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European Rights Body Urges Greece to Stop Migrant Pushbacks

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Migrants and asylum seekers at Greece’s Lesvos. Credit: Greek Government

Europe’s leading human rights body has urged Greece to end migrant pushbacks on its borders, a practice that Athens denies carrying out.

In a letter to Greek ministers dated May 3 and published on Wednesday, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner said there had been “numerous credible allegations” since at least 2017 of asylum seekers illegally returned to Turkey or left adrift at sea but that Athens had simply dismissed them.

The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, urges the Greek authorities to put an end to pushback operations at both the land and sea borders with Turkey, and to ensure that independent and effective investigations are carried out into all allegations of pushbacks and of ill-treatment by members of security forces in the context of such operations.

These practices, which have been widely reported and documented for several years, prevent the persons who are returned at the border without individual identification or procedure from putting forward reasons why such a return would violate their rights, and from applying for protection, Mijatović says.

“In such cases, member states cannot satisfy themselves that they are not sending individuals back in violation of, for example, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the refoulement prohibition in the UN Refugee Convention”, underlines the Commissioner.

“Moreover, the way in which these operations are reportedly carried out would clearly be incompatible with Greece’s human rights obligations,” she adds.

Council calls on Greece to improve migrant facilities

Noting the role civil society organizations play in reporting and documenting pushbacks, the Commissioner also expressed concern about reported attempts to discredit the work of NGOs protecting the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

With particular reference to reception conditions, the Commissioner stressed that action to improve the lingering substandard living conditions in the Reception and Identification Centres must not be delayed and that all appropriate standards must be met, and overcrowding prevented.

With the new reception facilities reportedly set to operate as enclosed centers, the Commissioner is concerned that this will lead to large-scale and long-term deprivation of liberty. She urged the Greek authorities to reconsider the enclosed nature of these centers.

Greece responds

In a response also published by Mijatovic’s office, Greece said it had investigated the allegations and found them “largely unsubstantiated.”

“The actions taken by the Greek authorities, at our sea borders, are being carried out in full compliance with the country’s international obligations,” Greek ministers were quoted as saying in their response to the Council.

They said Greece had rescued thousands of people since the start of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015 and officers had to do their job “against the backdrop of an unfavorable environment of intended misleading information emanating in most cases from the smugglers’ networks.”

On the issue of the living conditions in the Reception and Identification Centres in the islands, Greece says that “they have been considerably improved in comparison with the recent past, and this despite the humanitarian crisis that the arson of the Moria camp on Lesvos in September 2020 triggered.”

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