Civil society organisations are outraged by the sentencing of 52 years imprisonment for a young Syrian refugee for “illegal entry” and “facilitating illegal entry”. The growing scrutiny over Greek pushbacks to Turkey continues to intensify with a request for an assessment by the European Commission, legal action before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), and an interim report published by the Greek Ombudsman.

On Friday 23 April 2021, a court in Mytilini on Lesvos sentenced a young Syrian man (K. S) to 52 years imprisonment for “illegal entry” and “facilitating illegal entry”. The sentencing of the man who arrived with his wife and three small children via Turkey, where he had reportedly faced imprisonment and torture, has caused outrage by civil society organisations. Trial observers representing several civil society organisations consider the verdict a scandal. A trial observer quoted by borderline-europe stated: “The filing of such charges against migrants arriving on the Greek islands, allegedly identified as boat drivers, has been a systematic approach of the Greek state for several years. It is based on the absurd notion that anyone who drives an inflatable boat carrying people seeking protection is a smuggler. Often the accused are themselves protection seekers and have been coerced into driving the boat”. According to the organisation: “They are usually arrested on the spot without sufficient evidence and held in pre-trial detention for months. When their case finally comes to trial, their trials last an average of only 38 minutes, and they are sentenced to long prison terms, in some cases over 100 years in prison with very large fines”. Lawyers from the Legal Centre Lesvos representing K.S. appealed immediately after the verdict.

In a letter send to European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson on 27 April, five Greek civil society organisations including Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), Refugee Support Aegean (RSA), HIAS Greece, HumanRights360 and Hellenic League for Human Rights, have requested the Commission’s assessment of compliance by Greece with procedural requirements attached to the non-refoulement principle and obligations to provide access to asylum at its land and sea borders. The letter raises, based on statistics from the Hellenic Coast Guard and UNHCR, significant questions around the lack of assessment of the risk of refoulement prior to returns to Turkey. While the Hellenic Coast Guard rescued a total of 27,334 persons in the course of 2020 – 13,692 in Greek territorial waters, the total number of sea arrivals in Greece including not related to sea rescues stood at 9,687 during the same period. Arrivals via Evros dropped by 62% in 2020, with the decrease reaching 99 per cent in mid-January 2021 compared to January 2020. However, the Greek authorities: “have not demonstrated any steps taken to identify the persons intercepted, to inform them of their destination and to provide them with the opportunity to raise risks of refoulement prior to being directed to Turkey”. The organisations remain: “concerned by persisting allegations of push backs which have come under increasing scrutiny inter alia in the context of dedicated working groups set up by the European Parliament and the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex)”.

Legal Centre Lesvos has filed its 5th complaint before the ECtHR regarding pushback operations in the Aegean by the Hellenic Coast Guard. The case concerns the violent pushback of 180-200 people including at least 40 children and a pregnant woman in October 2020. Legal Centre Lesvos argues: ”that Greek authorities who perpetrated the collective expulsion violated the 11 individuals’ right to life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), their right to be free from torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under Article 3 ECHR, their right to liberty and security under Article 5 ECHR, and their right to effective remedy and non refoulement under Articles 3 and 13 ECHR”.

On 28 April the Greek Ombudsman published an interim report on alleged illegal pushbacks of foreign nationals from Greece to Turkey, in the area of Evros river. In his conclusion the Ombudsman notes that the large number of complaints by international organisations and by international and Greek non-governmental organisations: “has created concerns regarding the level of the protection of human rights in Greece, in particular in the regions close to the land borders with Turkey”. Further underlining the persistent allegations of direct involvement of Greek police personnel, vehicles and infrastructure and the lack of comprehensive investigations by Greek authorities, the Ombudsman proposes such investigations and the publication of results, a plan to address possible private groups or militias engaged in illegal pushbacks, and inform and train regular police personnel.

Meanwhile, new incident reports add to the mounting evidence of pushbacks. Under the headline: Pushbacks is no longer even the “new normal”: it is just “normal” Aegean Boat Report  describe a recent incident on 14 April, where 51 people on a boat north of Lesvos were stopped by the Hellenic coastguard and towed from Greek waters. Further, local media reports on 21 April of the arrival and later disappearance of 32 people at the beach of Psili Ammos at the western end of Samos. Despite the search for possible bodies by local port authorities and local resident encountering some of the survivors the police reportedly deny their arrival.

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 Photo: ECRE

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