The Greek government accuses MEPs of being manipulated by propaganda and NGOs of circumventing border control in cooperation with human smugglers and using European courts. Meanwhile, reports of the use of informally hired third-country nationals by Greek authorities during pushback operations emerge amid new stand off and war of words between Greece and Turkiye.

In a recent letter, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) urged the European Commission to “condemn any use of violence” and ensure the rule of law is respected across member states over fresh reports of illegal pushbacks in Greece. Greek asylum and migration minister, Notis Mitarachi who is set to address the LIBE committee on 27 June responded in a strongly worded letter (seen by ECRE). Mitarachi states: “The Libe Committee has too important a role to play, to allow for propaganda machines and smuggling networks to manipulate it. Your letter is based on press reports, which have not been independently verified”. Further, the minister reiterates accusations against NGOs working in support of asylum seekers and refugees, of coordinating with human smugglers that are encouraged and tolerated by Turkish authorities to circumvent border controls and make appeals to the European Court of Human Rights. The response from Greek NGOs active in the Greek Human Rights Commission’s Informal Returns Recording Mechanism came promptly in a briefing pointing out that contempt of judicial protection and court decisions is a dangerous departure from core EU principles. The organisations further note that discrediting the work of international monitoring bodies denouncing pushbacks (including UNHCR, IOM, CED, CRC, WGAD, UN Special Rapporteurs, CoE Commissioner for Human Rights, CPT) is an affront to the rule of law. In her recent report following a visit to Greece, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor expressed concern over “reports of human rights defenders, in particular those supporting migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, being targeted by hostile comments, including by key stakeholders in the government. They are described as traitors, enemies of the state, Turkish agents, criminals and smugglers and traffickers”.

Reportedly, Greek authorities are informally employing third-country nationals in its pushback operations across the land border with Turkey. According to human rights organisations and survivors of pushbacks, this practice has been systematically applied since August 2020. In a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Greek authorities use Middle Eastern or South-Asian looking men, referred to as “proxies” and “auxiliary police”, to assault and search asylum seekers and migrants including children, before pushing them back to Turkey via the Evros River. Al Jazeera points to reports stating that “the men do the work in exchange for travel documents, as well as items such as phones and clothing stolen from those pushed back”. Hope Barker from Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) said this practice seems to be “a well-known secret” and has become the “sole means” of operating boats in the Evros region. Mobile Info Team added that this method is “linked with restricted access to asylum and increasing exploitation of refugees and migrants”. International Rescue Committee Hellas and other organisations have long been calling for an independent investigation into pushback practices in Greece.

On 19 June, Greek authorities said they rescued more than 164 people in two separate incidents as they tried to reach Greece from Turkey. 56 people were rescued off Rhodes. 108 in the Aegean Sea. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported on 23 June that eight are still missing and are believed to have drowned. According to the organisation, the survivors were taken to a prison near Athens and six of them have been accused of boat driving “Once again, those who seek safety are detained & criminalized by the ones who are responsible for the real crimes”. On 21 June, Alarm Phone reported that a group of 29 people including 11 children were trapped in a boat north of Lesvos. Further, two groups of eight and five people were split and called for help while being stranded in the south of Lesvos. The group of five people were found but had no news about the other eight people. Alarm Phone tweeted: “We did not hear anything from the group of 8. We fear they may have been pushed back.” Another person swam alone to Kos and had to walk alone with an injured leg for 24 hours to the camp on the island despite the emergency call sent to the Greek authorities. Alarm Phone said: “We are disgusted about the non-assistance of authorities.” On 22 June, 29 people including a woman who gave birth overnight were rescued and sent to Mytilene. Aegean Boat Report stated: “People are scared that they will be illegally returned to Turkey when coast guard arrives, but hopefully with enough attention, the group will be taken to land on Lesvos, and the newborn and her mother will be taken to hospital”. On 23 June Alarm Phone reported of 20 people stranded for five days on the Aegean island of Ikaria. On the same day the hotline reported of a “boat with 90-100 people in distress near Astypalea island in the Aegean Sea.

A war of words has been escalating between Greece and Turkiye. Following the rescue operation on 19 June, “Greece’s asylum and migration minister, Notis Mitarakis, pointed the finger at the neighbouring country for two shipwrecks off the islands of Mykonos and Rhodes, where more than 160 migrants were rescued and several are feared dead”. In response, the Turkish Coast Guard Command stated that in almost all “pushback incidents, the explanations made by the irregular migrants rescued by Turkish Coast Guard Command continue to show clearly to the world public opinion how Greece push back irregular migrants to Turkish territorial waters by ignoring their lives”. Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled on 21 June that the forced return of a Syrian national was in breach of Turkish law and the European Convention on Human Rights. The complainant Akkad had a valid residence permit to Syria and his return was conducted under the guise of “voluntary return”. ECtHR found that the removal of Akkad to Syria and the use of handcuffs during his transfer amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3), whereas Akkad’s deprivation from challenging the return decision violated his right to an effective remedy (Article 13), and the denial of his freedom from the time of his arrest until his removal to Syria, of the right to access a lawyer and to be informed of the accusation against him infringed his right to liberty and security (Article 5).

The trial of a 27-year-old refugee woman charged with intentional arson over a desperate suicide attempt caused by the dire situation in Greek camps has been postponed just after it began, as a witness wasn’t present. The woman attempted to take her life by setting fire to the tent where she lived with her family inside the new Kara Tepe Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) on Lesvos, just a few months after the complete destruction of Moria camp by fires in September 2020. Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) defending the woman stated: “This criminal case constitutes another example of misguided use of criminal law mechanism against refugees, and simultaneously reveals that the prosecution has served to eclipse the State’s responsibility and failure to ensure adequate living conditions for persons seeking international protection in Greece by portraying an act of despair as the result of criminal intent”.

Testimonies from refugees, rights organisations and activists continue to confirm that life in the Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) of Samos is tantamount to life in prison. Info Migrants have reported that “asylum seekers are kept under guard and behind barbed wire”, adding that before the opening of the facility, asylum seekers lived in a “jungle” where “they lived among rats and snakes, but they had freedom”. The latest report on the closed centre by Europe Must Act and the Samos Advocacy Collective “reveals that access to fundamental services such as healthcare is more critical than ever, and strict measures continue to limit the residents’ freedom of movement. But the testimonies collected also unveil police violence, arbitrary detention, and a general abusive and unsafe environment.”

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