In a new report, Amnesty International shows that Greek authorities are acting in flagrant violation of international law by pushing back migrants and refugees to Turkey, without any consideration of their protection needs.
Amnesty presents evidence that the way in which such push-back operations are carried out is putting lives at risk. Migrants interviewed in the report claim to have been left adrift in unseaworthy vessels in Turkish waters by Greek coast guards, or left on the Turkish side of the land border with hands tied. Furthermore, Amnesty argues that Turkey does not have a well-established asylum system in order to adequately assess the needs and protect those people that need it, leaving those pushed back at risk of refoulement to countries where they may face persecution.
Almost all those who claimed to have experienced collective expulsion said that they had experienced or witnessed violence or degrading treatment. There are also accounts of belongings, including mobile phones, being confiscated or thrown into the sea.
Amnesty documents the shift of the migration route, back to the more dangerous sea crossing, following heightened security on the land border. In August 2012, Greece deployed around 1,800 border guards at its land border with Turkey under the Operation Aspida (Shield), which also included the construction of a 10.5 km fence along the northern section of this land border. The sea route is known to have claimed at least 101 lives since August 2012.
According to the report, it is not only from the border that migrants suffer collective expulsions; the ‘sweep operation’ named Xenios Zeus means that not even registered asylum seekers, or migrants who have lived and worked for a long time in the country and have family ties there are safe from arbitrary arrest, mistreatment and expulsion without the chance to explain their situation.
Furthermore, the report denounces the ‘extensive and indiscriminate’ use of detention, including of children and persons who cannot be returned to their countries of origin, and often in appalling conditions, used by the Greek state. According to the report, there is an utter failure to justify the use of detention on an individual basis, as is required by EU and international law.
Greek law permits the detention of migrants for the purpose of removal for an initial six months, extendable to 12, while asylum seekers may be detained for up to 18 months. There are reports that people who have applied for asylum are later withdrawing their applications, upon learning that their detention may be extended yet further. This raises concerns that people with real protection needs are being deterred from applying for asylum because they fear prolonged detention. Greece aims to increase its detention capacity to 10,000 persons through EU co-financing. This might lead to longer periods of detention in the future, as migrants were released more quickly in some areas because of limited detention capacity.
There are also concerns that the new asylum service, which began operating in June this year, only functions in Athens, meaning that detainees in other parts of the country encounter further difficulties in accessing asylum procedures.
Amnesty International calls on the Greek authorities to stop push-backs immediately, investigate allegations of collective expulsions and ill-treatment, and prosecute those involved. The organisation urges the EU and Greek authorities to focus on protecting the rights of all migrants and asylum seekers, rather than on expulsions, detention and sealing off borders. While the European Commission allocated almost € 227,576,503 million for Greece under the Return Fund and the External Borders Fund between 2011 and 2013; only € 19,950,000 was allocated to Greece under the European Refugee Fund for the same period.
“Other EU Member States appear only too happy for Greece to act as their gatekeeper. But the policies and practices along the Greek border do not just shame Greece: they shame the European Union as a whole. They expose the bitter irony of European countries pressing for peace abroad while denying asylum to, and risking the lives of those who seek refuge in Europe from conflicts in their homelands”, says Amnesty International.