The Council of Europe has expressed its wish that Greece investigate further the allegations of pushbacks and ill-treatment of migrants in the Aegean in an open letter. The Greek government in the meantime accuses some NGOs of working with smugglers in the area.
The row over the treatment of migrants in the Aegean between Turkey and Greece is deepening. Europe’s largest and oldest intergovernmental organization, the Council of Europe (CoE), published an open letter on Wednesday, May 12, calling on the Greek government to "investigate allegations of pushbacks and ill-treatment of migrants." The letter also called upon the Greek authorities to "ensure an enabling environment for NGOs and improve reception conditions" for migrants.
In the same week the letter was published, the Greek government accused some NGOs of working with smugglers to bring migrants from Turkey to Greece.
The CoE letter came from the Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic and was addressed to three Greek Ministers, including the Minister for Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarakis.
Commissioner Mijatovic referred back to visits she had paid to Greece in 2018 and 2019 and reports she had written then expressing "serious concerns" about some of the treatment of migrants in the area.
"With this letter, I wanted to continue our dialogue on some of these concerns, particularly as regards pushbacks allegations," wrote Mijatovic. In addition, she said that she wanted to look at the "situation for civil society organizations working to protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and reception conditions on the Aegean Islands."
Mijatovic called the allegations of pushbacks credible, since they had been reported consistently by many different actors in the area including credible international human rights organizations and like the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) and the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.
The allegations were investigated by the Greek Ombudsman following the first allegations in June 2017. In his interim report on the subject, published at the end of April 2021, the ombudsman notes that the alleged pushbacks appear to follow "a standard practice."
The ombudsman said in a report that "persons dressed in uniform and without any identification sign" arrest migrants, "including person who may be in need of international protection, and ... detain them in unidentified buildings where migrants are deprived of their belongings before they are transferred to the border, forcefully embarked on boats and pushed back to the Turkish bank of the Evros river."
Mijatovic says she notes this "modus operandi" coincides with "tangible testimony" gathered by, among others, UNHCR since January 2020. According to the UNHCR, more than 100 such incidents occurred in 2020 where the Greek coast guard is alleged to have prevented migrant boats from reaching Greek islands. She added that "more than 20" occurred "in the first quarter of 2021."
Of particular concern, says Mijatovic, is "an increase in reported instances in which migrants who have reached the Eastern Aegean islands from Turkey by boat, and have sometimes even been registered as asylum seekers, have been embarked on life-rafts by Greek officers and pushed back to Turkish waters."
In violation of international law?
This kind of treatment would be in violation of "for example, Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and the refoulement prohibition in the UN Refugee Convention" writes Mijatovic.
Moreover, continues the letter, "the way in which these operations are reportedly carried out would clearly be incompatible with Greece’s human rights obligations."
Mijatovic goes further, saying that she is also "deeply concerned" by the Greek's dismissal of such allegations "despite the overwhelming body of evidence that has been presented in recent years."
Once again, the commissioner urged the Greek government to "put and end to these practices and to ensure that independent and effective investigations are carried out into all allegations."
NGOs'crole in democracy
In defense of civil society organizations, Mijatovic writes that they play a "crucial role" in a "healthy democratic society." In Greece, however, Mijatovic says she is "worried about the increasingly challenging environment in which NGOs [...] appear to operate in Greece."
Finally, Mijatovic points out the "lingering substandard" reception conditions, despite the efforts to "decongest the Aegean islands." She says that the conditions need to be immediately improved and all new centers should meet the "appropriate standards" and that "overcrowding is prevented."
Those new centers, writes Mijatovic, should also not be closed detention centers, which is what, she says, she understands they are intended to be from statements made by Greek ministers.
The Greek response
Mijatovic's letter was written on May 4. The reply from the Greek authorities, which CoE also published, is dated May 11. In it, the Greek authorities reiterate that "the actions taken by the Greek authorities at our sea borders are being carried out in full compliance with the country's international obligations," -- including EU law.
They say the allegations "do not correspond to the well-established standard operating procedures and have been so far proved largely unsubstantiated."
In addition, they say that the Hellenic Authorities have an "unwavering humanitarian commitment," which has resulted in thousands of migrants' lives being saved since 2015. They add that "no casualty has been registered" during their search and rescue (SAR) operations.
The Greek authorities add that their officers are operating in a difficult and "volatile" environment and in the face of "misleading information emanating in most cases from the smugglers organizations and those supporting them."
NGOs need a 'well-defined framework' to operate
On the subject of NGOs, the Greek government said they shared Mijatovic's view that they are an important element for a healthy democratic state. However, they added that in order for the NGOs to be able to carry out their work they needed a "well-defined framework."
This framework has, in part, come from the Greek establishment by introducing a register of Greek and Foreign NGOs operating there. The register, states the letter, is "not to set barriers ... on the contrary, the objective is to set the same rules for all NGOs operating in Greece ... [ensuring] that these NGOs are not linked to illegal activities."
However, in a separate statement, the Greek Prime Minister said on Wednesday, May 12, that some NGOs were working together with people smugglers in order to bring migrants from Turkey to Greece.
According to the German news agency dpa, Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the Greek state TV channel ERT that there were "gangs of smugglers […] working with some NGOs of questionable origins."
Reception conditions on the islands
Finally, on the subject of reception conditions, the Greek authorities say they would like to "highlight that the living conditions in the Reception and Identification Centers in the islands have been considerably improved in comparison with the recent past."
They say the new centers will "definitely meet the appropriate standards and as their accommodation capacity is much higher than that of the existing RICs, we are confident that the overcrowding will be prevented, even in the case of a bigger influx of migrants in the future."
They say that freedom of movement within the camp and to the outside will not be curtailed and that the "only area of the camp with limitations [will be] the pre-removal center."
However, the Greek government does not want the Aegean islands to continue to act as "overcrowded [European] buffer zones." Like the Italian and Maltese authorities, the Greeks too call for the "achievement of an impactful solidarity on a European level."
Dpa reports that at the moment there are around 11,200 people spread across the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros, down from about 40,000 in April 2020.
Those who are likely to be granted asylum have already been transferred to the Greek mainland.