ATHENS – Allegations that Greece is pushing back refugees seeking asylum was stepped up, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) charging that migrants from the Middle East and South Asia were being used in the effort to keep them out.
The group accused the Greek government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has denied all claims of pushbacks, of unlawfully deporting refugees at borders before they can register asylum claims.
The New York-based rights group based the allegation on interviews with Afghan migrants who said they had been subjected to illegal pushbacks over the River Evros which forms part of the border between Greece and Turkey.
“Sixteen of those interviewed said the boats taking them back to Turkey were piloted by men who spoke Arabic or the South Asian languages common among migrants,” a 23-page report from HRW said.
“They said most of these men wore black or commando-like uniforms and used balaclavas to cover their faces,” similar to claims reported in major media and from other activist groups and the United Nations refugee agency.
Greece’s government has denied all claims as untrue and said the accusations were based on the “blanket acceptance” of allegations made in telephone interviews without any further investigation.
“The descriptions of actions carried out by foreign nationals at the border, to the extent that they may be accurate, would reveal rivalry and hostility between smuggling gangs,” a joint statement issued by the ministries of public order and migration affairs said.
Mitsotakis’ government has taken a hard line on refugees and migrants, trying to keep them out after Greece in 2015 welcomed those who had arrived from Turkey after going there fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands.
The 29-page report “Their Faces Were Covered’: Greece’s Use of Migrants as Police Auxiliaries in Pushbacks alleged that Greek police are detaining asylum seekers at the Greece-Turkey land border at the Evros River, in many cases stripping them of most of their clothing and stealing their money, phones, and other possessions.
The report said that the turned the asylum seekers over to masked men, who forced them onto small boats, and took them them to the middle of the Evros River, where scores have drowned trying to cross.
It was said the refugees were forced into freezing water and had to try to wade to the riverbank back on the Turkish side but it wasn’t said why or if there were Turkish border guards on the other side.
“There can be no denying that the Greek government is responsible for the illegal pushbacks at its borders, and using proxies to carry out these illegal acts does not relieve it of any liability,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch.
“The European Commission should urgently open legal proceedings and hold the Greek government accountable for violating EU laws prohibiting collective expulsions,” he said.
The group said that it interviewed 26 Afghan migrants and asylum seekers, 23 of whom were pushed back from Greece to Turkey across the Evros River between September 2021 and February 2022.
The 23 men, 2 women, and a boy said they were detained by men they believed to be Greek authorities, usually for no more than 24 hours with little to no food or drinking water, and pushed back to Turkey.
The men and boy provided firsthand victim or witness accounts of Greek police or men they believed to be Greek police beating or otherwise abusing them, also said the HRW report.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)