Greece embodies Europe’s heavy hand on migration in the Mediterranean

Greece and various European organizations are in the crosshairs of many NGOs and human rights organizations for the hot returns of immigrants carried out in the Aegean Sea. The NGO Legal Center Lesbos, which operates in this area of ​​the Mediterranean, filed a complaint a week ago with the European Court of Human Rights against Greece for its actions on the Turkish maritime border.

The case leading the complaint is that of a boat with 180 migrants on board that suffered the effects of a storm just four kilometers from the island of Crete on October 20. The crew radioed for help from the Greek authorities, who promised them assistance as they were in their territorial waters.

“The signal reached all the agencies and the local media echoed it,” said Marion Bouchetel, spokesperson for the Legal Center Lesbos. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which has been very critical of Greek migration methods, confirms that it also received the advice on land and was reported to authorities.

Coordinated operation

The coastguard abandoned the boats 200 kilometers from Crete, on the Turkish border

According to the indictment, several coastguards and lifeboats surrounded the smugglers’ boat for hours, until two other boats assaulted it. A “commando” of unidentified, armed and hooded men seized the boat, in which 40 children were traveling.

The crew members were separated into two groups and transferred to the two Greek ships, where their personal belongings were seized, including mobile phones, cash and passports. “It was like watching a movie. The men from the boats approached us shouting, all with guns, knives and black masks,” a Syrian witness told The Guardian newspaper.

They were loaded into small lifeboats and left to drift 200 kilometers from the scene of the assault, in Turkish waters without food or water, until, more than 24 hours later, they were rescued by the Turkish coast guard near Marmaris and Datça. “Many were verbally and physically assaulted”, they showed bruises and signs of post-traumatic stress, adds the aid worker.

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“This is the usual modus operandi of the Greek authorities”, denounces the NGO. “They try to traumatize migrants with insults and violence so that they no longer try to reach Europe,” he adds. “It is not new that governments are hostile to refugees arriving by sea, but this type of action was the exception and has become the norm”, explains Gemma Pinyol-Jiménez, director of migration policies and diversity at Instrategies.

Each country with access to the sea has a SAR, a rescue and salvage zone that includes international waters. According to maritime law, no maritime space is left unprotected. When a ship is in an emergency, the State has the responsibility to accommodate the crew and bring them to a safe port.

Hot returns consist of pushing these boats to other SAR areas to be rescued. “They violate the whole system of international protection, not only the right to asylum, but also the right to protection in case of emergency,” he adds.


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The European agency Frontex, which also participates in maritime surveillance actions on European national territory, is also carrying out an internal investigation into various cases of embezzlement and irregularities in the use of public funds. Brussels, for its part, continues to provide institutional support to the Greek government and Frontex. “I thank Greece for being the shield of Europe,” said European Commission President Ursula Von der Layen less than a month ago.

“The problem with public international law is that we don’t have an institution that sanctions these practices, because all states are sovereign,” explains Pinyol-Jiménez. There is the possibility of denouncing the Greek government, as the Legal Center Lesbos did, but the legal procedures are very long and there is no rapid reaction capacity to stop this type of action.

2,000 deaths due to illegal practices

Europe protects its borders

According to data from the UN and various agencies, more than 40,000 asylum seekers have been illegally rejected by the European Union since last year. According to ‘The Guardian’, more than 2,000 deaths are linked to hot-return methods implemented by Member State governments and Frontex. Although the number of migrants arriving on the continent in 2020 fell by almost 80,000 people, countries such as Italy, Malta, Greece, Croatia and Spain have tightened their migration policies. In addition, the newspaper accuses the authorities of cooperating and paying third-party states to intercept boats of migrants and refugees in danger and take foreigners to detention centers. An increase in violence at performances has also been reported, including insults, theft and abuse. According to the UNHCR, 788 people died trying to reach Spain last year.

The containment pact signed five years ago by Turkey and the European Union aimed to protect the continent from the arrival of thousands of refugees. Meanwhile, the Erdogan government has acted as a key ally and kept more than 3.6 million Syrians fleeing the war on Turkish territory. In return, Brussels has borne a large part of the cost of managing the migration crisis.

Recently, tensions between the two allies have made Turkey more permissive when it comes to letting migrants board for the Aegean islands. Greece considers this decision as a provocation and has increased the harshness of its maritime actions, including hot returns.

However, the fundamental problem remains, a decade later, that “there is an open conflict in Syria”, according to Pinyol-Jiménez. “There are thousands of people who continue to be in danger in their country and who have no choice but to flee to Europe. As long as the conflict is not resolved, only its consequences can be managed and Europe has decided that it does not want to welcome any more refugees”, he denounces.

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