The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has singled out Greece in an unusually vocal warning over pushbacks and rights violations at borders. Scrutiny against pushbacks continues to come from many other actors, from a Greek NGO testifying at a Belgian federal hearing, to a case filed before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), to public protests in Athens. Turkey have begun the “voluntary return” of Afghans amid reports of large-scale deportations of Syrians.  NGOs have asked the Hellenic Data Protection Authority (HDPA) to investigate coast guard attempts to purchase software for track the social media data of refugees and people supporting them.

Based on interviews with thousands of victims of pushbacks across Europe, UNHCR has described “a disturbing pattern of threats, intimidation, violence and humiliation”. The UN agency fears that “these deplorable practices now risk becoming normalized, and policy based”, noting also: “They reinforce a harmful and unnecessary ‘fortress Europe’ narrative. The reality is that the majority of the world’s refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries with far fewer resources, often bordering countries of origin in crisis”. UNHCR has recorded almost 540 incidents of “informal returns” (pushbacks) by Greek authorities at the country’s sea and land borders with Turkey since January 2020. UN Secretary General Flippo Grandi stated: “At sea, people report being left adrift in life rafts or sometimes even forced directly into the water, showing a callous lack of regard for human life”. At least three people have lost their lives in the Aegean Sea due to such practices since September 2021 – the latest in January 2022. The Greek government denies practices of throwing people into the sea. Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarachi expressed “surprise” at the UNHCR statement, saying: “it’s deeply disturbing that Turkish propaganda and false news about illegal migration are taken so frequently and wrongly as fact”. In reference to the Evros region, Grandi stated: “Equally horrific practices are frequently reported at land borders, with consistent accounts of people undressed and brutally pushed back into harsh weather conditions”. Independent monitoring of rights abuse of the region is prevented by an access ban on journalists and human rights observers. Nonetheless, ECRE member Greek Council for Refugees has gathered testimonies that illustrate: “that the practice of push-backs constitutes a particularly wide-spread practice, often employing violence in the process, leaving the State exposed and posing a threat for the rule of law in the country”. On 22 February three men and a woman in the Evros region appealed to Greek authorities to avoid being pushed back.

Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) has provided a testimony on pushbacks at a federal hearing in Belgium. The organisation highlighted the rule of law implications of the policy and urged the European Commission to enact infringement procedures against Greece. The country’s pushback policies were recently received criticised by more than ten countries at the UN Universal Periodic Review of the state’s human rights performance. According to RSA, there is a clear risk of “spill-over to other countries”. Front-LEX has filed an “unprecedented” case before the ECtHR concerning a Turkish-French EU citizen pushed back in the Evros region despite showing her documents to Greek authorities. “We have moved from allegations to it being a public secret that pushbacks are engaged in by the Greek authorities on a regular basis,” stated Hanne Beirens, director of Migration Policy Institute Europe.  “This would be quite a unique case…Because it would show how indiscriminately the Greek authorities are acting and how it affects people from all backgrounds” said Beirens. Following recent public demonstrations in Turkey and Greece, InfoMigrants reports that: “Migrants, refugees and their supporters protested against pushbacks in Athens” on 21 February.

Recent events have demonstrated the risks posed by Greek pushbacks to Turkey and Greek use of the so-called  safe third country concept to refuse asylum applicants from key refugee-producing countries. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has stated that Turkey has started what he claimed to be voluntary returns of ‘illegal’ Afghans in late January. The minister suggested that Syrians arriving from Damascus were economic migrants rather than refugees. In its January report, Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) warns of a “large-scale campaign of deportations from Istanbul to Syria at the end of January” and states: “After initial reports of a few hundred forced returns towards the border area, it now appears that around 800 people have been rounded up on several occasions in different districts of Istanbul”. Further the network notes unconfirmed rumors of: “an unprecedented forced return operation on February 12th”. BVMN says that: “returns are indiscriminate, even people with valid residence papers have been targeted, and these operations also involve people from the LGBTQI+ community”.

Greek port authorities and the Hellenic Coast Guard are seeking to purchase software for collecting social media data of refugees and refugee aid workers. The need for such software – which would be used to monitor searches, contacts, posts and likes – has not been specified. Alongside organisations dealing with the protection of digital rights and the safeguarding of privacy and human rights, an independent researcher has submitted a request to the HDPA to investigate the legality of such a purchase. The Greek branch of ECRE member the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) warns that such software may enable further criminalisation of solidarity. The organisation notes that social media engagement has been used to file charges against civilian search and rescue teams. Further, HIAS highlights that people on the move not to benefit from the regime of personal data protection the EU has sought to establish for its citizens.

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