Dozens of people remain missing after two shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea on 31 October. Pushbacks and non-response tactics by Greek authorities continue in the Evros region and the Aegean Sea. In view of the latest report on Türkiye by the European Commission, 16 civil socity organisations call on Greek authorities to: “Immediately repeal the national list of safe third countries”.

Two rescue operations were launched by Greek authorities after shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea near the islands of Evia and Andros and off Samos on 31 October. According to the Hellenic Coast Guard, four people were rescued off Samos by local fishermen and a vessel of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) while eight people remain missing. The Hellenic Coast Guard had recovered 10 survivors from a shipwreck off the island of Evia by 1 November – one had been picked up by a cargo ship assisting in the search and rescue operation. One more survivor was found on land on the southern part of the island on 2 November. But, reportedly, there had been 68 people on board, including many women and children and dozens remain missing with hope running out due to weather conditions hampering rescue efforts. The NGO hotline Alarm Phone that had alerted the Hellenic Coast Guard prior to the rescue operation commented on the tragedy, stating: “dozens reported missing. Borders kill !!!”. Aegean Boat Report released statements from video footage taken prior to the shipwreck with desperate statements from the people in distress. “Please I’m begging you, hurry up hurry up, we have a lot of people on the boat, most of them are kids, and they are young kids, small, if you don’t hurry to save us, we will go down and everyone will die”, said one person and another voice can be heard saying: “we don’t know our destiny what’s going to be, where is the police that you talked about, please hurry up we will die..”. The organisations stated: “knowing what happened afterwards is just devastating”. According to Aegean Boat Report, by 2 November 20 bodies had been recovered from the sea and “A total of 12 people have been found alive, all male, while 36 people are still believed to be missing. One of the survivors, a 16-year old boy, is being treated at the hospital in Karystos”. On 3 November, local media reported of another two bodies recovered, bringing the death toll to 22.

Beyond the deadly tragedies numerous incidents of people in distress in Greek waters have been reported over the last period. Alarm Phone reported on 28 October, of distress off Crete, stating: “Over 300 lives at risk! Alarm Phone was called by a large vessel in distress, carrying hundreds of people. The weather is very dangerous in the region and the people on board fear for their lives. Authorities are informed – no delays, launch a rescue operation immediately!” By 1 November the hotline confirmed: Still not rescued, still at sea after many days! Various authorities were informed days ago but fail to rescue. The people tell us they’ve not had food & water for days. They don’t lose hope and continue but the boat can capsize at any moment! End this reckless non-assistance!” On 30 October, Aegean Boat Report stated: “A boat carrying approximately 110 people, mostly Afghan families, on its way from Turkey to Italy, ended up in disaster in the Ionian Sea, inside Greek waters, 80 nautical miles from Kalamata. HCG has so far refused to comment”.

Meanwhile, pushbacks and non-response tactics by Greek authorities continue in the Aegean Sea and the Evros region. A recent report by Oxfam, Save the Children and ECRE member, Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) states that between mid-March and late September: “GCR successfully filed interim measures before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) for 20 groups of refugees and migrants that arrived in the Evros region. Despite the Court’s orders, most of these people were pushed back to Turkey. In addition to the interim measures, since the beginning of the year, GCR alone has sent more than 100 interventions to the Greek authorities requesting the search and rescue of more than 700 refugees from Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, including children and people with severe vulnerabilities. However, the Greek authorities responded positively in only roughly half of these cases, while in other cases they either did not reply or stated that they failed to locate the refugees. In numerous cases, the refugees later contacted GCR and stated that they had been forcibly returned to Turkey”. Reportedly, German outlet Die Welt managed to visit the Evros region and get: “A Rare Look At Europe’s Most Violent Border Crossing”. Greek authorities have restricted access to the region separating Greece and Türkiye and declared it a military exclusion zone. The exact number of people on the move dying while attempting often multiple times to cross into Greece through the region is unknown. However, according to Forensics professor, Pavlos Pavlidis examining the bodies recovered by Greek police he saw 47 corpses last year and 51 in 2022 by mid-September alone. On 31 October, Aegean Boat Report published documentation of 43 people including 16 Children stopped off Lesvos in the Aegean Sea and pushed back to Turkish waters by the Hellenic Coast Guard. According to the organisation, the group was: “threatened at gunpoint, while the petrol tank was removed from their boat, shortly after the HCG vessel moved away and left them helplessly drifting in the Aegean Sea”. Aegean Boat Report again on 1 November announced a pushback incident: “40 people arrived on Lesvos last night, 11 of them are now safe in camp, 29 was arrested, beaten and robbed before thrown in a life raft by Greek coast guard, left helplessly drifting in the Aegean Sea, this is Greek border management”.

According to 16 civil society organisations: “The latest European Commission report on Türkiye counters Greece’s designation of Türkiye as a “safe third country” for refugees, enacted through a national list of safe third countries based on which more than 7,000 asylum claims from nationals of Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been dismissed as inadmissible”. “In view of the mandatory reassessment by Greece of the designation of Türkiye as a “safe third country” in November, the organisations in a joint letter call on Greek authorities to: “Immediately repeal the national list of safe third countries set out by JMD 42799/2021, as amended by JMD 458568/2021. Publish previous and upcoming opinions of the Director of the Asylum Service regarding the designation of safe third countries, which should be made available to asylum seekers subject to the application of the list according to the European Commission” and “Stop dismissing asylum applications as inadmissible based on the “safe third country” concept”.

ECRE member, Fenix Aid reported on 31 October how the closure of the ESTIA II program, that has been unraveling since the Greek government took it over from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in 2020 potentially will result in: “thousands of extremely vulnerable asylum seekers to be left without humane and adequate accommodation and proper care”. According to the organisation: “Pursuant to the obligation of the state to provide special reception conditions to vulnerable asylum seekers under EU and domestic law, in September 2020, the Greek Government took over from UNHCR the EU-funded ESTIA II program with the intention of increasing its capacity from 25.500 to 40.000 places by the end of 2021. Not only did this not materialise, but also in February 2022, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum announced the restriction of the capacity of ESTIA II to 10.000 places by April 2022, aiming to fully complete it by the end of 2022, while there was no provision for the vulnerable asylum seekers currently accommodated there”.

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