As the seventh anniversary of the EU-Turkey Agreement is marked the situation for refugees in Turkije continues to worsen. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) has signed an agreement with Greece on the return of irregular migrants amid ongoing scrutiny by MEPs over violations including the robbing of 2 million Euro by Security forces during pushback operations. UN Special Rapporteur refers to credible and consistent accounts of direct retaliation against human rights defenders.

ECRE member PRO ASYL and Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) released a joint statement on 18 March – marking the 7th anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal. “Τhe deal is a human rights nightmare. It represents an exit of the EU from international refugee protection. The European Union continues to promote the normalization and expansion of policies like the one represented by the deal, endangering human lives, rule of law and democracy itself”, said Karl Kopp, Director of European Affairs at PRO ASYL. Further, the statement points out that: “while the Greek Part of the agreement is collapsing, the EU reinforces these policies, and refuses to check compliance with EU law. The PRO ASYL & RSA joint complaint lodged last year, still has not been answered by the European Commission, while it was precisely called to immediately initiate infringement procedures against Greece for systemic violations of international and EU law, due to the arbitrary rejection of asylum applications based on the “safe third country” concept and the prevention of refugees from accessing asylum procedures”. In a joint declaration released on the same day, civil society organisations pointed to the worsening situation for refugees in Turkije – deemed safe third country for main refugee groups by Greece – after the recent deadly earthquakes. According to the organisations: “Increasing racism has led to violent attacks against migrants; for this reason, the earthquake-affected areas can no longer be considered safe for migrants. As aid policies have excluded migrants from the relief system, migrants have difficulties accessing even basic necessities such as drinking water or shelter. Migrants have been labeled as “looters”, and there have been reports that members of Arabic-speaking communities in the region have been the target of racially-motivated mob attacks. Representatives of the Turkish state publicly use anti-migrant rhetoric and promote racist sentiment. Further, migrants who survive the attacks may be tortured by law enforcement officers, as has been reported by legal and rights-based organizations working in the region”. Recent media reports illustrate the hardening approach by Turkish authorities: ”A Syrian man was killed and seven other people were injured after allegedly being beaten and abused by Turkish gendarmerie while trying to cross the Syrian-Turkish border, Middle East Eye has learned from local sources”.

Meanwhile, the EU continues beefing up migration support and cooperation with Greece notorious for pushbacks and non-response to distress at sea and land borders. On 14 March, the Greek government announced the signing of an agreement with Frontex on the return of irregular migrants. “Returns are an essential part of border management, so I am proud that we can provide even more support to Greece in this important area,” said Frontex Executive Director Hans Leijtens. According to Frontex: “There are currently 518 standing corps officers and staff working in Greece, both at the mainland and on the islands in the Aegean. The agency also deploys 11 boats and 30 patrol cars, as well as other equipment, at Greece’s external borders”. Neither the Hellenic Coast Guard nor Frontex have stopped deaths in the Aegean Sea. As of March 2023 more than 2,200 migrants have drowned in the eastern Mediterranean since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The latest tragedy costing the lives of at least five people occurred on 11 March. Following the recent joint investigation by Solomon and El País revealing how Greek security forces have stolen more than two million Euro from refugees during pushbacks, Spanish MEPs, including the chairman of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), called on the Commission for an investigation. Juan Fernando López Aguilar (S&D), Javier Moreno Sánchez (S&D), Domènec Ruiz Devesa (S&D) raised the following parliamentary questions: “In view of these reported mistreatments, will the Commission open a formal investigation to verify the alleged actions of the Greek security forces? Does the Commission consider the abovementioned practices in line with EU law? What action does the Commission intend to take in order to enforce EU law and prevent these alleged practices by the Greek security forces?”. Hundreds of refugees participated in recent protests in Athens over systematic pushbacks and abuse by Greek authorities. “Stop pushbacks, down with the government of murderers,” stated one of the banners at the demonstration in front of parliament.

The ongoing crack-down by Greek authorities on human rights defenders and journalists continues. Koraki has published a response by Spiegel journalist, Giorgos Christides who was targeted by the Greek government after covering the death of a five-year-old girl on an Evros islet in the summer of 2022 where she was stuck among a group of 38 people. According to Christides, regardless of the controversy and deflections by the Greek government what remains clear is that the group of refugees were on an islet in primarily Greek territory, that the authorities knew it and that they didn’t respond to their distress despite the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Koraki states in conclusion: “There is an investigation pending into what happened last summer. The continued public statements and claims of Notis Mitarachis (Minister of Asylum and Migration) and Kiriakos Mitsotakis (Prime Minister) have already undermined that investigation – and have done so quite deliberately”. In an op-ed published on 14 March, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor wrote in reference to her research trip to Greece in June 2022: Throughout my visit, I repeatedly heard credible and consistent accounts of direct retaliation against people for simply helping others. These included human rights defenders targeted with spurious criminal proceedings, administrative sanctions, smear campaigns and threats for acts of solidarity with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. I highlighted some of these cases in a preliminary statement at the end of my visit, and I have been dismayed to receive reports of several more cases since”. The UN official further stated: “The current Government has placed migration within a security paradigm, facilitating rights violations, including pushbacks, which make a mockery of Greece and the EU’s commitment to human rights. There needs to be change and accountability. The management of migration should be intertwined with human rights policy to ensure the rights of all persons are fully upheld, including migrants, refugees and those seeking to exercise their right to apply for asylum”. On 23 March, Aegean Boat Report stated: “Greece: Criminal investigations opened against Tommy Olsen, a Norwegian human rights defender and founder of Aegean Boat Report. He monitors and reports on the human rights situation of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea”. Meanwhile, one significant Greek voice of solidarity, Aimilia Kamvysi, has died at the age of 93. Kamvysi, nominated in 2016 for the Nobel Peace Prize was the last of the three iconic grandmothers residing on Lesbos who became a symbol of solidarity during the refugee crisis of 2015, when they helped taking care of migrant children.

Meanwhile, 16 organisations, all members of the Child’s Rights Advocacy Network are “alarmed and disappointed to see that the newly proposed Immigration Code was suddenly published for an unrealistically short period of public consultation” not leaving sufficient time “for meaningful review and recommendations”.  According to the organisations, the proposed code: “does not offer solutions for the vast majority of unaccompanied children who remain outside the asylum system. Instead, the proposal seems set to create even more challenges for these children, increasing their barriers to gaining legal status in the country”. Under the headline ‘Punitive bill for asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors’, RSA comments: “The drafters of the bill purport to ‘streamline existing categories of residence permits, by repealing those stemming from national provisions and introducing them under similar categories of residence permits set out in EU law, as well as grouping them based on purpose and relevance…’. According to RSA: “This, however, not only is not served but on the contrary is deconstructed in the draft law, resulting in the exclusion of persons who live and are integrated into Greek society and in particular rejected asylum seekers, including children who arrived in Greece as unaccompanied minors and remain in the country as adults, from the possibility to obtain a residence permit”. UN Special Rapporteur, Mary Lawlor stated on 22 March after presenting her report on human rights defenders in Greece to the UN Human Rights Council: “The Gov’s proposed Immigration Code provides an immediate chance to implement some of the recommendations: align the definition of smuggling with intl law & end the criminalisation of all humanitarian assistance”.

ECRE member Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) issued a press release on 21 March on two new decisions by the Administrative Court of First Instance of Athens confirming that a request for an asylum registration appointment through the online platform operated by the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum establishes a person’s status as an asylum seeker, contrary to Greek practice so far. The cases concern two Afghan nationals who were arrested and detained with a view to removal, despite having booked appointments to lodge their asylum claims – consequently their detention was lifted by the judges, following a similar earlier ruling from the Administrative Court of Kavala. The online platform is the sole means of access to the procedure in mainland Greece. In view of the decisions, GCR urges Greek authorities to ensure, in accordance with national legislation and EU law, that asylum applicants are ensured legal stay pending the examination of their application, access to reception conditions and protection from arbitrary detention as soon as they request protection. Related complaints are pending before the European Commission.

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