Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis remains “unapologetic” over systematic pushbacks by Greek authorities that, according to Amnesty International, have become the de facto policy for border management. Greece announces it will begin to train the so-called Libyan coast guard as UN confirms systematic violations and abuse of migrants and asylum seekers in Libya. Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) and ECRE member the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) have filed an appeal before the High Administrative Court against the Joint Ministerial Decision designating Turkey as a safe third country for nationals of the main countries of origin of asylum seekers.

The number of people in the hotspots on the Aegean islands and overall population of facilities managed by the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum across Greece has dropped 81 per cent and almost 50 per cent respectively between August 2020 and August 2021. Onwards movement and relocation accounts for some of this decrease. However, the main factor is a drop in arrivals, a change that Greek Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarachi he declared that the country was no longer experiencing a migration crisis” in August. In a statement on 1 October, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said arrivals have dropped 90 per cent compared to 2019. Glykeria Arapi, Director of the Greek section of Amnesty International, describes the drop in arrivals as the result of a “violent, illegal pushbacks that have become a de facto political choice for managing migration at the border”. On 6 October Lighthouse Reports and Der Spiegel released video material and testimonies confirming widespread and systematic violent pushbacks along EU borders. According to French news agency AFP, the investigation exposes: “special Greek coastguard units detailed to intercept asylum seekers’ boats in the Aegean Sea and set them adrift aboard orange life rafts, some paid for with EU cash”. One video showing masked men identified as members of an elite unit of the Hellenic Coast Guard engaging in a pushback operation in high sea. According to the Aegean Boat Report, 19,127 people have been pushed back by Greek agents in the Aegean Sea since March 2020. 9,465 pushbacks have been recorded in 2021 so far, including 94 cases involving 2,274 people in September. Mitsotakis however, remains “unapologetic” about what he defines as “defending” Greek borders. Speaking at an Athens Democracy Forum conference on 30 September the Prime Minister stated: “We said no. We defended our land border. We are defending our sea border, but we’re doing it with full respect to human rights, putting the protection of people at sea always as a first priority”.

The Evros region, with 500 kilometres of rivers marking the natural border separating Greece from Turkey on the mainland, has become a militarised zone. The EU and Greece have invested millions in barbed wire fences along the river banks, state of the art military equipment (like sound canons and drones), camera surveillance and the deployment 850 soldiers. Media and NGOs are denied access to the area by authorities who cite national security concerns: this means it constitutes a black spot in terms of human rights violations. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), “the border needs to be better monitored”. NGOs estimate that at least 4,000 people have been pushed back at this border since the beginning of the year. According to Pavlos Pavlidis, a forensic doctor in the region capital of Alexandropoulis, at least 38 people have died this year by drowning or hypothermia. On 29 September the lifeless body of a teacher who fled to Greece after being persecuted in Turkey was found at the Evros land border region.

Following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on financial and political cooperation between Libya and Greece, the Greek government has announced it will begin training the so-called Libyan coast guard. The coast guard is notorious for its links to human smuggling and is responsible for the interception and return to Libya of more than 25,000 people in 2021. The announcement comes just as the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) have released a report evidencing crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Libya since 2016. According to OHCHR: “Migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees are subjected to a litany of abuses at sea, in detention centres and at the hands of traffickers”. The agency further notes: “Our investigations indicate that violations against migrants are committed on a widespread scale by State and non-State actors, with a high level of organization and with the encouragement of the State – all of which is suggestive of crimes against humanity”.

On October 7, RSA and GCR filed an appeal before the High Administrative Court against the recent Joint Ministerial Decision that designates Turkey as a safe third country for citizens of Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. According to GCR Legal Expert, Vasilis Papastergiou: “The organisations: “challenge the lack of any reasoning and the paradox that the international sources (reports of international organizations and NGOs) included in the relevant opinion of the Asylum Service should lead to the contrary conclusion, as many of them refer to the problems of access to the asylum procedure, the non-equivalence of the conditional refugee status to refugee protection provided by the Geneva Convention and the violation of the principle of non-refoulement in Turkey”.

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Photo: ECRE

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