While numerous NGOs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have accused Greece of using the Covid-19 epidemic as pretext to “abandon” hundreds of migrants at sea since March, Athens denies the charge and denounces “misinformation”.
After revelations in the New York Times and accusations by NGOs that Greece has abandoned the migrants at sea, the Greek section of the UNHCR said on Friday it had “reports and testimonies that people were left adrift” in the Aegean Sea without being rescued by the Greek coastguard.
UNHCR specified in a statement that these people “were left adrift in the open sea for a long period of time, often in hard-to-manage and overcrowded boats, waiting to be rescued”.
“The reports, which include a series of direct and credible testimonies have been recorded by the UNHCR office in Greece and have been brought to the attention of the authorities responsible” in Greece, the statement said. The high commissioner’s office said the Greek government should “seriously investigate” the allegations of the expulsions of migrants towards Turkey “without further delay”.
‘Misinformation’, Athens says
Two days before these appeals, Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis categorically denied the accusations, branding them as “misinformation” orchestrated by Turkey. “Greece is a country that respects the rule of law, we have granted asylum to tens of thousands of people,” Mitsotakis said in an interview on US television station CNN on August 19.
For Legal Centre Lesbos, an NGO that offers assistance to refugees and migrants trying to enter Europe via the Greek island, Mitsotakis is in “denial of reality”.
“This practice is widespread, systemic and illegal,” the organisation said on Twitter after the prime minister’s television interview.
Catherine Teule, vice president of EuroMed Rights, an NGO that promotes human rights in the Mediterranean region, takes the same position. “These kinds of expulsions are nothing new, whether among the Greeks, Italians or Maltese,” she said to FRANCE 24. “But Greece has taken advantage of the confinement due to the Covid-19 pandemic to step them up!”
Report: Over 1,000 migrants pushed back since March
The New York Times’s investigation published on August 14 claims that Greece “abandoned” migrants at sea to be rescued by the Turkish coastguard. According to the US daily, Greek authorities brought migrants to the limit of the country’s territorial waters before leaving them to their fate on “inflatable and sometimes overburdened life rafts”.
The newspaper’s investigation found that at least 1,072 people were turned back in at least 31 separate incidents. The investigation gathered testimonies from survivors and evidence from three independent human rights organisations, two researchers and the Turkish coastguard.
Rights expert: Athens ‘took advantage’ of pandemic
According to experts, the alleged illegal practices grew more frequent during the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown period in Europe. The Greeks “seized the moment”, François Crépeau, a specialist in international law and a former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, told the New York Times.
“The coronavirus has provided a window of opportunity to close national borders to whoever they wanted,” he said.
Matthieu Tardis, a researcher at French international relations think tank Ifri, shared this viewpoint with FRANCE 24’s colleagues at InfoMigrants: “The Greek government took advantage of the pandemic to tighten its migration polices.”
Greek authorities have gone far beyond the acceptable, according to Teule. “We even have cases of asylum-seekers already on the Greek islands who were led to believe that they were going to be transferred to the mainland … but were sent back to Turkey! These are deportations, plain and simple,” she said.
IOM report: ‘collective expulsions’
Like the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which in June issued a statement expressing its concern about reports of “pushbacks and collective expulsions” of migrants across the Aegean, Legal Centre Lesbos sounded an alarm last July. The organisation, based on the island that is the main gateway for asylum seekers in Greece, indicated it had collected information and testimonies on the abandonment of 30 migrants in the Aegean between March and June.
According to the NGO, Greek authorities developed the habit of damaging boats before abandoning them. The practice of damaging migrants’ boats is also cited in the New York Times article, which states too that the Greek coastguard transferred migrants to sometimes undersized rescue boats near Greece and Turkey’s maritime borders and set them adrift.
Ankara and Athens are at loggerheads on many subjects. Among them is the question of migration, but Turkey’s search for hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean in areas it disputes with Greece and Cyprus is also at issue.
In March 2020, triggering an escalation of tensions, Turkey announced it would open its borders with Greece to let refugees through. It was precisely at this time that Greece increased its expulsions of migrants according to UNHCR.
This article has been translated from the original in French.
Video: EU migrant crisis: “Migrants endure severe beating before being abandoned at sea” (France 24)