In a heated exchange with a Dutch journalist over mounting evidence of pushbacks, the Greek prime minister stated authorities were “intercepting” boats at sea in accordance with EU regulations. According to the minister of immigration and asylum, extra monitoring of human rights abuse along Greek borders may constitute a “rule-of-law violation”. The Hellenic Coast Guard has reportedly failed in the attempt to pushback a cargo ship carrying almost 400 people in the Aegean Sea.

The Greek prime minister was confronted with questions from Dutch journalist Ingeborg Beugel on continued lies about pushbacks by Greek authorities at a press conference on 9 November. The journalist has since been “mercilessly scrutinised, mocked and slandered” and has been sued by the Mayor of the Greek island of Hydra for posing her questions. Kyriákos Mitsotákis responded that Greece was “intercepting” boats at sea in accordance with European Union regulations, saying the country has the right to intercept boats and wait for the Turkish coast guard to pick them up and return them to Turkey. Further, the minister declared: “This is our policy, we will stand by it and I will not accept anyone pointing the finger to this government and accusing it of inhumane behavior”. In statements to reporters on 4 November, the Greek migration and asylum minister Notis Mitarakis rejected an independent human rights monitoring mechanism demanded by the European Commission. Suggesting such a mechanism should be a matter for Greek authorities, he stated: “What I think is not needed [is] to create a special mechanism which is not under the judiciary, consisting of individuals selected to form an authority”, adding that: “This I think could even be considered to be breaking the rule of law in my mind”. According to a spokesperson, the European Commission “have received reassurances from the Greek authorities that they are committed to putting in place such a mechanism”. European home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson recently rejected a request for EU funding for the extension of Greek border fencing in the Evros region. She reiterated the country’s obligation under the Schengen agreement but expressed the willingness of the EU to finance surveillance equipment.

After the disembarkation of 382 people on the island of Kos on 31 October, the Hellenic Coast Guard has come under severe critique for reportedly towing the vessel across the sea for four days in a failed attempt to conduct a pushback operation. “The nearest port was just a few miles away. Instead, they were kept on the vessel for four days, an unnecessarily prolonged period without access to basic services”, stated Dr Apostolos Veizis, head of aid organisation Intersos Hellas. According to Minos Mouzourakis from Refugee Support Aegean (RSA): “What is of particular concern in this case is that the government was attempting to return people who wanted to seek asylum in Greece before an asylum procedure had taken place”. Mouzourakis added: “That is a breach of EU law and fundamental rights”. Based on the sequence of events, NGOs conclude that the pushback was dropped because it was logistically impossible due to the size of the vessel and because the Hellenic Coast Guard would have had to enter Turkish waters. During a visit to Samos, MEP and member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Cornelia Ernst witnessed a potential case of pushbacks by Greek authorities. Alongside a team from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the MEP went to investigate a potential pushback incident and managed to establish contact with five people who were handed over to Greek authorities. However, another 19 people including three children that had arrived to Samos remain unaccounted for. According to Ernst on 5 November: “By now, it seems highly likely the rest of the group, the 19 people have been pushed back to Turkey”. Aegean Boat Report were contacted by a group of 36 Palestinians including six children held for days on the small island of Farmakonisi behind barbed wire with no access to food or water and despite their explicit wish to apply for asylum. The organisation reports that a vessel that “most likely belongs to the port police on Leros” was anchored close by, but had no confirmation on any transfer to Leros and after losing contact with the group fears their deportation “in life rafts in the Aegean Sea if nobody intervenes”. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone reported 10 people in distress on 5 November between Kos and Bodrum of which seven were rescued by the Turkish coast guard and another three remain missing. Another 258 and 75 people were rescued by the Turkish coast guard between 1-2 November and on 5 November respectively after allegedly being pushed back.

70 NGOs across Europe are demanding Greece drop the highly controversial charges against N. and Hasan, the so-called Samos 2. The two youth, aged 25 and 23 years old at the time, were onboard a rubber boat that capsized off Samos on 7 November 2020. N. – who lost his only child during the tragic incident – was arrested and charged with “endangering the life of his child”. He faces up to ten years imprisonment. Hasan, who steered the boat at some point during the crossing, was also charged with the “transportation of 24 third country nationals into Greek territory without permission”, with the aggravating circumstances of “endangering the lives of 23“ and “causing the death of one” – the deceased son of N. He faces a life sentence for the death of one person plus a further 10 years imprisonment per transported person, amounting to 230 years plus life imprisonment. The lawyer representing the two, Dimitris Choulis, stated: “By doing this, we criminalize asylum seekers that have no alternative. There is a part during the journey where the only thing they can do is to drive the boat in order to save their lives”.

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Photo: ECRE

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