2021 ended with a series of shipwrecks in Greek waters that caused the deaths of more than 30 people. As the number of pushbacks from Greece nearly doubled in 2021, the number of arrivals to the islands is at the lowest in nine years with people pushed towards other, more deadly routes. The Closed Controlled Access Facility in Samos (CCF) has come under renewed criticism and legal scrutiny.

At least 30 people lost their lives in three shipwrecks in Greek waters over the week of Christmas while more than 160 people were rescued by the Hellenic Coast Guard. On 21 December a boat sank south of the Aegean island of Folegandros. 13 people including children survived the shipwreck: 12 were rescued by the Hellenic Coast Guard and one was found by a passing vessel after 24 hours in the water. While the bodies of three dead were recovered, the exact number of people on-board the boat is unclear and reported to be somewhere between 30 and 50. According to survivors, 17 people remain missing and four badly decomposed bodies including one child were recovered on 6 January. On 23 December another boat sank after striking an islet of the island of Antikythera in southern Greece. 90 survivors were stranded overnight on the islet as harsh weather conditions reportedly prevented a rescue operation. Later, 11 bodies were recovered. Further, on 24 December somewhere between 40 and more than 60 people were rescued after a sailboat overturned northwest of Paros. 16 people lost their lives during the tragic shipwreck. Three survivors have been charged with murder by Greek authorities, reportedly over their alleged responsibility of “an accident at sea, intentional manslaughter and membership in a criminal organization”. The Greek government places the blame for the tragedies on human smugglers, who they call “ruthless killers”. Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum also called on Notis Mitarachi to “redouble its efforts to prevent illegal departures”.

Local media reports that increased patrols by Greek authorities in the eastern Aegean have affected the routes taken by people on the move, with increasing numbers seeking to reach Italy directly from Turkey. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), of the more than 116,000 asylum-seekers who crossed the Mediterranean to reach the EU in 2021, 55 per cent traveled to Italy, 35 per cent to Spain and just 7 per cent to Greece, with the rest going to Malta and Cyprus. Further, UNHCR statistics reveal that the number of arrivals to the Greek islands from Turkey is at its lowest in nine years with just 4,109 arrivals in 2021 compared to 9,714 in 2020, and almost 60,000 in 2019. At the same time, as underlined by Forbes: ”heavy ‘pushbacks’ by Greek police have seen a considerable decline in ‘safer’ crossings relative to more dangerous ones”. Increasingly the journeys have shifted towards the “far more perilous” routes via the Central and Western Mediterranean and Atlantic. NGO Aegean Boat Report states that pushbacks increased 97.2 per cent in 2021 as of 3 December compared to the same period in 2020. Throughout 2021 Aegean Boat Report observed 629 cases of illegal pushbacks on the Aegean islands, 371 of which took place on Lesvos and Samos. According to the organisation, almost 26,000 people have been illegally turned back from Greek territory since March 2020. This January, the violent pushback of 25 people including 17 young children who were beaten and abused before they were set adrift to open sea from Lesvos illustrates that the trend continues.

In a case concerning an Afghan asylum seeker represented by ECRE member the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), the Administrative Court of Syros ruled the prohibition of exit from the Closed Controlled Access Facility in Samos (CCF) unlawful. The court held that: “the detention of asylum seekers is […] only allowed on the basis of a decision issued by the competent Police Director, as an exceptional measure and only for one of the grounds exhaustively prescribed by article 46 of said Law, [yet] no decision with such content has been issued […]” and said preconditions had not been met, – “the Head of the […] CCF illegally took the measure in question (exit ban) against the applicant”.  Despite being praised as humane and dignified by its funder the European Commission, NGOs have widely documentedprison-like” camp conditions. Recently, citizens of Lesbos and Chios protested the construction of new similar facilities on those islands. The EU has supplied 276 million euro for the establishment of closed controlled structures in the hotspots of Leros, Lesvos, Kos, Chios and Samos.

Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), HIAS Greece and Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) have published a comprehensive report offering excerpts from 127 decisions on topics of interpretation of the “safe third country” concept, evidence assessment and refugee status determination, procedural safeguards in the asylum procedure, the workings of administrative appeals and of judicial protection of asylum seekers, the rights of beneficiaries of international protection, as well as immigration detention.

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Photo: ECRE

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.