24 January 2014

12 refugees, including several children, died this week when their vessel sank near a Greek island while being towed by the Greek Coast Guard.

According to the survivors, the Greek coast guard vessel was towing the boat toward the Turkish coast at high speed when the boat capsized. The survivors have declared that the refugees were beaten by the coast guards to prevent them from leaving their sinking vessel and boarding the Greek coast guard boat and that no attempt was made by the coast guard to save the people drowning.

In contrast to the survivors’ accounts, the Greek Port Authority has alleged that due to bad weather conditions the Coast Guard had launched a rescue operation to tow the boat toward the Greek island of Farmakonisi. According to the Greek authorities, during the operation a large number of those on board gathered on one side of the boat, which resulted in its overturning and sinking.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Niels Muiznieks stated: “I am shocked and distressed by the new tragedy which occurred near Farmakonisi in which a number of migrants, including possible asylum seekers, have drowned or have gone missing in what appears to be a case of a failed collective expulsion. The Greek government has pledged last week to put an end to the illegal practice of collective expulsions and effectively investigate all such cases. I urge them to implement their promise”.

In a report published in November, Pro Asyl detailed how refugees attempting to cross the EU’s external borders with Turkey are systematically pushed back from Greek territorial waters, the Greek islands and from the land border. The Pro Asyl report specifically outlined violations that had occurred on or in the proximity of Farmakonisi.

During an interview, Ministry Miltiadis Varvitsiotis accused Commissioner Muiznieks of “wanting to create a political issue in Greece” and stated: “There is a daily battle in the Aegean Sea. The battle has to do with two things. First of all, we send a message that our borders are not an unfenced backyard and that anyone who takes a boat can get into Greece. In addition, we follow all the rules of European Union law and national law.”

ECRE Member Greek Council for Refugees is currently providing social, legal and psychological support to the survivors.

NGOs, UNHCR, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for an investigation of the circumstances that caused such loss of life. ECRE and Pro Asyl have reiterated that push-backs are illegal, endanger people’s lives and have to end immediately.

“These are European borders, managed with European money, and with the support of the EU border agency Frontex. The EU has a responsibility to take all measures needed to ensure that life is given priority and fundamental rights are respected at its borders”, said ECRE’s Secretary General Michael Diedring. “At the time of the Greek Presidency all efforts should be taken to protect life and stop these human rights violations”.

The European Commission has allocated almost € 227,576,503 million for Greece under the Return Fund and the External Borders Fund between 2011 and 2013.

This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 24 January 2014
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