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UNHCR, EU Slam Greece Over Migrant Pushbacks, Abuse

Migrants watch smoke rising from a fire inside a refugee camp on the eastern Aegean island of Samos, Greece, Nov. 11, 2020.
Migrants watch smoke rising from a fire inside a refugee camp on the eastern Aegean island of Samos, Greece, Nov. 11, 2020.

The United Nations’ refugee agency is urging Greece to stamp out migrant abuse and investigate multiple accusations of pushbacks at the country’s sea and land borders with neighboring Turkey.

The UNHCR statement issued late Thursday echoes portions of a report published hours earlier by the Council of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). The CPT report says Greece repeatedly forced migrants to turn back and encouraged similar actions by European forces deployed along its porous frontiers as part of a concerted effort to crack down on illegal migration.

Forcing migrants to turn around is a serious breach of international law, violating asylum-seekers’ right to safe passage and protection.

Croatia, France, Spain and Italy—all of which face similar migration challenges—also have been accused of engaging in unlawful, sometimes violent pushbacks.

Earlier this week the EU Observer published emails from the EU border agency commonly known as Frontex citing an October incident in which Danish coast guard officers assisting Greek authorities refused orders to force migrants and asylum-seekers onto a small boat bound for Turkey.

Frontex chief Fabrice Leggeri last month called the incident a “misunderstanding,” describing it as an “isolated incident” during questioning by European lawmakers.

Details of the published emails, however, show that the Danish coast guard crew rejected the pushback order despite alleged recommendations by Greek authorities. They instead issued new orders for the migrants to be returned to a harbor on Greece’s southeastern Aegean Sea island of Kos, which lies roughly 23 kilometers southwest of the Turkish port city of Bodrum.

'Rescue, support, register'

“UNHCR calls on Greece to continue rescuing, providing immediate support and registering new arrivals seeking protection,” said a prepared statement released by the office of Peter Kessler, the refugee agency’s senior communications officer. “UNHCR firmly reiterates its call on Greece to refrain from any practices that may involve informal returns of people to Turkey after they have reached Greek soil or territorial waters.”

Kessler called out Greek authorities for allegedly underreporting land and sea arrivals from neighboring Turkey—a move believed to provide local authorities a free hand to conduct illegal pushbacks.

Greece has grappled with accusations of forced migrant returns and abuse since 2015, when about a million refugees, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, arrived in Europe to escape violence at home.

Inflows have since see-sawed, reaching record lows since the start of the year with a total of 14,600 sea and land entries, according to UNHCR data.

Accusations rejected

Greek migration officials did not immediately comment on either the pushback accusations or calls by the EU and UNHCR to stamp out migrant abuse.

The government in Athens has repeatedly denied engaging in pushbacks or abuse of migrants, calling accounts part of an “unsubstantiated fake news campaign" orchestrated by its longtime regional rival, Turkey.

Earlier this year, Turkey condemned Greek security forces for using tear gas and water cannons on migrants attempting to enter the country and alleged that those same forces opened fire and killed at least three migrants trying to cross the border from Turkey into the European Union.

Tens of thousands of migrants have been trying to get into EU member Greece since Turkey said on Feb. 28 it would no longer keep them on its territory as part of a 2016 deal with Brussels reached in return for European aid.

Athens on March 1 suspended asylum applications for a month in what it called a strategy to prevent migrants from illegally entering the EU.

'Ill treatment, inhumane conditions'

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a Senegalese asylum-seeker in March said Greek security forces fired on a group of migrants and that he saw two men fall to the ground before he fled from the area.

The New York-based rights group could not verify the shooting but accused the European Union of “hiding behind a shield of Greek security force abuse instead of helping Greece protect asylum-seekers and relocate them safely throughout the EU.”

In its lengthy report issued Thursday, the CPT task force deployed to Greece earlier this year found recurring cases of migrant abuse, mainly by local police and coast guard officers.

“The ill-treatment,” CPT said in its report, “consisted primarily of slaps to the head and kicks and truncheon blows to the body [mainly during arrest or transfer to detention cells.]”

The CPT report described the detention facilities as inhumane.

“Migrants continue to be held in detention centers composed of large barred cells crammed with beds, with poor lighting and ventilation, dilapidated and broken toilets and washrooms, insufficient personal hygiene, inadequate food and no access to outdoor daily exercise.”

HRW in March issued a report stating that Greek authorities arbitrarily detained nearly 2,000 migrants and asylum-seekers in “unacceptable conditions” at mainland detention centers, denying them the right to lodge asylum claims.

“[Greek] authorities claim they are holding the new arrivals, including children, persons with disabilities, older people, and pregnant women, in quarantine due to COVID-19, but the absence of even basic health precautions is likely to help the virus spread,” the report states.

Greek government spokesperson Stelios Petsas has staunchly denied the criticism, insisting that Greek officials “tell everyone that they shouldn’t attempt to get in through the window.”

“There is a door,” Petsas told reporters at a March press conference. “Whoever is entitled to protection should knock on that door and be entitled to protection based on international law.”

He also rejected a New York Times report of secret Greek “black sites” where detainees are denied access to lawyers and cannot file asylum claims.

Since surging to power last year, Greece’s ruling conservatives have taken an increasingly strong-armed approach to illegal migration, insisting that the EU help shoulder the burden and cost of Europe’s lingering refugee population.

Earlier this year, Turkey warned it would no longer uphold a 2016 agreement with the European Union to continue hosting migrants on its soil in exchange for billions in aid.

UNHCR says Turkey is currently home to 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees and an estimated 370,000 refugees and asylum-seekers of other nationalities.

Greece currently hosts an estimated 186,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, including more than 5,000 unaccompanied minors.

Pete Cobus contributed reporting from Washington. Some information is from Reuters.