Charges were brought against crew members of a ferry owned by Attica Group, notorious for locking up migrants in dire conditions below deck, over the death of a passenger pushed into the sea. Ongoing crossings, deaths, pushbacks and delayed assistance at land and sea. Greek-Italian plans to form Mediterranean alliance on migration. The European Court of Justice acquitting charges against Frontex, the European border agency, leaves questions of accountability. Greek court granted compensation to a refugee who was wrongfully imprisoned with charges of smuggling and causing shipwrecks.

The drowning of a 36-year-old man named Andonis Kargiotis on 5 September after being pushed back by crew members off the vessel –Blue Horizon – as he was trying to board a passenger ship that sailed from Greece’s Piraeus port left the country in “shock, horror and sorrow” according to the Greek minister for merchant marine, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis. A video of the incident circulating on social media shows that the crew didn’t try to save the man, ignored him and departed to the Greek island of Crete. Following the incident, a Greek prosecutor brought charges against the ferry’s captain and three crew members over the death of Kargiotis. One crew member is charged with homicide with possible intent, and the other two with complicity, while the captain was charged with severe breaches of shipping regulations. The country’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said the “combination of irresponsible behaviour and cynicism, contempt and indifference” led to the man’s death, adding that this “shameful incident” is not “indicative of the kind of country we want”. Varvitsiotis condemned the crewmembers for their “illegal acts” and their failure to follow the “basic principle that Greek seamen have honoured for centuries”, which is to rescue people at sea and “not to throw them into it, particularly in such circumstances”. Attica Group, that owns Blue Horizon, initially issued a brief statement saying that it was “devastated by the tragic incident” and would cooperate with the authorities for a further investigation. Meanwhile, Sara Creta, an investigative reporter at Lighthouse Reports, underlined that Attica Group is the same company that locks migrants up, including children, in inhumane conditions below deck. Lighthouse Reports on 18 January revealed images of unofficial and secret “prisons” that are used to detain asylum seekers while sometimes being handcuffed on three passenger ships, owned by the Greek company Attica, that travel Greece and Italy, as they are being unlawfully deported.

Meanwhile, rescue calls by people reaching Greece are met by non-response, delayed assistance or pushbacks. On 5 September, a group of 14 refugees and migrants including five men, six women and three children as well as the body of a man who died due to a delayed rescue were found on the shore of Farmakonisi, a tiny Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea. The Greek authorities said that “A Hellenic Coast Guard patrol boat immediately rushed to the area”. However, the Aegean Boat Report questioned “What does the verb “rush” mean according to the authorities?” who claimed to have been informed in the early hours of 5th September. Aegean Boat Report challenged the government’s statement, saying that “the Hellenic Coast Guard Operations Center was informed 22.23 PM (EEST)” on 4 September, adding that they have a call log to prove it. Also, hotline Alarm Phone reported on 4 September about the group’s situation to the Hellenic coastguard including the serious health problems of one person and asked for an immediate rescue. On 5 September, the hotline reported of a group of around 11 people who were stuck in the Evros region for more than four days. “We received a video in English from this group. It portraits an elderly & sick woman. “The speaker of the video says: ‘There is no food, no water. This old woman is very sick. There is a child and a young man very sick. We need help, please we need help’, Alarm Phone stated and added on 6 October that the group was pushed back to Turkiye, showing another example of “the cruelty of the Hellenic coastguard and the violence that is ever present in Evros”. On the same day, Alarm Phone reported about “21 people in risk of pushback on Symi, Greece” and later stated that the Hellenic Coastguard said that the group was brought to the port authority to assess their needs. On 7 October, Alarm Phone also reported about 50 people stuck in the mountains of Crete. “When calling the coast guard in Sitia, Greece, we were informed that the rescue operation of 41 people was completed”, the organisation stated, although an article by a Greek media outlet said that 60 people were rescued and search in the sea for more people continue.

Meanwhile, Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni decided to form an alliance of Mediterranean countries in the EU for migration policies, with a focus on cooperation with African countries of origin and transit. The two leaders reportedly discussed putting more pressure on the European Union to act on irregular immigration and on the European Commission to help release funds to Tunisia. On 6 September, the Greek migration minister Dimitris Kairides met with the Italian ambassador in Greece Patrizia Falcinelli to discuss migration which is “a great concern for both countries” as described in a press release by the Greek Ministry of Asylum and Migration. During the meeting, Kairides underlined the important role of Turkiye in strengthening border controls, implementing returns and reducing “migration flows” while Falcinelli expressed her Italy’s readiness to work with Greece to stem migrant arrivals to the countries.

The European Court of Justice dismissed a claim for damages filed against Frontex by a Syrian family returned from Greece to Turkiye on a flight operated the agency without any prior examination of its asylum application in 2016. Sea Watch and the family who sued Frontex reported that in addition to the prohibition of degrading treatment, the agency violated the principle of non-refoulement, the right to asylum, and the rights of children. Yet, the court ruled that Frontex was not involved in the decisions of the Greek authorities regarding the repatriation choice, adding that the agency’s role was only one of operational and technical support. Sea Watch International commented on the judgement: “The ruling demonstrates the sanctity of a European institution structurally set up in a legal space that allows human rights violations and covers up for perpetrators by diffusing responsibility”. MEP Tineke Strik said that the ruling shows “there’s much work to do to ensure accountability of Frontex’s role in return operations”. “It’s still unclear if the court would rule the same regarding Frontex’s liability in the area of border controls, where it has a more direct role. However, this ruling makes enforcement against member states for illegal pushbacks all the more pressing”, Strik added.

Meanwhile, Legal Centre Lesvos announced a victory for the refugee Akif Rasuli who was unjustly imprisoned in Greece for three years over charges of causing a shipwreck and smuggling as the Court of the Northern Aegean granted 15,920 Euros as compensation for Akif’s unjust imprisonment. “The three years he unjustly spent in prison cannot be reversed, however it is important to recognize and remove as much as possible of the injustice caused by the first court decision which had convicted and deprived him of his freedom without any evidence against him”, said Natasha Dailiani, one of Rasuli’s attorneys while Rasuli said that “I suffered so much in prison for a crime I haven’t committed. Money will never give me back the time that has been taken from me, but I am thankful to my lawyers and so many other people who have stood with me for the past three years”. The court’s decision is “a victory, but it should not be forgotten that this case is only one of thousands, as people charged or convicted of smuggling make up the second largest prison population in Greece, and most will never be compensated for this time in prison, even if eventually acquitted”, Legal Center Lesvos stated.

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