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Greece: Pushbacks of over 7000 migrants including children may amount to torture and must be investigated

Joint statement

Geneva – Athens, 18 June 2021

As we celebrate World Refugee Day, the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) call on Greek authorities to put an end to its pushback policy that may amount to torture. In 147 incidents documented by GHM, members of the Hellenic Coast Guard and police have tortured and forcibly returned more than 7000 migrants, including children, to Turkey without due process despite an ongoing severe global health crisis. The Supreme Court recently ordered 16 first instance prosecutors to start investigations in their respective jurisdictions. We call on the authorities to promptly identify and prosecute the authors and provide adequate protection to all asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants.

Pushbacks from several Greek islands

From March to December 2020, several Greek non-governmental organisations have documented testimonies of migrants from Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, and various African countries, among others. They detail incidents where the Hellenic Coast Guard have blocked boats heading to Greek islands in the Aegean Sea and pushed them back to Turkish waters, or arrested them in the Evros area, at the land border between Greece and Turkey, before sending them back to Turkey.

The testimonies also give accounts of hundreds of men, women, and children arrested by coast guards during different incidents. In some cases, people who had already arrived on the Islands of Lesbos, Samos, Simi or Rhodes were pushed back and left drifting on inflatable life rafts in helpless conditions and without life jackets.

In many of these cases, even though migrants had reached the Greek territory and clearly requested asylum and international protection, they were systematically transferred to the sea or to a nearby port by Greek army or police officers and handed over to coast guards.

In 2016, during a visit to the country, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants had stressed that the primary focus of sea operations should be search and rescue and not combating irregular migration. Despite this, the Greek government seems to be taking advantage of the global focus on the Covid-19 pandemic to tackle the arrivals in the Greek Aegean islands via tactics that violate legal norms.

Use of force, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment

Various migrant groups who had arrived on Greek islands or on the mainland were captured by the military or police forces, who confiscated their belongings, including mobile phones, passports or other identification documents, large amounts of money, and even prescribed medication. Survivors testified that police officers were verbally abusive, that they did not get any food or water and had no access to bathrooms or sanitation facilities. There are also accounts of policemen who beat migrants and detained them for several days before they were pushed back.

According to the Greek law, detention of third-country nationals for the purpose of return is applied when there are no other adequate and less restrictive measures. In practice, the authorities have systematically used pre-removal detention in inhumane conditions before returning them to Turkey.

Greek human rights organisations have repeatedly stressed that the official policy is motivated by discrimination, xenophobia, and racism. Following his 2016 visit, the Special Rapporteur noted an increase in racist and xenophobic attacks against migrants, exacerbated by the economic crisis in Greece.

Lack of due process guarantees

Although the migrants arrested and sent back had clearly and repeatedly stated that they were applying for asylum, they were not presented to a judge, and could not meet a medical doctor, an interpreter, or a lawyer. Evidence and testimonies show that many of them had documents to prove their persecution in Jordan, Afghanistan, Turkey or Syria, among others. Others were forced to signed documents that they were not able to read.

Another practice has been to separate members of the same family when sending them back. The requests of pregnant women and children in need of medical attention have been ignored.

The Special Rapporteur had already deeply regretted in 2016 the “policy of increasing the use of detention of persons irregularly entering Greek territory, including unaccompanied children and families”. His recommendation “to ensure a proper individual assessment of all migrants in order to identify vulnerabilities” has clearly not been followed by the Greek authorities.

To the contrary, the Greek government has been implementing a policy of obstructing access to international protection. The interception of migrants at sea or on Greek Islands and their transfer to ports before removing them directly without an effective registration of their asylum request is a clear violation of the non-refoulement principle. Their arrest, detention, and deportation to a country where they risk further deportation to the country that they have fled is a clear violation of the Convention Against Torture.

These actions violate international law, including the 1951 Refugee Convention and the UN Convention against Torture. They also contradict the national legislation that provides for guarantees to migrants, including those aged above 14, the right to access the asylum request procedure, to apply before competent authorities and be informed of their rights in a language they can understand, including with the support of an interpreter, and to remain on the territory while their application is being examined on an individual basis.

Vulnerable women and unaccompanied children

Many of the victims of the 147 incidents of pushbacks include children, mostly unaccompanied minors, and women. They too were subjected to the use of force, torture, and ill-treatment by the Hellenic Coast Guard and denied judicial guarantees, including the right to apply for asylum. The Greek authorities are thus violating, among others, the special protection that children are entitled to under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Greece is a Party, and the principle of the best interest of the child.

Violations of these provisions were recognized by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in a similar case involving unaccompanied minors in Spain, clearly stating that children “should be guaranteed a right to access to the territory, regardless of the documentation they have or lack, and to be referred to authorities in charge of evaluating their needs in terms of protection of their rights”.

Lack of prompt investigations and accountability

In the past years, several complaints and urgent appeals from local non-governmental organisations have not been properly investigated. The Prosecutor’s Office of the Athens Naval Court failed to investigate a 27 August 2020 formal complaint about 1,400 migrants who had been pushed back to Turkish waters in March-July of the same year. The Prosecutor did not conduct any preliminary examination, but simply correlated this case with a previous one and archived it without additional testimonies. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also expressed concerns on these cases.

We welcome the recent order by the Greek Supreme Court to 16 prosecutors to conduct investigations on the allegations of pushbacks of more than 7000 migrants. Several unreported cases are nonetheless still waiting to be investigated, while pushbacks continue. The investigations by national authorities should therefore go beyond the incidents reported and address the overall policy of the Greek State to deny their rights to migrants and expose them to torture and ill-treatment in the context of the pushbacks.

A call for solidarity and inclusion

World Refugee Day 2021, which focuses on the power of inclusion, also marks the 70th anniversary of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The shared experience of Covid-19 has showed that all States should contribute to protect the most vulnerable members of our societies, including asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, and other people who have been forcibly displaced.

For more information, please contact:
Iolanda Jaquemet, Director of Communications

+41 79 539 41 06

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