Amid elections, systematic pushbacks continue in Greece while Turkiye continues push for return of Syrian refugees. Five border Guards arrested on charges of facilitating the entry of “illegal aliens” while more lives have been lost in the Aegean Sea.
Following the second round of the presidential election in Turkiye on 28 May, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will begin another five-year term. The election follows a campaign debate where both leading candidates have promised to return refugees residing in Turkiye – facing an increasingly hostile environment in the country considered safe for return for main refugee groups by Greece. With anti-refugee sentiments increasing in Turkiye, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu pledged to “send all the refugees home” while Erdoğan pledged to build 200,000 homes in Syria to resettle a million refugees. Reportedly, Turkiye began the construction of 240,000 homes to resettle refugees in opposition-held northern Syria in the run-up to the election. “Syrian refugees living in Turkiye will settle in the houses … as part of a dignified, voluntary, safe return,” Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said at the project launch. On the other side of the border, in Greece, the New Democracy party of Greek PM, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, recorded victory in the 21 May Parliamentary election – the result fell short of the threshold to form a single-party government. As Mitsotakis declined the option to form a coalition, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou dissolved the new parliament and announced new elections set for June 25.
Meanwhile, pushbacks and violations continue. Following the recent New York Times (NYT) documentation of the pushback of 12 migrants including children and an infant, the European Commission has called for a “proper follow up” by Greek authorities. The Greek government has so far deflected and denied mounting evidence of systematic pushbacks but following the NYT documentation, Mitsotakis called such practices “completely unacceptable” and referred to an investigation conducted by Greek prosecutors, Ombudsman and the National Transparency Authority. The latter has been denounced as “politically compromised and ineffective”. And according to Spyros-Vlad Oikonomou from ECRE member, the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), the National Transparency Authority “does not fulfil the constitutional requirements to be considered an actual independent authority”. However, referring to the investigation, a spokesperson from the Commission clarified: “We are not going to draw conclusions and announce actions or activity that we take before becoming aware of the conclusions of that investigation which will be carried out at the national level”. The Commission declined to confirm NYT evidence that the coast guard vessel used was funded by the EU. MEPs have reportedly pushed for infringement procedures against Greece and the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) and liberal Renew Europe groups called on Greek Commissioner Margaritis Schinas – a member of Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party – to appear before the European Parliament’s home affairs committee. “The mistreatment and pushback of migrants in Greece is a clear violation of EU law and international law,” S&D MEP Birgit Sippel stated, also noting: “As the guardian of the Treaties, the Commission is supposed to protect EU law”.
However, such practices continue uninterrupted. Between May 22 and 28, Aegean Boat Report: “registered 17 pushback cases in the Aegean Sea involving 424 men, women and children”. The organisation further states: “In three of these pushback cases the Greek coast guard used life rafts, 106 people were forcibly removed from Greek islands and left helplessly drifting in three life rafts in the Aegean Sea”. On 25 May, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called on Greek authorities to investigate reports of hundreds of missing migrants and allegations of people being threatened, abducted, and ill-treated”. According to Nihal Osman, MSF project coordinator in Lesbos, “Since we started providing emergency medical assistance to people arriving by boat to Lesbos in June 2022, we have been unable to find approximately 940 people who were never found at the reported location”. Patients have told the organisation about “being traumatically intercepted and forcibly pushed back to sea” attempting to reach Greece “encountering masked men posing as doctors to gain their trust”. MSF further reports: “In some instances, MSF teams have encountered unidentifiable vehicles without plates in locations near our interventions, often driven by individuals with black covers on their faces. Humanitarian assistance for new arrivals is seriously reduced due to fears of criminalisation. MSF is now the only independent organisation providing support to migrants arriving on Lesbos”.
Meanwhile, five border guards serving in the Evros region were arrested on 29 May. According to a government statement (translated): “The Internal Affairs Service of the Security Forces of Northern Greece arrested 5 police officers who allegedly facilitated the entry of illegal aliens”. In connection with the arrest, authorities found and seized 59 mobile phones and cash in different currencies including more than 26,000 euros. A recent investigation by Solomon’s and El País revealed that Greek security forces had stolen more than 2 million Euro from refugees during pushback operations. While the official government statement mentions “at least 12 cases” of facilitating “illegal entry into Greek territory of an unknown number of third-country nationals”, media refers to a statement from police saying the five suspects are believed to have facilitated the entry of at least 100 people since late October. In a comment researcher Lena K states: “More are being questioned, more arrests likely. See, pushbacks, beating & robbing people on the move aren’t the only criminal activities they’re into”. Meanwhile, Alarm Phone reported on 31 May about 55 people in distress in an islet in the Evros River for a couple of days and urged Greek authorities to rescue them and respect their right to apply for asylum. The following day, the NGO hotline, stated: “This group is still stuck on the islet. During the night they heard people shouting at them and firing shots from the Turkish side. Meanwhile, the Hellenic Police claims the group is in Turkey & refuses to intervene – the group’s repeatedly sent positions prove otherwise”. Reportedly, Greek police detected and arrested around 100 migrants in the Evros region on 1 June. Alarm Phone, reported on 2 June: “Another group stranded in the Evros-region! This morning, we were informed about a group of 86 people who are stuck on an islet on Greek territory near Kastaneai – already for 5 days. They report that the water around them is rising & call for urgent assistance!”.
On 26 May, three people were reported dead and 12 missing after a boat carrying migrants capsized off the Greek island of Mykonos in the Aegean Sea. By 30 May, the death toll had reached nine (seven women and two men) after five more bodies were recovered. In a comment, the NGO hotline Alarm Phone stated: “Apparently, the Hellenic Coast Guard will lift up the wrecked boat off the water today to avoid that dead bodies will wash ashore the beaches of the rich touristic island Mykonos – after killing them through politics of closed borders, violence & pushbacks”. On 29 May, Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) and Second Tree released an expression of concern to Frontex and MEPs regarding the deadly shooting at the Greece/North Macedonia border in April killing a 23-year-old female asylum seeker. The organisations call for “MEPs to support the wishes of Abu Bakar and the rest of Fatmata’s family: for a full, prompt investigation and a fair trial” and raise “concerns about Frontex operating in areas where fundamental rights are violated systemically and are likely to persist in violation of Article 46 of its Regulation”.
Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) reported on 29 May that the management of the EU-funded refugee structure in Mavrovouni, Lesvos, had “suddenly informed” the residents that the food distribution would be terminated “for those who have been recognised as refugees, as well as for those whose asylum application is rejected at second instance”. The decision announced to residents on 17 May was implemented from the very same day affecting at least 570 people including at least 350 recognised refugees and more than 140 asylum seekers who have received rejection decisions. Further, RSA state: “About another 200 children are currently excluded and are still given food, while the rest of their family members do not receive any”. On 31 May, RSA issues a press release on the upgrade of the “Alkyoni” system of the Greek Asylum Service. According to the organisation: “Registration of applications, interviews and other necessary actions for refugees protection such as the uploading, granting and renewal of documents, including asylum seeker cards, have been abruptly and indefinitely postponed”. Further, RSA notes that people are not informed about the postponement and obliged to appear in person “at every stage of the process”, forcing them to travel in vain on their own means. The organisation concludes: “In practice, the suspension of the registration of requests and the inability to issue cards or other identification documents exposes applicants to a risk of detention and deportation and violates the right of access to the asylum procedure”.
For further information:
- ECRE, Greece: Government Praise Own ‘Achievements’ on Migration Ahead of Election as Violations Continue, Situation in Closed Controlled Facilities Raise EU Concern and NGO Condemnation, May 2023
- ECRE, Greece: Ongoing Violations in the Aegean and Evros, Turkish Elections Leave Refugees in Fear and the Future of the EU-Turkey Deal Uncertain, May 2023