A report from the Council of Europe – Europe's human rights arm – said Greece must stop pushing back migrants, a practice the European Union's border patrol agency FRONTEX said didn't happen.
There are diverging accusations and denials over alleged pushbacks in which Greece's New Democracy government has allowed the Coast Guard and law enforcement officials to allegedly put migrants on boats and shove them out to sea or smuggle them across land borders into Turkey.
The Council of Europe is an international organization with 47 members, which include all European countries and former Soviet states, except Belarus and is apart from the 27-member EU.
Human rights groups and activists, as well as media reports – including The New York Times and in The Guardian – have also said that pushbacks have been ongoing but didn't blame Turkey for violating an essentially-suspended swap deal with the EU.
Turkey has continued to allow human traffickers to keep sending refugees and migrants, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, to Greek islands and in February sent 10,000 to the land border along the Evros River and urged them to cross before they were stymied by Greek riot police and army units.
The report was prepared by the Council's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) and said some f its members visited Greece from March 13-17, the period when the land border was being besieged.
The delegation visited police and border guard establishments in Evros and the island of Samos and the Malakasa detention camp and held a videoconference with Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarakiks and his deputy, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, said Kathimerini in a report on the findings.
The report said that “the CPT acknowledges the significant challenges faced by the Greek authorities in dealing with large numbers of migrants entering the country,” and that migration “requires a coordinated European approach” but added that “this cannot absolve the Greek State from their human rights obligations.” Greece has denied any pushbacks.
CPT said all entering migrants and refugees should be given the right to apply for asylum – which they are – a process that can take two years or longer as there are more than 100,000 of them, including some 34,000 on islands near Turkey.
Under the EU's Dublin Regulation, they can only apply for asylum in the country in which they first land, almost always Greece since those who went to Turkey fleeing war and strife and economic hardships in their homelands come from places like Syria, Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa and can't land in Germany first.
The rest of the EU also closed its borders to them, dumping the problem on Greece, along with Italy, Malta and Spain, other favored destinations. EU countries also reneged on promises to help take some of the overload from Greece but human rights groups said detention centers in the country are inhumane.
“Greek authorities must make provision for the possibility to cope with sudden peaks in the influx of migrants by establishing facilities which can be brought into service at very short notice and which offer basic minimum conditions of detention for short periods,” the report said, according to the paper.
The committee interviewed many migrants “who all alleged that the Turkish authorities took active measures to promote and facilitate the large-scale entry of persons into Greece,” but didn't blame Turkey for the practice.
Much of the report concentrated on conditions in refugee and migrant detention centers and camps, with some 12,500 on Lesbos being moved into a tent city for the winter after a fire set by those protesting a COVID-19 quarantine destroyed the notorious Moria camp.
The group said the camps need improving from the “extreme overcrowding in several of the facilities” to practices such as separating families.
“The CPT has over the years been extremely critical of the way in which the Greek authorities treat migrants who enter the territory in an irregular manner. It has advocated that any immigration detention facilities established are not punitive and meet basic minimum standards. Regrettably, despite repeated recommendations by the Committee, the approach of the Greek authorities has not evolved substantially,” the report added.
“The CPT found that the conditions of detention in which migrants were held in certain facilities in the Evros region and on the island of Samos could amount to inhuman and degrading treatment,” it continues.
The report also alleges ill-treatment of some migrants, either upon apprehension or during detention, the newspaper's story said, including a claim that in one case some 50 migrants – men, women and children, were detained in a 30 square meter cell (344-square feet) cell with undivided toilets and no beds.
The report “also raises concerns over acts by the Greek Coast Guard to prevent boats carrying migrants from reaching any Greek island and it questions the role and engagement of FRONTEX in such operations,” questioning that agency.
The report said that Greek officials mostly cooperated, apart from some police and said the Coast Guard didn't have a contact person, the group coming on less than 48 hours notice.
In response, Greek officials said there were no specific complaints but said some facilities need upgrading but that areas are cleaned every weekday while acknowledging some minors are held on orders of prosecutors and others are under “protective custody” to prevent “exploitation by trafficking networks.”
The reported noted that Greek police “state that the alleged practice of pushbacks to the border is unsubstantiated and completely wrong.”