New deadly tragedies off the Aegean Islands and in the Evros region as far-right politicians and self-proclaimed ‘refugee hunters’ attack refugees and migrants over their alleged responsibility for raging forest fires.

The loss of lives continues in Greece. On 28 August, five people including four children died attempting to reach the Aegean islands of Lesvos and Samos from Türkiye in two separate tragedies. Hellenic Coastguard published footage documenting the shipwreck that led to the death of the four children, triggering questions about why the guard filmed the unstable dinghy but didn’t facilitate a rescue until the boat sank. Also, 150 people were rescued off Western Greece near Athens in two separate incidents and another series of rescues in the Aegean Sea. According to the latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Greece has seen almost 12,000 people arriving by sea in 2023 – more than 5,000 of which arrived in Lesvos and 3,700 people have arrived through the Evros region where forest fires currently add additional risk to people on the move on top of violent pushbacks by authorities and attacks by vigilantes. On 22 August, Greek authorities recovered 18 burned bodies including two children in the Evros region believed to be the remains of people on the move seeking to access Greece from Türkiye. While reports of an additional eight deaths in the area remain unconfirmed and more bodies can be recovered, local media refers to a total of 20 confirmed deaths so far. Thousands of people took to the streets of Athens in solidarity with the victims and in protest of push-backs and rising racism. The forest fires raging across Greece including near the capital – where a migrant detention centre has been evacuated – have sparked allegations and attacks against migrants over alleged arson by vigilantes and politicians alike.

Violence, apprehensions and “pogroms” by vigilantes “hunting down” people on the move in Evros have been reported. Greek authorities have arrested three vigilantes after they released disturbing video material showing their apprehension of 13 migrants held in a cargo trailer. “I have gathered 24 of them, they will burn us all, do you see them?”, one of the vigilantes state. Meanwhile, the doubtful and incoherent testimonies of the violent self-acclaimed ‘refugee hunters’ were part of a criminal case against their 13 victims, accused by Greek authorities of attempted arson. The charges were later dropped. Following social media postings of another illegal apprehension by vigilantes of four people on the move in Evros, the Prosecutor’s Office of the Supreme Court has intervened and an investigation is underway.

Meanwhile, Minister of Migration and Asylum, Dimitris Kairidis seemingly blamed the deaths on the broader phenomenon of people seeking protection in Greece, stating: “Despite the continuous and persistent efforts of the Greek authorities to protect borders and human life, this tragedy confirms, once again, the dangers of irregular migration”. Criminology & Criminal Justice expert, Nina Reizi referred statements by MP with the “extreme-right party Greek Solution” P. Papadakis, inviting people on Facebook to “take measures” and “be alert to do what we do best” against “illegal migrants” who, he alleged, “hinder the work of pilots”. According to Reizi: “In another post he states that “illegals” were “starting fires”. “It’s a war” he says, and urges: “declare an emergency”! The comments are a cesspool of pure, unadulterated racist hatred. These are the depths to which parts of Greek society have sank – and the Mitsotakis government has everything to do with it”. Researcher, Lena K further refers to live statements by the Evros MP blaming migrants: “I said it and will say it again, we’re at war, the mountains are full and everywhere, at all sites [of fire], there’ve been interfered with. Arrests have been made by ordinary citizens but also by the police at all (fire) fronts … we have war, they have come here in coordination, and they have put, the illegal immigrants specifically, fires at more than ten locations. At all mountains and where there are fires, there are illegal immigrants”.

Experts and civil society are denouncing the racist violence against migrants. The Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) coordinated by the Greek National Commission for Human Rights, UNHCR, 55 NGOs as well as the Greek Ombudsman and the Migrant Integration Council of the Municipality of Athens, stated on 28 August: “The Racist Violence Recording Network categorically condemns recent incidents involving civilian self-proclaimed ‘militia’ groups engaging in unlawful acts of violence against refugees and migrants. The Network also expresses profound concern about the intensifying targeting against migrants and refugees in general, amidst the fires raging in Evros”. In a statement published on 23 August, Amnesty International “calls on the Greek authorities to urgently evacuate all those stranded in the Evros region and who are unable to move safely due to fires and to ensure that refugees and migrants who have entered into Greece irregularly can seek asylum and are not illegally forcibly returned at the border. The Greek authorities must publicly condemn and investigate any act of racist violence or speech or incitement to such behaviours, including on the part of politicians”. A joint civil society statement by Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) warns that: “Yet again, a tragic situation has been manipulated to blame people on the move themselves for their own deaths, and to strengthen links between migration and criminality that has led to the proliferation of mobilised right-wing groups in the region”. The statement further points out that “there are transit groups whose fates still await to be seen, while reports of pushbacks persist amidst the dangerous fires”.

As pushback reports continue to mount, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on 23 August urged Greece “to take steps to ensure a transparent and impartial investigation into allegations of violations of the principles of non-refoulement and non-discrimination and of the right to life involving Greek law enforcement personnel, including the Hellenic Coast Guard, and border violence”.

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