Activists on the Greek island of Lesbos over the weekend protested against the illegal pushback of migrants. A Greek minister, meanwhile, denied media reports accusing the country's coast guard of such illegal pushbacks at sea.
Human rights organizations traveled to the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos on Saturday (July 2) to protest in reaction to allegations that the Greek coastguard and the European Union's border protection agency are pushing back migrants trying to reach Europe.
Protesters held placards that read "Pushbacks kill people" and "Burn borders," among other slogans, as they marched along the harbor of Lesbos, news agency dpa reported, citing Greek media reports. The exact number of protesters is unknown.
Although countries are obliged to allow people seeking protection who reach their territory to claim asylum under European and international law, evidence suggests that Greece and other EU countries have consistently and systematically ignored this rule.
Minister denies pushbacks
Before Saturday's protests, Greek Shipping Minister Giannis Plakiotakis said that all claims of pushbacks by Greek authorities turned out to be unsubstantiated.
All complaints are being investigated, Plakiotakis told the Skai news channel on Friday (July 1). "So far, none of these complaints have been confirmed at the national or European level," he said. "The first priority is protecting lives, in line with international law," he added.
But aid groups and UN agencies have repeatedly criticized the Greek government for forcibly expelling people back to Turkey on land and at sea without giving them the possibility of applying for asylum. Moreover, frequent media reports and research have also found evidence for this illegal practice, which is commonly referred to as pushbacks.
Just last week, an investigation by several European media outlets revealed how Greek police officers coerce migrants into helping with pushbacks.
Greece argues that it is simply protecting its own borders, which are also the external boundaries of the European Union. Moreover, the government in Athens accused Turkey of sending the boats deliberately towards the Greek islands.
According to the EU-Turkey deal from 2016, Turkey is supposed to prevent migrants and refugees from leaving the country in return for financial assistance. Under the terms of the deal, Turkey is considered a safe third country for refugees and migrants to be housed.
According to UN migration agency IOM, some 5,000 irregular migrants have arrived in Greece so far this year, around half of them by sea.