ΑΤΗΕΝS – It’s the story that won’t go away – complaints that Greece has been pushing bac refugees and migrants across land borders and the sea, some to their deaths, were rejected again, this time by the Independent Authority for Transparency.
The panel under the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who said the allegations by human rights groups, activists, NGO’s, major media and Turkey’s Coast Guard were false – said there was no evidence.
But critics have produced videos allegedly showing Greek Coast Guard crews turning around rubber dinghies and other craft coming from Turkey, which has allowed human traffickers to keep sending refugees and migrants who went there fleeing war, strife, and economic hardship in their homelands.
That’s despite an essentially-suspended swap deal with the European Union which has seen Turkey largely renege on promises to take back those denied asylum in Greece, holding scores of thousands in detention centers, including on islands.
The agency said in a statement that the allegations by the Lighthouse Reports non-profit organization in 2021 concerning “informal obligatory returns” of asylum-seekers by masked men “were not confirmed.”
“Upon completion of the examination process and the laboratory examination of the relevant material, no supporting evidence emerged,” the statement said although the European Parliament said it also wants a probe, including if the EU’s border patrol agency Frontex was complicit in pushbacks.
Greece is a major entry point for people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa seeking a better life in the EU, which closed its borders to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece.
A record of about 1 million people arrived through neighboring Turkey in 2015, but in recent years the numbers have dropped drastically following tougher border management, especially under Mitsotakis’ government.
Greece was accused by human rights groups and Turkey of unlawfully sending back asylum-seekers who have reached Greek shores and dumping them at sea. The groups report some froze to death in a winter pushback into Turkey.
The agency said its more than four-month investigation into the Lighthouse Reports’ allegations included visits to the eastern Aegean Sea islands where migrant boats from Turkey arrive and to the northeastern land border, and interviews with Greek security services, local residents, and asylum-seekers.
It said it also examined video and photos connected with the allegations, with the assistance of the Greek police, who had also been accused by migrants of beating them and stealing their phones, money, and personal belongings.
In October, 2021, The Netherlands-based Lighthouse Reports said an investigation with European media organizations collected and analyzed 635 videos of alleged pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, “at least 15 of them showing masked men in action.”
THE MASKED MEN
It said current and former senior officers in the Greek Coast Guard reviewed the videos and “were able to identify the masked men as members of elite Greek coast guard units,” the transparency agency not explaining the apparent contradiction.
In February, after human rights groups, activists, NGO’s and Turkey accused Greece of the pushbacks, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) Filippo Grandi said he was anxious about the reports.
That surprised Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarakis, who denied it and noted that Greece is also protecting the outer limits of the borders of the EU as the government was trying to keep out refugees and migrants.
He also said that Greece is complying with international law and the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Human Rights while rejecting all claims otherwise and Greece accusing Turkey of trying to use the issue as a political weapon.
Grandi said he was concerned about “the increasing number of incidents of violence and serious human rights violations against refugees and migrants at various European borders,” including ill-treatment of migrants and pushbacks.
He said the UN agency is “alarmed by recurrent and consistent reports coming from Greece’s land and sea borders with Turkey, where UNHCR has recorded almost 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the beginning of 2020.”
Greek officials have said none of that is true and Mitarakis responded that the country’s “national independent authorities are investigating all claims about so-called violations, and we are actively asking for presentation of proof.”
But Ville Itälä, head of the European Union’s anti-fraud office OLAF, said there’s more than enough proof that Greece and the bloc’s border patrol force Frontex have been pushing back refugees and migrants, despite denials.
Germany’s largest news site DER SPIEGEL said the Finnish former Member of the European Parliament – which earlier called for a probe of whether Frontex was taking part in pushbacks – said, “we have a lot of evidence.”
That was said to include 20 witnesses testifying that the pushbacks happened although Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose New Democracy government has been trying to keep them out, denied it happened.
OLAF investigators look into cases of possible fraud or misappropriation involving EU funds or wrongdoing and have spent more than a year looking into Frontex and its chief, Fabrice Leggeri and his aides, the report said.
The agency’s closing report is more than 200 pages long and strictly confidential. European parliamentarians, who oversee Frontex, got an oral summary and said “it was a bombshell.”
Several sources not named said that the briefing accused also three members of Frontex leadership of having violated EU regulations and recommended disciplinary measures against them.
They wanted to question Leggeri but the report said he refused because he hadn’t read the findings and the names of others allegedly involved haven’t been released so far, although he’s said to be the main target.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)