EU urges Greece to honor human rights regarding migrant pushbacks

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Woman and children react as refugees and migrants from the destroyed camp of Moria flee clash with the police, on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Sept. 12, 2020. (Reuters Photo)

The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, has urged Greece to act in line with the bloc’s values and to respect basic human rights regarding the reports on the country’s practice of pushing migrants back toward Turkish land borders or territorial waters in the Aegean Sea.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), a commission spokesperson on Tuesday evaluated recent reports that Greece seized valuable items and money from irregular migrants and then sent them forcefully back to Turkey and said that the EU takes migrant pushbacks and mistreatment claims very seriously.

“Respecting the related obligations, including the protection of basic rights, are within the responsibility of national administrations and legal authorities.”

The official stated that the commission does not have the authority to launch a probe on the mistreatment by member states’ security forces and added that they expect national authorities to reveal facts about the incident and make necessary investigations on the unlawful practices.

Underlining the close contact between Greek officials and the EU, the spokesperson said they are aware of the complex situation on the Turkey-Greece border and that it is a concern not only for Greece but for all of Europe.

In recent years, Turkey and Greece have been key transit points for migrants aiming to cross into Europe, fleeing war and persecution to start new lives. Turkey has accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It also accuses the EU of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.

Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements that say people shouldn’t be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group. Such actions prevent asylum-seekers from making claims for refugee status and if practiced indiscriminately against a group of migrants it can constitute refoulement – a violation of EU human rights laws and the 1951 Geneva Convention.

The EU keeps providing financial and operational support to Greece regarding the migrant crisis, said the official and added: “In this difficult job, it is important that the authorities should act proportional and in line with European values. The European Commission frequently highlighted that basic rights and values must be defended in addition to the priority of protecting our borders. Measures taken for a difficult job at the border must be proportional and respectful to necessary and basic rights.”

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry last week urged Greek authorities once again to stop pushing irregular migrants back from their borders.

Urging Athens and “all elements involved in pushbacks” to end their violations of international and EU law, and demanding the country respect human rights and a 2016 migration deal between the EU and Turkey, the Foreign Ministry released a statement following two separate incidents on Feb. 23 and Feb. 24 when Greek forces assaulted groups of asylum-seekers, took their valuables and left them stranded on an island in the middle of Meriç (Maritsa) River between the two countries.

In March 2016, Ankara and Brussels signed an agreement to reduce the number of migrants taking the dangerous Aegean Sea route to Europe and to find a solution for the influx of migrants heading to EU countries. Despite significant developments controlling migration traffic, Turkey has frequently complained that the EU has not fully delivered on its commitments stated in the deal and criticized the international community for its indifference to the migrant crisis.

Over 80,000 asylum-seekers have been pushed back to Turkey in the last four years, the statement said, accusing Greece of conducting a “systematic policy” for years on the pushbacks with the involvement of the EU border agency Frontex. It also called on the EU to monitor its members’ implementation of EU laws and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights “on the basis of human dignity.”

Several rights groups in Greece last month also denounced what they said was the lack of an effective investigation of reports that the country is illegally pushing migrants back over the border into Turkey. Their statement came a day after Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi denounced previous claims as “fake news.”

In October, nearly 30 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) called on Greece to open an “urgent inquiry” into allegations that it was systematically pushing migrants back toward Turkey. Citing what they say as credible reports, international rights groups have repeatedly called for an investigation.

The Berlin-based rights group Mare Liberum said in January it had documented 321 incidents from March to December 2020 involving more than 9,000 people.

Mare Liberum’s report said that in addition to the Greek coast guard, Frontex and ships under NATO command were also involved in “systematic and illegal expulsions.”

Frontex is currently under investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the European Union’s independent corruption watchdog, over allegations of illegal pushbacks of migrants arriving in Greek waters from Turkey.

Members of the European Parliament and activists have called for Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri to resign over the operations, but he has refused to do so, insisting his agency is key to the fight against human trafficking.

The pressure came after media and rights organizations documented multiple cases of Frontex border officers, alongside national counterparts in EU countries, forcing migrants back, particularly along Greece’s sea border with Turkey.

At least six incidents in which Frontex units were involved in pushbacks near the islands of Lesbos and Samos between April 28 and Aug. 19 have been documented.

While the border agency is required to rescue migrants, the Frontex vessels patrolling the area sped past the overcrowded, inflatable boats, creating dangerous waves to force them to return to Turkish shores. A Frontex aircraft was also documented passing over migrants, who were seeking help at sea, but did not rescue them.

Frontex maintains there is no evidence of its involvement in such actions, insisting that EU member countries have control over operations in their waters.

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