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Greece Rejects EU Proposal for Border Monitors

FILE - A policeman patrols alongside a steel wall at Evros River, near the Greek village of Poros, at the Greek-Turkish border, May 21, 2021.

Greece has rejected a request by the European Union to set up an independent process to monitor border controls and illegal migration.

The Greek snub is said to have infuriated Brussels, which has been extremely critical of Athens for its alleged illegal practice of migrant pushbacks. The rejection could imperil millions of dollars in financial support that Greece needs to boost its capabilities in fending off illegal migration. That is especially true as Europe braces for a wave of Afghan migrants streaming to the West after the Taliban takeover.

Asked in parliament, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis offered a blunt response about whether he would allow the EU to establish an independent watchdog to monitor border controls and illegal migration.

He said that while the government in Athens was open to discussing the formation of independent monitoring committees on migration across the EU, Greece alone was not willing, as he put it, to “go it alone.”

Mitarakis said that to create such a watchdog that would oversee how Greece is fending off illegal migrants and whether illegal pushbacks are taking place is not among the government’s priorities.

There is no such issue, he insisted. He asserted it is Greece’s sovereign right to defend its border as it sees fit.

Greece has increased patrols along the Aegean Sea coast and erected a massive steel wall along its land frontiers with Turkey to fend off a fresh deluge of migrants.

Greek leaders also are considering setting up floating barriers along the Aegean waterway that divides Greece and Turkey. And with the West bracing for a new migrant exodus from Afghanistan, Athens says it is preparing a major media blitz to make known that it is no longer allowing free passage to illegal entries.

Reports from the U.N., humanitarian aid organizations and migrants are documenting the increasing numbers of migrants that are being turned away — often using nefarious practices such as “pushbacks.”

A police officer works inside an operation center in the Greek village of Nea Vyssa near the Greek-Turkish border, May 21, 2021.
A police officer works inside an operation center in the Greek village of Nea Vyssa near the Greek-Turkish border, May 21, 2021.

Senior U.N. officials in Greece contacted by VOA said at least 450 cases of illegal pushbacks had been documented this year – cases they say have been submitted to a local prosecutor to investigate.

Aid groups put the number much higher. The Norwegian-based Aegean Boat Report, which counts such activity, said Saturday it had documented 700 pushbacks since March 20, 2020. That’s a total of 19,200 people it claims authorities have repelled, either nudging their rafts out of Greek waters or at times stripping the motors from their boats, leaving migrants and refugees adrift in high seas.

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 European Union member states that face similar migration challenges — also have been accused of engaging in unlawful, sometimes violent pushbacks.

But in Greece, U.N. officials and aid groups warn the practice is not just routine, it also is being conducted in a more ruthless way — with masked agents picking up migrants and refugees who have illegally crossed into Greece, and then tossing them back into life rafts, towed across the Aegean Sea and sent back to Turkey.

With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan spurring new waves of migration to the West, aid agency officials tell VOA they are concerned illegal pushbacks may become excessive.

EU officials in Athens were not available for comment. But local media reported that migration officials in Brussels were enraged with Greece’s refusal to allow monitors. Local media also reported the EU is set on freezing some $17.4 million in aid to help revamp Greece’s coast guard with new equipment and vessels.

Since surging to power in 2019, Greece’s center-right government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has adopted a stiffer stance on illegal migration – a policy that has seen migrant inflows drop by a dramatic 90% in that two-year period.

With inflows of Afghans steadily increasing, the government in Athens insists it will not let up — regardless of the cost.