Greece designates Turkey a ‘safe third country’ for nationals of five countries that compose more than two thirds of asylum applications in Greece. New pushback cases are recorded while UN Special Rapporteur on The Human Rights of Migrants publishes condemning report on pushbacks with reference to cases in Greece, and Greek prosecutors are ordered to investigate 147 pushbacks. Meanwhile, Northern EU member states call for the prevention of ‘secondary movements’ from Greece.

On 7 June, the Greek government announced its decision to list Turkey as ‘safe third country’ for asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Somalia. With the decision, applicants from one of the specified countries who enter Greece via Turkey will be considered inadmissible based on the assumption that Turkey could offer protection and that the applicant should be returned. Meanwhile, Turkey has declined to take back asylum seekers from Greece since March 2020, justifying the refusal with the Covid-19 pandemic. The new announcement comes only a week after the Ministry of Migration and Asylum presented a new legislation package that according to local media seeks to increase deportations.

However, as Vasilios Papadopoulos, President of ECRE member the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR) highlights: “The concept of a safe third country presupposes the provision of a level of protection in accordance with the Geneva Convention on Refugees by the third country, the existence of an essential link between the asylum seeker and that country and the consent of the third country. In the case of Turkey, none of the above is the case.” A recent AIDA report published by ECRE outlines the difficulties people with protection needs face in Turkey – the country hosting the largest number of refugees in the world and twice as many as the rest of Europe combined with a total of 3.6 million people.

Further, it remains unclear how the conclusion that Turkey is safe was reached, and how the specified nationalities were selected, which raises concerns regarding the decision’s compatibility with EU law. Greek news outlet Efsyn suggests: “It seems that the reasons have nothing to do with the safety of refugees, but with their numbers.” Nationals from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Somalia make up about 70 per cent of all asylum applicants in Greece with a large share having protection needs recognised. The decision reportedly caused anxiety among the refugee population in Greece. A camp resident from the notorious Moria 2.0 camp on Lesvos said: “Hardly anyone has appetite because of all the stress. It is difficult to get legal support, to understand what is happening. There is no information point. Only walls that lock us in as if we have done something wrong.” Meanwhile, Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, praised the decision as an “important step in tackling illegal migration flows and the criminal activity of smugglers’ networks.”

While accounts of pushbacks by the Hellenic Coast Guard continue to mount, the UN Special Rapporteur on The Human Rights of Migrants, Felipe González Morales, published on 9 June a Report on means to address the human rights impact of pushbacks of migrants on land and at sea. In relation to Greece, the publication states: “Numerous submissions have raised concerns regarding Greece’s border governance at both its land and sea borders with Turkey. […] On top of an increased militarization of the Evros land border region since March 2020, which has effectively resulted in preventing entry and in the summary and collective expulsion of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers, the Special Rapporteur has received allegations that pushbacks over the land border are also reportedly carried out from urban areas, including reception and detention centres. An increase in pushbacks in the Aegean Sea, from Greek territorial waters, as well as from the islands of Rhodes, Samos and Symi, has also been documented, with one stakeholder recording 321 incidents involving 9,798 people between March and December 2020.” Following a complaint by the human rights NGO Greek Helsinki Monitor, the Supreme Court Prosecutor has ordered the investigation of 147 pushbacks from Greece between March and December 2020 that affected more than 7,000 people.

In the beginning of June, six northern EU member states called on the European Commission to take steps to end ‘secondary movements’ from Greece and ensure that substandard conditions are tackled so returns of beneficiaries of international protection in Greece could be carried out. In a letter sent on 1 June with Mitarakis in copy, the senders urged the situation should be redressed and necessary support provided, stating: “This includes offering Greece rapid, effective and substantial financial support for the integration of persons who have been granted international protection. It is of utmost importance to us all, that the situation in Greece improves.” Mitarakis recently suggested that Greece should not be responsible for integrating refugees and stressed in a response to the letter “the contribution of Greece is far above its fair share, considering our respective capacities. […] [F]rontline Member States cannot be expected to single-handedly patrol and control our external borders, register and process applications for international protection, offer reception conditions, integrate beneficiaries of protection and return third country nationals not in need of protection. This is a practice and a policy directly opposing the concept of European solidarity, as enshrined in our Treaties.” On 8 June, several organisations, including five ECRE members, have published a joint statement calling on the German government to continue relocations from Greece. On 9 June, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, and the Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum held a joint press conference on the migration situation in Greece. The Commissioner emphasised that the situation in Greece has already improved a lot especially in regard to reducing the number of migrants on the Greek islands and stressed the close cooperation regarding provision of good reception conditions. On 7 June, Refugee Support Aegean lodged complaints to the European Commission on behalf of clients on Greek islands concerning the failure of Greece to transpose and implement EU Directives

On 11 June, the second trial against four of the six defendants who are accused of having burned down Moria last September started in Chios. Three of the four accused were children at the time of their arrest and defence lawyers applied for the trial to be heard before juvenile court. According to Greek news, four Greek and foreign journalists, two international observers from Switzerland and Spain, and a lawyer from the UNHCR were not allowed to attend the trial.

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Photo: ECRE

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