ATHENS – Greece won't allow the European Union to have an independent check of how the country patrols its borders to keep out refugees and migrants as the New Democracy government's hard line against them is stiffening.
That has said to have angered EU officials although the bloc's commissioner in charge of migrant and refugee affairs is Margaritis Schinas from Greece's ruling New Democracy, who has done little to aid his country deal with the problem.
Greece relies on the EU for funding, including to help finance a 43-million euro ($49.9 million) new refugee detention camp on the island of Samos, with more planned for other islands near the coast of Turkey.
In a report, The Voice of America (VOA) said Greece's rejection of the request for an independent authority to monitor border patrols – the EU's border patrol agency FRONTEX also takes part – could affect future financial aid to deal with the numbers of refugees and migrants in Greece, most seeking asylum.
The brouhaha comes as Greece is anxious that there could be more waves of refugees fleeing the murderous rule of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with Afghans making up a huge sector of those in Greece already.
Asked in Parliament, Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis said while Greece was open to talking about the idea of a monitoring committee that the country wasn't willing to “to go it alone,” and didn't need oversight.
Mitarakis said setting up a watchdog group isn't needed as the country has tried to deal with repeated accusations from human rights groups and media reports that refugees and migrants are being unlawfully pushed back to sea and across the border, which the government denied.
Greece has stepped up patrols in the Aegean near the coast of Turkey, which has allowed human smugglers to keep sending refugees and migrants to five Greek islands in violation of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU.
They had gone to Turkey fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands, especially Syria and Afghanistan as well as sub-Saharan Africa and as as far away as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Greece is holding almost 100,000 of them, and had almost 30,000 on the islands, the numbers reduced as more were moved to mainland camps and as the government wants EU aid to build more island detention camps.
A border wall along the northern border with Turkey along the Evros River where many refugees and migrants have drowned trying to cross the perilous currents has been extended and plans for a floating barrier off the island of Lesbos are uncertain.
Senior United Nations officials in Greece contacted by VOA said at least 450 cases of illegal pushbacks had been documented this year, which they said were sent to a prosecutor despite repeated denials from the government they happened.
The Norwegian-based Aegean Boat Report – which is being charged by Greek prosecutors with human smuggling for trying to rescue refugees and migrants at sea – said it documented 700 pushbacks since March 20, 2020.
It said that was a total of 19,200 people it claimed authorities pushed back to sea or stripped motors off their boats to leave them adrift in the Aegean, which is a violation of international law.
In Greece, the UN officials were said to have charged that so-called pushbacks are routine, for which FRONTEX was also probed but nobody's been charged in court with anything.
The report said that masked agents picked up migrants and refugees who crossed into Greek waters, threw them onto life rafts, towed them back into the Aegean and pushed them back toward Turkey.
But Turkey hasn't been punished for allowing human traffickers to keep operating while pointing the blame at Greece for pushbacks, the two countries bickering over who's at fault.
EU officials in Athens were not available for comment, said VOA, but Greek meida reported that the bloc's migration officials – it wasn't said what Schinas' role was if any – were said to be infuriated with Greece's refusal to allow monitors.
Local media also reported the EU is set on freezing some $17.4 million in aid to help revamp Greece’s Coast Guard with new equipment and vessels, setting up a likely confrontation.
Greece's stance on refugees and migrants has gotten tougher since Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his New Democracy Conservative government took power in July 7, 2019 snap elections.
That ousted the former ruling Radical Left SYRIZA which essentially had an open door policy for refugees and migrants who were housed in island and mainland camps that human rights groups said were inhumane.
Since taking office, New Democracy has worked to cut the numbers of refugees and migrants, which have fallen some 90 percent, in large part because of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as tougher measures against them.