A Syrian rights group based in the United States has formally asked for an international probe into alleged migrant abuse which they say occurred on Greek territory.
The Associated Press reports that the Syria Justice and Accountability Center filed a case with the International Criminal Court on Thursday, asking its officials to look into the alleged “crimes against humanity” on the part of Greece for its alleged mistreatment of migrants and refugees on its soil.
The group states that there is testimony from witnesses as well as video evidence of the mistreatment, which took place along Greece’s borders and in its teeming migrant and refugee camps.
“Shabby” conditions at camps in Greece
There were cases, the group alleges, in which security guards used tear gas to disperse protestors, and the conditions at the camps themselves were described as “shabby” and unhealthy.
Syria Justice and Accountability Center’s executive director Mohammad Al-Abdallah stated to the press that this constitutes the first legal challenge to the European Union as a whole regarding how refugees and migrants are treated within its borders.
Beginning in 2015, wave upon wave of migrants and refugees have landed on the shores of Greece, in an effort to escape the fighting in Syria and Afghanistan, and poverty and discrimination elsewhere.
Massive overcrowding at migrant and refugee camps
Millions of immigrants paid human smugglers for transportation to the Greek islands, eventually overwhelming the asylum system as set up by the EU, resulting in massive overcrowding in Greece’s overburdened migrant and refugee camps.
So far, more than one million individuals have made it onto the Greek islands, as well as the mainland, via Turkey — which agreed to limit the number of migrants and refugees it allowed to leave its shores in return for millions of euros paid out by the EU.
This has not panned out, however, and it was only the pandemic which ended up limiting the numbers of people arriving onto Greece’s shores.
Would “send a clear message”
Al-Abdallah stated to reporters “If this case proceeds, it would send a clear message that yes, you have good policies in some countries, others (not) — but that you are actually governed by international law and by your refugee treaties, not by your individual member state’s decision making.”
Prosecutors from the International Criminal Court will review the case before deciding whether to open a full-scale investigation, which would likely take months to complete, according to the AP.
The ICC receives hundreds of complaints each year from groups and individuals who believe that crimes have taken place, but so far, the body has mostly adjudicated on cases which were referred to it by the UN Security Council and UN member states.
In the past, the World Court at The Hague has faced criticism for looking into cases which occurred mostly in African countries, although it is currently investigating cases all over the globe.
The Syrian group says that the alleged mistreatment, which has been documented since March of 2016, also occurred in Greece’s territorial waters where it says that it has documented the sabotaging of migrant boats, leaving them to drift back out to sea. In some cases it alleges, Greek authorities have even pushing the boats back into the water.
The so-called “pushback” incidents are legally considered to be contrary to international refugee protection agreements, which stipulate that people must not be expelled or returned to a country where “their life and safety may be in danger.”
Alleged Frontex participation
The Syria Justice and Accountability Center also stated to the press that there is evidence that personnel from Frontex, the border patrol agency responsible for monitoring and policing migrant movement, either “participated in or were complicit” in the alleged abuses, which it believes could be considered crimes against humanity.
The Frontex organization came under fire after an October investigation by media outlets stated that video evidence and other public information suggests its members were “actively involved in one pushback incident at the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the Aegean Sea.”
For its part, Frontex maintains that there is no evidence of its involvement in any such actions, and insists that EU member countries have the right to control operations in their own waters. The allegations, however, have been embarrassing for the European Commission, which unveiled new reforms to the EU’s asylum system back in September of 2020.
Nesma Bashi, a legal fellow with the Syrian group who conducted research on the alleged abuse in Greece, urged the ICC to investigate the allegations. She stated that she also wanted the “international community to recognize and provide support to end the plight of refugees, including Syrians, who continue to suffer in Greece.”
Moria fire brought situation to a head
Last September, migrants and refugees living in Greece’s most overcrowded camp, Moria, on the island of Lesvos, set several fires leveled the camp, which had been haphazardly strewn with makeshift tents and other shelters and which posed a health hazard to residents.
Over 12,000 migrants and refugees had lived there prior to the fire, in an area that had been built to house 3,000 individuals. Now, the new settlement of Kara Tepe has been erected, with neat rows of white tents, allowing for better hygiene and sanitary conditions.
The Syrian group’s executive director Al-Abdallah said by that using international law court system, he hopes the case will influence the refugee and migrant debate in individual EU member states.
“We are hoping this would also influence the policy and discourse on refugees within the EU, not only in Greece,” he stated. “No EU country wants an accusation of crimes against humanity.”