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Greece Accused of Pushing Back Migrants, Refugees at Sea

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Greece is accused of pushing back migrants at sea Syrian migrants at sea . Credit: Ggia/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 4.0

A lawsuit was filed recently against Greece at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for harsh tactics referred to as “pushbacks” against migrants and refugees looking to enter the country by sea.  

The non-governmental organization Legal Center Lesvos is responsible for initiating the case where it accuses authorities of executing sophisticated, coordinated actions at sea that put the lives of migrants and refugees at risk. 

On Monday, the NGO announced they filed the suit with the ECHR on April 12 for a particularly egregious case last year.

“Pushbacks” leave people adrift on the sea 

In particular, they base their case on an alleged incident that took place off the coast of Crete in October 2020. On October 20, a group of almost 200 refugees traveling on a fishing boat en route to Italy signaled it was in distress when it was met by vessels of the Hellenic Coast Guard

Individuals who were interviewed about the incident said the authorities ordered them into Greek territorial waters where they were made to wait five hours after being promised aid. Later they said a group of black-clad commandos boarded their ship by surprise, beating several refugees violently and threatening their safety if they attempted to return to Greece.  

The entire incident took place across 24 hours and ended with the refugees being left outdoors through the night without food, water or any other kind of aid. They were then ordered into two life boats before being left at sea. Later they were picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard, according to The Guardian

A pattern of similar tactics from Hellenic Coast Guard

Legal Center Lesvos labels these tactics “pushbacks” which they add have become more common in the last year as a means to deter migrants and refugees from entering Greece by sea. They insist that pushbacks have become more common since March 2020 when the Turkish government began encouraging refugees to head to Europe despite a deal to limit migration that Ankara agreed to in 2016.

The number of incidents like this are not known, but Nastasha Ntailiani, a lawyer with Legal Center Lesvos, told The Greek Reporter that they are aware of at least 17 similar cases. She said that this lawsuit is her organization’s fifth one filed with the ECHR since August 2020. 

Ntailiani said there cases were acknowledged by the ECHR and they will now be examined as to whether or not they are admissible.

Greece is one of only a few European states that does not explicitly prohibit collective expulsions, according to Legal Center Lesvos. However, the lawyers contend in their lawsuit that “pushbacks” violate several guarantees afforded by the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ECHR has not yet ruled on any of the lawsuits filed by the NGO, but it has ruled before in favour of states’ right to expel large groups of people. Last year, the court ruled that Spain was within its right to expel two individuals from entering its territory on the basis that they tried to enter as a “large group.”

Asked whether this precedent inspired any concern for their case, Ntailiani said no. 

She points to the large number of individuals affected by the October operation that included up to 40 children were part of this group as well as a pregnant woman. This is on top of the volumes of evidence that include eyewitness testimonies, geolocation data, and call logs available to support their case

“Every case is different,” Ntailiani told the Greek Reporter. “I think the particular story of this case and all the circumstances, including the amount of sophistication and violence used, it is one of a kind.”

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