Greece's Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, at a press conference in Athens | Photo: ANSA/GRAHAM
Greece's Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, at a press conference in Athens | Photo: ANSA/GRAHAM

Greek Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarakis has expressed surprise at UNHCR's concern over alleged pushbacks in Greece.

Greece's Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarakis said he was surprised by statements made by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) regarding concerns about so-called illegal pushbacks in Greece.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said on Monday (February 21) that his agency was "alarmed" by "recurrent and consistent reports" claiming that the Greek coast guard is failing to assist refugees at sea. He slammed not only Greece but all European governments, saying the "deplorable" and illegal acts towards asylum seekers were being "normalized."

"We were surprised by this statement and always seek to positively engage with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; Greece protects the external borders of the European Union, in total compliance with international law and in full respect of the charter of fundamental rights," Mitarakis said in a statement.

"Our national independent authorities investigate all claims of alleged breaches, and we proactively call for evidence to be provided. It is deeply troubling that Turkish-driven propaganda and fake news about illegal migration is so often mistakenly taken as fact."

Grandi concerned by 'increasing violence, rights violations'

Grandi had expressed concerns over "the increasing number of incidents of violence and serious human rights violations against refugees and migrants at various European borders," including ill-treatment of migrants and pushbacks. In addition, he said the UN agency is "alarmed by recurrent and consistent reports coming from Greece's land and sea borders with Turkey, where UNHCR has recorded almost 540 reported incidents of informal returns by Greece since the beginning of 2020."

Grandi's public statements followed reports in The Guardian and Der Spiegel that the deaths of two African migrants, from Cameroon and Ivory Coast, last September were a result of pushbacks. The reports claimed that the two migrants arrived in the eastern Aegean island of Samos last September from Kusadasi in Turkey but instead of being given the chance to apply for asylum, they were arrested by people who said they were police.

They were then allegedly transported, along with another person, out to the open sea by a speedboat and thrown into the water. While one of the men managed to swim to the Turkish shores, the other two men were found dead, drowned, off the coast of Aydin province.

Mitarakis says 'Turkish propaganda' behind pushback reports

Mitarakis once again reiterated that Greece does not carry out such pushbacks, also saying that "it's deeply disturbing that Turkish propaganda and false news about illegal migration are taken so frequently and wrongly as fact."

"Turkey is not a country at war, and it has an obligation under the 2016 EU-Turkey joint statement to prevent illegal departures of migrants and accept the return of those individuals that are deemed not to be entitled to international protection. In the absence of action by the Turkish authorities, the Hellenic Coastguard continues to save the lives of thousands of men, women and children at sea every year. Between 2015 and 2021 it came to the rescue of more than 230,000 third country nationals who were in danger at sea," commented Mitarakis.

"In the last seven years alone, Greece has provided safe harbor for over one million people -- to give that context, that is over ten percent of our entire population. Greece is not against legal migration; we are against the traffickers and all those who exploit human suffering either for profit or for political purposes.

"Ultimately, Greece cannot solve the migration crisis alone, we still urgently need more tangible support and greater commitment at an EU level and from member states, particularly with relocations. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the matters the High Commissioner has raised and to talk with him about the constructive role the international community can play in protecting the lives of refugees," he said.


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