NGO blasts Greece, EU over illegal refugee pushbacks



In the wake of the Lampedusa tragedy, a German NGO has accused the Greek government of illegally pushing back refugees trying to reach Europe via the Greek-Turkish border, and the European Union of complicity in this action.

Over 2000 refugees, mainly from Syria, were turned away at the Greek-Turkish border in 2012, according to a new report by Pro Asyl, a member of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).

In the same period, due to the closure of the land border in the Greek region of Evros, an increasing number of people also fleeing Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea were forced to take a more perilous route to try and reach Europe across the Aegean Sea.

It’s estimated that at least 149 men, women (some of whom pregnant) and children died while making the crossing last year.

Under international law, Greece and the European Union both have a responsibility to guarantee that basic human rights are respected while protecting its borders. But according to 90 testimonies collected in the report, this is not the case.

For example, despite the principle of non-refoulement in Article 1 of regulations of Europe’s border management agency Frontex, refugees interviewed by Pro Asyl say they were detained on Greek soil without being registered before being deported back to Turkey.

Greek coastguards have also been accused of abandoning refugees found in Turkish territorial waters with no regard for their safety, and nine cases of torture were reported.

“While the EU publicly repeats its commitment to stand by Syrian refugees, their fundamental human rights are being ignored and violated at the European border,” says Karl Kopp, Director of European Affairs at Pro Asyl.

It is thought that Greece’s actions have been largely driven by the crisis-stricken country’s inability to cope with the number of refugees and migrants entering the country.

Frontex estimates that in 2011, over 55,000 irregular migrants entered Greece, an increase of 17 per cent on 2010.

It is also clear that the EU, via Frontex, is determined to keep irregular migrants from entering European soil whether they are claiming asylum or otherwise.

This is in spite of a recent call by the European Ombudsman for Frontex to better respect and ensure fundamental rights at the EU frontiers.



Pro Asyl reports that in March 2012, the Austrian Interior Minister, Johanna Mikl Leitner, described the Greek border as open as “a barn door” and the German Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, threatened to reintroduce Schengen controls with Greece if refugees continued to access the European Union territory through the Greek-Turkish border.

Such pressure resulted in the tough new measures outlined in the study, which have put thousands of lives in danger while yielding a reduction in the numbers of migrants reaching the EU.

In the last part of 2012, the Greek government deployed an additional 1,800 police officers to the Evros region.

New detention centres for refugees and migrants were erected – for the most part financed by the European Union.

And in December 2012, the construction of a 10.5 kilometres fence was completed.

As a consequence of these measures, Greek border police announced a dramatic decrease in the number of irregular migrants arrested at the borders with Turkey in the last six months of 2012: in the border town of Orestiada for example, in July 2012 6,500 undocumented migrants were arrested. By August 2012, that number plummeted to 1,800, in September 2012 that number fell even more drastically to 71 and by November 2012, no arrests were made.

But it would appear that successful border protection has resulted in significantly less care about the human rights of those affected.

This sentiment is echoed by the EU office of the Red Cross which recently released a report calling for a proper system of legal migration to allow migrants safe ways to enter Europe.

Without it, says the Red Cross, it is impossible to ensure that migrants, asylum seekers and refugees will received the legal protection they are entitled to, particularly in the face of the pressing demand caused by conflicts such as the Syrian civil war.

The report makes several recommendations to the EU, including the provision of humanitarian and protection visas, increasing the number of refugee quotas, and harmonising the rules governing migration and asylum throughout the EU – in essence, a revision of the Dublin II regulation.

Ahead of the next EU summit in December, Pro Asyl is calling on EU member states to use this opportunity to tackle Europe’s migration crisis once and for all.

“It’s shocking that in the 21st century, the EU does not yet have a proper legal migration and harmonised asylum system,” says Kopp, “and that we invest ten times more in building detention centres than we do in ensuring migrants the protection they need.”

The Greek Presidency of the EU, beginning in January 2014, is being seen as a further occasion to push for a shared approach and for shared responsibilities to face migration.

But as an immediate priority, Pro Asyl wants to see Greece – and Turkey – commit to dramatically improve the treatment of migrants at its land and sea borders.