The European Union must take urgent measures against Greece for its widespread practice of “pushing back” refugees and migrants arriving at its borders, said an Amnesty International report published today (29 April).
Amnesty’s 35-page report – Greece: Frontier of hope and fear – contains new evidence of shameful treatment by the Greek authorities of people risking their lives to reach Europe, in direct violation of Greece’s international human rights obligations.
In the Aegean Sea alone, at least 188 people, including children and babies, drowned or went missing between August 2012 and March this year.
Amnesty’s report calls on the EU to use its power to start legal proceedings against Greece for failing to uphold its obligations.
'Push-backs', which are explicitly prohibited under Greek, EU and international law, are collective expulsions of migrants across the border they have crossed, back to where they came from. They amount to the unlawful deportation of a group of people without consideration of individual circumstances, thus denying them the possibility of requesting asylum where applicable.
Amnesty’s new research shows that Greece’s practice of push-backs is routine and widespread and is happening regularly along the land border in the Evros region in the north-east of Greece, which is patrolled by thousands of border guards and partly protected by a seven-mile-long fence. Others have been pushed back around the islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos in the Aegean Sea. Between September 2012 and April this year, Amnesty spoke to 148 migrants and refugees about their traumatic and often violent experiences of trying to enter Greece. Just under half said they had been pushed back from Greece to Turkey, sometimes more than once.
Two sisters fleeing the war in Syria described to Amnesty the treatment they and 40 others were subjected to by Greek police officers after crossing the border with Turkey. They said that hooded men put them on plastic boats and ferried them across the river Evros back to Turkey. One of the sisters told Amnesty: “The police […] were swearing at us and pushing [… ] They handed us over to people wearing black hoods and black or dark-blue uniforms. They [the men in hoods] took our money and passports. Then, in groups, [they] took us in small boats over to the Turkish side with nothing but our clothes.’’
Amnesty International Europe and Central Asia Director John Dalhuisen said: “While states have the prerogative to control their borders, this must never be at the expense of the lives and safety of those desperately seeking protection or simply a better life.
“The treatment of refugees and migrants at Greece’s borders is deplorable. Too often, instead of finding sanctuary, they are met with violence and intimidation. There are cases where they have been stripped naked, had their possessions stolen, and even held at gunpoint before being pushed back across the border to Turkey.
“The people carrying out these push-backs are state agents. As such, the Greek authorities bear full responsibility for their actions. The authorities must openly acknowledge and ensure an end to the illegal and often dangerous practice of push-backs
“Push-backs are in clear breach of European Union law. The European Commission must act now to start legal proceedings against Greece over this shameful practice, and end it once and for all.”
On 6 March, Greek coastguards fired live rounds at a small boat with 16 Syrians on board trying to reach the Greek island of Oinouses from Turkey. Three people were injured. The Greek coastguard claimed that they fired in self-defence as the refugee boat was trying to ram theirs. The refugees told Amnesty that no such thing happened and they had all raised their hands to show that they were unarmed and meant no harm. One refugee told Amnesty: “I thought they were fake bullets but then I heard somebody shouting […] a girl was covered in blood. We were all very scared; it was as if I never left the war.”
On 20 January a group of 11 Afghans and Syrians – eight of them children – died when a fishing boat carrying 27 people sank near the Greek island of Farmakonisi. Two of the survivors, who lost family members, told Amnesty that the boat sank as Greek coastguards were towing their vessel at high speed, zigzagging through the water towards Turkey. The authorities have denied that this was a push-back operation.
Current policies in Brussels are heavily tilted towards the deterrence and prevention of irregular migration rather than providing protection to those who need it. The EU Commission allocated €227,576,503 for Greece to keep refugees and migrants out from 2011 until the end of 2013, but only €19,950,000 to assist their reception during the same period. As Europe builds higher walls, refugees and migrants are taking ever more hazardous routes. In the Aegean Sea alone, at least 188 people, including children and babies, drowned or went missing between August 2012 and March this year.
Following the findings of an earlier report on the same topic last July, Amnesty collected some 95,000 signatures from across Europe and Israel urging the Greek authorities to put an immediate end to push-backs. Amnesty regrets the fact that earlier this month, the Greek Minister for Public Order and Citizen Protection, Nikolaos Dendias, refused a request for a meeting to receive the signatures.