed its borders to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece since the influx began in 2015, some 100,000 seeking asylum in the country to avoid being sent back to Turkey and then their homelands.

In a feature report on the suit, the British newspaper The Guardian said the NGO accused Greece’s New Democracy government of engineering “a shocking level of violence in sophisticated inter-agency operations that form part of an illegal pushback strategy to stop the arrival of refugees and migrants.”

The government has repeatedly denied the claims that have also been made by Turkey, which has escaped any sanctions or blame for sending the refugees and migrants and now refusing to take them back if they’re denied asylum.

The suit focuses on an incident in October, 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, last year in which a fishing boat set off from Marmaris in Turkey for Italy carrying about 200 people, including 40 children and a pregnant woman. The boat ran into difficulty in a storm off the south coast of Crete, leading the captain to radio for assistance, the paper said.

The allegations include charges by the NGO that a Greek search-and-rescue vessel, instead of helping the stranded people onboard, stalled the smuggler’s boat for five hours until speedboats carrying masked commandos arrived.

SET ADRIFT

Several passengers claim they were beaten in the ensuing incident but no other proof was offered, the allegations going on to say that the passengers were separated into two groups, taken to two Greek Coast Guard vessels where armed crews stole their cell phones, passports and money.

The passengers were then reportedly forced on to several small life rafts, towed back to Turkish waters and abandoned at sea without food, water, life jackets or any means to call for help until saved by the Turkish Coast Guard.

“It was like watching a movie. The men from the speedboats jumped onboard screaming and shouting, they all had guns and knives and were wearing black and masks,” said Mahmoud, a witness from Syria whose name was changed to protect him.

“They began beating people with batons, looking for the captain. They punched me in the face and broke my glasses … I understand they don’t want us, but you could send us back to Turkey without the need for violence. When they cut us loose on the rafts we all thought we were going to die,” he said.

The suit claims the alleged pushbacks have been going on since March 2020 after Turkey sent 10,000 refugees and migrants to Greece’s northern land border along the Evros River and urged them to cross.

They were stymied by Greek riot police and army units and Greece reacted with a tougher line to keep them out and from reaching islands where thousands are still being held in detention centers and camps.

Rights groups and journalists have recorded hundreds of alleged pushback incidents over the last 12 months, the report said, most involving boats intercepted and towed back to Turkish waters, their engines disabled.

Some said they were pushed back after landing on Greek soil, and passengers have been abandoned on an uninhabited Turkish islet at least twice, according to reporting by Der Spiegel, Lighthouse Reports and the New York Times.

“‘It’s a decision by the authorities to deliberately abandon people at sea putting their lives at risk, with no means to call for rescue and no chance at all to claim asylum,” Natasha Ntailiani, a Legal Centre Lesvos lawyer representing some of the survivors before the ECHR, told the paper.

“It’s a new and disturbing trend characterised by planned and systematic violence, which has increased over the last year in the Aegean region. Even search and rescue vessels and materials are now being used against migrants, which is a remarkable insight into the lengths the Greek authorities are now willing to go to,” she said.

The suit is the fifth LCL has filed at the ECHR in recent years to allege violations of migrant and refugee rights in Greece.