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International refugee charity calls for Greek border investigation after openDemocracy report

Exclusive: Greek MP also expresses ‘horror’ after oD investigation found 233 Turkish asylum seekers were allegedly subjected to illegal pushbacks by Greek border forces

Walid el Houri
22 December 2021, 12.00am
Photo taken on March 2, 2020, shows refugees and migrants coming off a boat after arriving on the island of Lesvos, Greece
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Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo

A leading international refugee charity has called for an independent investigation after a report by openDemocracy revealed that hundreds of refugees had been illegally pushed back by Greek authorities on the country’s border with Turkey.

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), an alliance of 105 NGOs across 39 countries, told openDemocracy it wants the Greek authorities to “ensure an independent mechanism to investigate the violations at their border”.

“Greek authorities are not in the right place to conduct an investigation of their own violations. A serious investigation should surely be independent,” a spokesperson for the ECRE said.

The call comes after an openDemocracy investigation found that since May 2021, 233 Turkish nationals seeking asylum in Greece have been illegally forced to return to Turkey where they risk political persecution. This has risen markedly from 98 push-backs tracked in 2019.

“There is no indication that Greece is willing to conduct a serious investigation of its own police,” the ECRE spokesperson told openDemocracy.

“It is a widely documented fact that Greek authorities are indeed pushing people back to Turkey both over the land and the sea borders. There are thousands of documented cases of pushbacks and this practice is undeniable.”

Pushing refugees back to countries they have fled from is illegal under the international law of non-refoulement, the principle that forbids a country from forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to political persecution.

Three Turkish nationals whose story was documented by openDemocracy were allegedly tortured by Greek officials on 28 September. The men swam a 3.6-kilometre route from the Turkish coastal town of Kusadasi to the Greek island of Samos. They then walked inland and were picked up by port police ten kilometres from the coast.

The three men were illegally put on a boat back to Turkey, where two of them were arrested and are currently in jail serving sentences for what they say are trumped-up charges of belonging to an organisation the Turkish government considers to be involved in terrorism.

At least 76 of those pushed back since May were arrested by the Turkish authorities on trumped-up terrorism charges. Some see these arrests as part of a crackdown targeting Turkish and Kurdish dissidents, fuelled by Turkish President Erdoğan’s move against opponents.

Related story

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Exclusive: Turkish nationals claim they were illegally put in boats by Greek authorities and returned to Turkey, where they risked persecution

Taking a stand against illegal returns

“As a Member of Parliament in Greece, and on behalf of [Greek left-wing party] MeRA25, I express my horror at the thought that supposedly civilised European powers are indulging in this misanthropic behaviour,” Greek MP Yanis Varoufakis told openDemocracy.

“Besides its immorality, the pushbacks policy is irrational – in the sense that its greatest achievements are, on the one hand, the increase in the price people smugglers charge the most vulnerable refugees, while, on the other hand, allowing tyrants like Erdoğan to appear as more humane than ‘democratic’ Europe.”

openDemocracy’s report has also led ECRE to urge the European Commission to take a tougher stance on the illegal pushback of refugees.

“In an ideal world the European Commission would be well placed to press for independent border monitoring because the EU is providing funding for Greece – but sadly the commission has not taken a firm enough position,” a spokesman for the organisation said.

“The EU Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, has itself been accused of direct and indirect support of pushback operations. We would like to see a stronger position on this from the European Commission,” the spokesman added.

In a statement received after publication, the Hellenic Coastguard said that "their actions are carried out in full compliance with the country's international obligations, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue."

It added: "As for the tendentious allegations of supposed illegal actions, we must emphasise that the operation practices of the Greek authorities have never included such actions. What’s more, internal investigative and disciplinary control mechanisms are fully implemented in cooperation with the judicial authorities and other competent bodies."

The European Commission did not respond to a request for comment.

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