• An increase in arrivals on the Greek islands amid deportations of 50 third country nationals.
  • The appeal trial of the four Afghan migrants accused of Moria Camp’s fires will take place on 4 March while 13 refugees accused of attempted arson following Evros wildfires have been acquitted.
  • Pushbacks continue amidst constant communication and smooth cooperation with the Turkish authorities.
  • The European Ombudsman urges EU rescue rules change after Pylos migrant boat disaster off Greece.

Greek authorities have noted a “sharp increase” in arrivals on the Greek islands. On 28 February, the Alarm Phone hotline reported two different groups in distress. The first group consisted of 42 people stranded on the islet of Agathonisi, which were later taken to a camp. The second group consisted of around 41 people, including some with injuries, on the island of Limnos. Between 22 and 25 February, almost 300 people were spotted in rubber boats and rescued off Crete by either the Hellenic Coastguard or merchant vessels. Reportedly, the number of migrants who have arrived from the southern coast of Turkiye to Crete has already reached 1000 in the first two months of 2024 alone compared to 750 in the whole of 2023. On 24 February, 42 people were rescued by the Hellenic Coastguard in coordination with its rescue team on the islet of Barbalias. Amidst the increase in the number of arrivals, the Greek Ministry of Asylum and Migration revealed the forced deportation of 50 people from Georgia and Pakistan in coordination with Cyprus. “Member States are obliged to step up the relevant procedures in order to protect the credibility of national asylum systems, ensuring that only those in need of protection can remain in Europe,” the ministry stated.

The systematic criminalisation of asylum seekers in Greece is ongoing. The appeal trial of four of the ‘Moria 6”, the Afghans who were convicted for causing the fires that destroyed the infamous Moria camp on 8/9 September 2020, is scheduled to take place on 4 March at the Court of Appeal in Mytilene, Lesvos. The trial was originally scheduled for March 2023 but was postponed due to a lack of “credible evidence”. According to the Free the Moria 6 campaign, the upcoming hearing will allow the presentation of crucial new evidence from the investigation conducted by Forensic Architecture (FA) and Forensic, and the interrogation of the prosecution’s key witness. According to Dimitra Andritsou, research coordinator of the FA/Forensic team, “The analysis we conducted […] proves that the young asylum seekers accused of arson were arrested on the basis of weak and contradictory evidence, suggesting that […] the Greek government needed a scapegoat for a disaster that was pre-programmed”. Meanwhile, the charges against the 13 refugees who were accused of attempted arson following the wildfires in the Evros region in the summer of 2023, have been dropped. The judge ruled that the assumption that the migrants caused the fire with a knife was not only unreliable but also contrary to common sense. Commenting on the ruling, the Press Project said: “The ill-fated attempt by some to make the refugees appear to be responsible for the unprecedented Evros fire collapsed with a wave. Racism was used by the far right to divide and increase its influence and by the government to hide its responsibilities”. Elsewhere, the trial of 16-year-old M. Elfallah on charges of smuggling, which was due to take place on 28 February in the juvenile court in Crete, has been postponed to 27th of November due to a public strike. According to Maria Flouraki, the minor’s lawyer, the minor is hosted in a shelter for minors in Crete waiting for his trial while his father has been already convicted for smuggling to 280 years of imprisonment. Flouraki added: “The facilitation of the transfer of persons is interpreted very broadly by the Greek courts. Even someone who distributes food or water can be accused of being a trafficker. The accused are often simple passengers who did not have money for the fares and therefore took on some work on the boat. The smuggler who has received the money is usually not on board and is not arrested. Trials are extremely short and often convictions are based on insufficient evidence”, highlighting that  “People convicted of smuggling form the second largest group by crime in Greek prisons, with almost 90% of them being third-country nationals.” She also underlined that “the current legal framework and the way it is implemented does not combat illegal trafficking but mainly constitutes a repressive migration policy”. In a joint statement from Aegean Migrant Solidarity, borderline-europe and Can’t Evict Solidarity, the three organisations stated that this story showed that “Europe’s alleged “fight against criminal smugglers” is primarily directed against refugees themselves” and demanded that the charges against the minor should be dropped, and the criminalisation of migration and the imprisonment of people on the run should be stopped.

Separately, the NGO Mobile Info Team has published new research focusing on the detention of applicants of international protection and third country nationals subject to return orders who have been detained at some point between 2020 and 2022 in one of six pre-removal detention centres (PRDCs) on mainland Greece. The research refers to appalling hygiene conditions, poor access to medical care, non-existence of recreational activities and extremely restricted access to information, legal services and translation in the PRDCS’ dysfunctional facilities and neglected buildings. Also on the issue of PRDCs, 13 Egyptians who are currently on hunger strike in the centre in Corinth are demanding access to asylum and medical treatment. Mobile Info Team has called on the Greek authorities to release the detained migrants, transfer them to the Malakasa reception facility and meet their demands.

In an effort to highlight the extremely negative impacts that pushbacks have on family unity, the NGO Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), with the support of ECRE member organisation PRO ASYL, has published the case of two father, Abas and Basir, who were separated from their wives and children after the fathers were subjected to a pushback on Lesvos. RSA, who are representing the families, said: “the violent separation of families trying to cross the Greek-Turkish border is a really intense traumatic event. And when it comes to single mothers who have lost their partner or one of their children along the way, the situation is even more cruel”.  They also stated that “Inhuman and degrading treatment of newcomers by the State cannot be justified by any European policy, let alone an illegal one, and cannot be used as a deterrence measure at European borders.” Aegean Boat Report also shared the first documented pushback from the Greek islands to  Türkiye since the Pylos tragedy in June 2023.. According to the footage published, 30 people, including six children, were handed over to masked men from the Hellenic coastguard vessel who proceeded to strip them of all their belongings before sending them back to the sea. The Turkish coastguard later reported that it had found 30 people, including six children, drifting in two life rafts off the coast of Bodrum, northeast of the island of Kos. Meanwhile, as the Turkish coast guard continues its practice of intercepting migrant boats attempting to reach Greece, Greek Maritime Affairs and Island Policy Minister, Christos Stylianides, said in an interview that communications with Turkish authorities were “constant” and that co-operation was “smooth” as the designated “safe third country” wanted to “send a message to the EU that it is a reliable partner on the migration issue by cooperating with Greece”.

The latest report by the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, concerning the inquiry launched into last year’s tragedy off the coast of Greece which took the lives of at least 600 people, has come as a blow to the Greek authorities. The Ombudsman criticised the delay in the Greek authorities’ decision to authorise the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to intervene and assist those in distress close to the town of Pylos. “A Frontex drone, on offer to assist with the Adriana, was diverted by the Greek authorities to another incident,” she added. O’Reilly also highlighted Frontex’s limitations in upholding EU rights obligations during sea rescue missions under the current regulatory framework. “We must ask ourselves why a boat so obviously in need of help never received that help despite an EU agency, two member states’ authorities, civil society, and private ships knowing of its existence. Why did reports of overcrowding, an apparent lack of life vests, children on board, and possible fatalities fail to trigger timely rescue efforts that could have saved hundreds of lives,” she said. Although Greece is currently conducting its own investigation into the tragedy, the European Ombudsman highlighted the absence of an independent body to scrutinise the roles played by Frontex, the Greek coastguard and the European Commission in ensuring compliance with EU rights standards.

Violations of the rule of law including policies of violence, pushbacks and criminalisation of solidarity in Greece is not only a “Greek problem”, wrote Cornelia Ernst MEP and Spyros Vlad Oikonomou from ECRE member organisation the Greek Council for Refugees in a joint op-ed. “Greece’s violence takes place with the tacit consent of Europe, the privately acknowledged price of fortifying the continent’s borders”, they underlined.

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