ATHENS – After human rights groups, activists, NGO’s and Turkey accused Greece of pushing refugees and migrants back across the land border and the Aegean Sea, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) Filippo Grandi said he’s anxious about the reports.
That surprised Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarakis, who denied it and insisted that Greece is also protecting the outer limits of the borders of the European Union, which closed its doors to them.
He also said that Greece is complying with inernational 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.”
Videos have been produced allegedly showing Greek Coast Guard officials conducting pushbacks and even beating people in rubber dingies said to be migrants and refugees.
They try to reach Greece from Turkey, which allows human traffickers to keep operating during an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU and hasn’t been penalized for it.
NOT HOLDING WATER
Mitarakis expressed “surprise” at Grandi’s statement, saying that “it’s deeply disturbing that Turkish propaganda and false news about illegal migration are taken so frequently and wrongly as fact,” said Greece’s state-run Athens-Macedonia News Agency (AMNA.)
He said Turkey is required by the 2016 agreement to hold some 4.4 million refugees and migrants who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands.
“Greece is not against legal migration. We are against human traffickers and all those who take advantage of human pain for gain or political reasons,” he said, with the country at times holding up to 100,000 who seek asylum.
“Greece cannot resolve the migration crisis by itself; we urgently need more tangible support and greater commitment at EU level and by member states, especially on relocation,” he said. “In the last seven years alone, Greece has provided safe harbor for over 1 million people,” he said.
“We would welcome a discussion on the issues the High Commissioner raised and a talk with him about the constructive role the international community can play in protecting the life of refugees,” Mitarakis said.
Greece said that the UNHCR appeared to have fallen for propaganda from neighboring Turkey, from which thousands of asylum-seekers from other countries enter Greece every year.
In some cases, Grandi said, migrants were reportedly “left adrift in life rafts or sometimes even forced directly into the water, showing a callous lack of regard for human life.”
“Equally horrific practices are frequently reported at land borders, with consistent testimonies of people being stripped and brutally pushed back in harsh weather conditions,” he added.
On Feb. 3, Turkey said 19 migrants were found frozen to death on its land border with Greece, and accused Greek authorities of taking away their clothes and shoes and forcing them back into Turkey.
Greece denied the Turkish claims – and others of pushbacks at sea – as untrue and said Turkey’s Coast Guard was escorting boats of asylum-seekers to Greek waters and harassing Greek Coast Guard vessels.