The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) calls for an urgent investigation after another seven frozen bodies were found in the Evros region, bringing the total number of deaths to 19. A Thessaloniki court has a vindicated a Syrian family of responsibility for a tent fire and order the Greek state to pay the family damages for the serious injuries suffered by their children. Meanwhile, local protestors have been arrested for arson after protests on Lesvos over the establishment of a new EU-funded camp.

Following the 12 deaths of people on the move near the Greek border on 2 January, another seven bodies has been recovered in the area by Turkish authorities. The 19 deaths are reportedly the consequence of pushback operations by Greek authorities in which people were left without shoes and stripped of their clothes in freezing temperatures on the Turkish side of the border. European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson expressed “shock” over the deaths reported on 2 January and stated she would raise the issue with the Greek government. Despite mounting evidence, the latter continues to reject pushback reports as “propaganda and false allegations”. Following the latest recovery of an additional seven bodies UNHCR has called for an urgent investigation and is urging for states to act to protect the lives, rights and safety of refugees and migrants. Hundreds of protestors in the Turkish and Greek capitals of Athens and Istanbul decried the deaths. “People were stripped of their clothes and their belongings were taken. They were left to die and the whole world remains silent about this,” said chairman of the humanitarian aid group IHH, further calling on the European Parliament to: “take action on this issue as soon as possible and stop this cruel attitude that commits these crimes against humanity”.

At Greece’s Universal Periodic Review, a five yearly review of human rights performance before the UN, the country received a multitude of recommendations from more than 10 countries concerning allegations of systematic pushbacks. The NGO Aegean Boat Report has released video material of around 30 people, including many children, pushed back from Kos. The organisation states that: “The Greek coast guard who forced them in these life rafts didn’t even have the curtesy to provide them with life jackets before they left them adrift”. The Turkish Coast Guard report rescuing a total of 23,676 “undocumented migrants” in the Aegean Sea in 2021, of which 15,794 had reportedly been pushed back by Greece. Six weeks after shipwrecks off the Greek islands of Folegandros, Paros and Crete that led to the loss of at least 30 lives, the decomposed bodies of another three people have been recovered.

In a landmark decision, a Thessaloniki court has ordered the Greek state to pay a Syrian family damages over a fire that broke out in their camp in 2016, “severely injuring” two of their children. The court rejected the Greek argument that the “refugees themselves and not the authorities were responsible for the cause of the fire (short circuit in their tent) and asserted the state‘s legal obligation to provide adequate and safe reception conditions”. The case will however be appealed by the government. Meanwhile, local protests over the establishment of EU -funded ‘closed controlled’ camps – that have been dubbed “prison structures” by NGOs such as Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) – on the Aegean islands continue. On Lesvos, local authorities are backing protests over a facility under construction 30 kilometres north of Mytilene. The structure, which will house 3,000 asylum seekers, is expected to be completed by September 2022. Following a peaceful demonstration on 7 January, protests turned violent on 8 January when a small group of protesters set fire to machinery owned by a contractor working on the construction of the 87 million euro camp. Four or five local residents were arrested and are facing charges including attempted grievous bodily harm, arson, and property destruction. Greek police have identified another six people who allegedly participated in the violence. The EU has allocated more than 260 million euro for the establishment of closed controlled facilities in the hotspots on the Aegean islands of Leros, Lesvos, Kos, Chios and Samos.

In a joint police operation coordinated by Europol, officers from the German Federal Police and the Aliens Division of Attica of the Hellenic Police have raided several locations to expose an organised smuggling ring. A large number of ID documents were recovered and a main suspect arrested. The criminal network has reportedly been active since 2020, and was largely run by Syrians. Smuggled people were charged between 3,500 – 4,500 euro per person for journeys from Greece to Western Europe.

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Photo: ECRE

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