In a unanimous judgment of the Safi and Others v. Greece case the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) condemns Greece for multiple violations. A month-long joint investigation by European media outlets confirms the use of third-country nationals – people on the move themselves – in pushbacks operations by Greek authorities. While the investigation has generated strong reactions at EU level the Greek government continue to deflect and deny. Meanwhile, Greece ignores interim measures by ECtHR and continue criminalization of solidarity.

On 7 July, ECtHR delivered a unanimous judgment in the Safi and Others v. Greece case concerning the sinking of a fishing boat transporting 27 foreign nationals in the Aegean Sea on 20 January 2014 resulting in the deaths of 11 people, including relatives of the applicants. According to the applicants, the tragedy was the result of a Greek coastguard vessel “travelling at very high speed in order to push the refugees back towards Turkish waters” causing the fishing boat to capsize. The court condemns Greece multiple violations, stating it “held, unanimously, that there had been: a violation of Article 2 (right to life) of the European Convention on Human Rights under its procedural head. The Court found that there had been shortcomings in the proceedings and concluded that the national authorities had not carried out a thorough and effective investigation capable of shedding light on the circumstances in which the boat had sunk. A violation of Article 2 (right to life) on account of the failure to comply with the positive obligation under this Article. The Court found that the Greek authorities had not done all that could reasonably be expected of them to provide the applicants and their relatives with the level of protection required by Article 2 of the Convention. A violation of Article 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), concerning 12 of the applicants who had been on board the boat and who, after it had sunk, had been subjected to degrading treatment on account of the body searches they had undergone on arriving in Farmakonisi”. Greece was ordered to pay a total of “330,000 euros (EUR) in respect of the non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicants, broken down as follows: EUR 100,000 to one of the applicants, EUR 80,000 to three of the applicants jointly, EUR 40,000 to another of the applicants, and EUR 10,000 to each of the remaining 11 applicants”. ECRE member the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) expresses “its deep satisfaction with the landmark decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which vindicates the children and their mothers who lost their lives in the 2014 shipwreck of Farmakonisi”. Alongside the Network of Social Support to Refugees and Migrants, the Hellenic League for Human Rights, the Group of Lawyers for the Rights of Refugees and Migrants, and Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) / PRO ASYL, GCR represented the tragic survivors before the ECtHR and accompanied them in their moments of grief and despair.

A months-long joint investigation by Lighthouse Reports, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and ARD Report München confirms the numerous accounts from NGOs and survivors of the use of third-country nationals in pushback operations by Greek authorities. According to Lighthouse Reports, the investigation: “has for the first time identified six of these men – who call themselves slaves – interviewed them and located the police stations where they were held. Some of the slaves, who are kept locked up between operations, were forcibly recruited themselves after crossing the border but others were lured there by smugglers working with a gangmaster who is hosted in a container located in the carpark of a Greek police station. In return for their “work” they received papers allowing them to stay in Greece for 25 days”. The six Syrian and Moroccan nationals participated in pushback operations on the Evros river, witnessing: “Greek police strip, rob and assault asylum seekers before they were put back into overcrowded inflatable boats that the men were then ordered to transport back across the deep and fast-running river to the Turkish bank”.

Following a meeting with several Greek ministers, European Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson warned: “violent and illegal deportations of migrants must stop, now”. The commissioner noted that, Commission: “funding is linked to EU fundamental rights being correctly applied”. Further, she welcomed a “new proposal to mainstream fundamental rights” with Greece’s asylum system, saying she was: “Pleased with their info that this will be in place by 1 September. However, the details of such an initiative remain somewhat unclear. MEP and member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), Tineke Strik commented on the remarks by the Commissioner, stating: “Good first step, but linking funding border management to fundamental rights is not enough. We urgently need conditionality”. On 5 July, Strik told Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis during his meeting with European lawmakers in Strasbourg: “that covering up evidence of pushbacks won’t work. Evidence is recorded by UN bodies, NGOs and investigative journalists. European judges refuse to accept a reality that violates core EU values”. However, Mitsotakis refuted the ever mounting evidence of systematic pushbacks saying Greece fully respects fundamental rights and doubling down on often repeated claims that such allegations are orchestrated by Turkiye.

A new report from Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) documents “the recent increase in use of Rule 39 measures on the Greek mainland, in order to secure access to international protection”. It details three case studies involving groups stranded on islets in the Evros river in May and June 2022 and being pushed back to Turkiye after days without food, water and medical care despite interim measures by ECtHR “binding the Greek state to provide temporary access to Greece and material reception conditions”. Greek authorities have accused NGOs of coordinating with human smugglers – that are allegedly encouraged and tolerated by Turkish authorities – to circumvent border controls by making appeals to the European Court, and the report observes a “concerning trend of criminalisation of civil society organisations and the use of smear campaigns to restrict migrant rights defenders from operating”. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders recently expressed similar concerns.

Almost 50,000 people granted refugee protection in Greece have launched an asylum application in Germany. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) restarted the processing of cases in March 2022, after a suspension due to interventions by German courts preventing returns based on the shortcomings of the Greek reception system. Since then close to 8,000 cases have been processed resulting in the granting of protection in 89 per cent or roughly 7,200 cases.

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