There appears to be a discrepancy between the number of migrants registered as arriving in Greece during 2021 and the numbers the Greek Minister for Maritime Affairs said were rescued by the Greek coast guard in the same year.
Recently, the Swiss newspaper Neue Züricher Zeitung (NZZ) asked in an article on January 11, why there appeared to be a discrepancy between the number of migrants registered as arriving in 2021 by both the Greek government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the numbers the Greek Ministry for Maritime Affairs said had been rescued in the same year by the Greek coast guard.
In fact, the Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis and the UNHCR roughly concur that just over 8,000 migrants arrived in Greece in the year 2021 -- approximately half by land and half by sea. As 2021 drew to a close, Mitarakis tweeted how pleased he was to have achieved the "lowest migration flows since the beginning of the [migrant] crisis."
The minister said on Twitter that these low figures had been achieved "with hard work." Mitarakis added that this work had allowed the Greek government to "regain control."
However, as the NZZ points out, one of Mitarakis' fellow ministers, appears to disagree. On December 24, Maritime Affairs Minister Ioannis Plakiotakis released a press release in English and Greek on his website.
In English, the minister said, in response to several boat accidents where tens of people died whilst trying to cross the Aegean just before Christmas, that he wanted to express his "deepest sorrow for the loss of those who lost their lives." He called these migrants "victims of ruthless murderers who are left to act uncontrollably in Turkey."
Greek coast guard rescues 'more than 29,000'
Plakiotakis claimed that "in total in 2021, more than 1,450 Search and Rescue operations have been carried out and more than 29,000 people have been rescued."
The question is, even if all of the 4,100 migrants who arrived by sea had been rescued by the Greek coast guard before being brought to land, where are the other 25,000 migrants they say they rescued, and why did they not appear in the official arrival figures? The NZZ asks whether they could have been the subject of illegal pushbacks.
Although accusations of illegal pushbacks have been frequently leveled at the Greek coast guard and even the European border agency Frontex, the Greek government has repeatedly denied pushing anyone back at the borders. In turn, they accuse the Turkish government of deliberately pushing migrant boats in to Greek waters.
Accusations of pushing back 25 Afghans
Most recently, the Norwegian NGO Aegean Boat Report (ABR), which monitors migrant movements in the Aegean Sea, published a blog post accusing masked commandos, possibly working for the Greek government, navy or coast guard of having pushed back a group of 25 Afghans who arrived on the island of Lesbos.
The detailed accusation included numerous photos and GPS positions provided by the group of migrants as well as additional material from the Turkish coast guard and authorities, appearing to suggest that the migrants had been rounded up by a group of masked men operating in unmarked cars, put on a ship, which the migrants identified from pictures as resembling a Greek coast guard vessel, and then potentially being transported over 200 kilometers into Turkish waters, before being put on a life raft with no motor.
The group was picked up shortly after being put in the life raft by the Turkish coast guard and are now reportedly staying in a quarantine center in Turkey.
InfoMigrants asked the Greek Migration Ministry for a comment on the accusations of ABR, but has not yet received a response. NZZ also asked the ministry to comment on the apparent discrepancy in the numbers of migrants rescued and registered but also didn't receive a response.
Greece and Turkey
Instead, when NZZ asked UNHCR what could have happened to these migrants, UNHCR told NZZ that since March 2020 there had been no formal returns from Greece to Turkey. In March of that year, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent around 13,000 migrants to the Greek border, promising them that the border controls there had been relaxed and they could travel onward in to Europe.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of many borders and lack of opportunity for movement meant that fewer migrants were able to move from country to country. The UNHCR reportedly told NZZ that they had information on over 450 informal pushbacks in this region since the beginning of 2020.
In March 2021, after an investigation by the German news magazine Der Spiegel, UNHCR said they had passed the reports of illegal pushbacks it had received to the Greek authorities and called for an investigation. In October 2021, 26 NGOs signed a letter calling for an investigation into similar issues.
Illegal pushbacks, still disputed
Aegean Boat Report has even higher figures. In their blog post from January 11, they write that "more than 485 life rafts (were) found drifting, carrying 8,400 people." They also allege that in the last 22 months, so since near the beginning of 2020, "more than 25,000 people have been illegally pushed back in the Aegean […] all at the hands of the Greek government, blessed and backed by the EU Commission."
Also according to the Aegean Boat Report’s figures, quoting Turkish government statistics, in the period January 1, 2021 to January 17, 2022, 939 migrant boats were "stopped by Turkish Coast Guard or Turkish Police." In total, these two forces stopped 27,159 people, says ABR.
The NGO also writes that 14,053 people were transferred from the Greek Islands in this period to the Greek mainland, but it is not clear whether these people had been resident on the islands for a while or whether they arrived in 2021 and could be included in the numbers of those rescued by the Greek coast guard.