Systematic human rights violations against refugees in the Aegean sea and at the Greek-Turkish land border.
The present report focuses on the barriers to accessing the territory of the European Union for people seeking international protection, and particularly on the prevailing situation at the EU land and sea borders in Greece. It describes and analyzes the fatal consequences of the closing of the land border in the Evros region, which has led to a shift in flight routes to the Aegean sea route since August 2012.
Reports of illegal push-backs of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Eritrea have increased in the same period, and this pattern is also corroborated by the findings of this study.
In March 2012, the Austrian Interior Minister, Johanna Mikl Leitner, said that the Greek border is open “like a barn door” and the German Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, threatened to reintroduce Schengen border controls with Greece, if refugees continued to access European Union territory through the Greek-Turkish border. The pressure exerted by Germany, Austria and other EU member states had an impact in Greece. Shortly after these statements were made, in summer 2012, the Greek government deployed an additional 1,800 police officers to the Evros region. In cooperation with the European border agency, Frontex, the land border was effectively “sealed”. New detention centers for refugees and migrants were erected– for the most
part financed by the European Union.
In December 2012, the construction of a 10,5 kilometers fence was completed. The chief of police of the Greek border town of Orestiada announced on 22 November 2012, that in July 2012 there had been 6,500 arrests of irregular migrants, in August only 1,800, in September 71, in October 26, and in November, none. The shift of escape routes to the Aegean Sea, in response to the closure of the land border, has led to the deaths of many people. 149 persons, mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees, and among them many children and pregnant women, have lost their lives in this stretch of water. Since the closure of the Greek-Turkish land border, criticism of the Government in Athens has ceased.
Criticism from European States towards Turkey, for not cooperating in migration control was also uttered less frequently. Instead, Bulgaria, which receives a growing number of Syrian refugees, has become the new hot spot for Frontex, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and growing funding opportunities in the sector of “border management”. Since October 2012, PROASYL’s team of researchers and interpreters has conducted several missions, interviewing refugees at different border locations. The major finding of our investigation is that illegal push-backs from Greek sea and land borders occur systematically. Greece has been accused of such blatant human rights violations before.
However, the brutality and the extent of violations found in this report are shocking. Masked Special Forces officers are accused of ill-treating refugees upon apprehension, detaining them arbitrarily without any registration on Greek soil and then deporting them back to Turkey, in breach of international law. In fact, there are “grey” zones where refugees are detained outside any formal procedure; in practice these refugees don’t exist. Special units of the Greek coastguard abandon refugees in Turkish territorial waters without consideration for their safety. Push-backs take place from Greek territorial waters, the Greek islands and from the land border. The majority of the victims are refuge s from Syria – men, women, children, babies, and people suffering from severe illness. While the EU publicly repeats its commitment to stand by Syrian refugees, their fundamental human rights are being ignored and violated at the European border. This report accuses the Greek government, the border police and the coastguard of these practices, and raises the question of wider European complicity.
The entire Greek asylum and migration system relies on considerable support and funding from the EU for its operation, and Frontex has been deployed in the country for years, yet the responsible decision makers in Berlin, Vienna and the rest of Europe remain silent on the issue of human rights violations.
On the 1st of January 2014, Greece will assume the EU Presidency. PROASYL calls on the Greek authorities to match their justified calls for a greater solidarity from the EU in the reception of refugees, with a commitment to respect refugee and human rights. The illegal practices of pushing-back and mistreating protection seekers must stop immediately. The negative experience of the past years has shown an alarming degree of impunity in Greece, where perpetrators of violence remain unpunished, and victims of state violence remain unprotected. In the light of the severe human rights violations documented by PROASYL, we call for the protection of the victims. Only if victims and witnesses are able to make their statements in a safe environment – outside of Greece as well –will a complete clarification of the facts be possible. The findings of this report furthermore call into question the engagement of the European Union and especially the Frontex Operation “Poseidon Land and Sea”.
Aside from a few exceptions, all the push- backs documented in this report have taken place within the operational area of Frontex. PROASYL therefore poses the question of Frontex’s involvement in human rights abuses. Given the frequency and severity of human rights violations taking place in Greece, Frontex must terminate its operations in the country.
This is foreseen in the 2011 Frontex Regulation. Additionally, all EU financing of refugee deterrence in Greece must be evaluated. For years PROASYL has vocally advocated to change the EU Regulations governing the responsibility for asylum. Refugees do not only need safe, unhindered access to Greek and EU territory, they also need the right to legally travel on to the European states where their families live and where they will have a chance of receiving protection and finding a life with dignity. The present report seeks to contribute to there-establishment of human rights protection at Europe’s external borders,
and to a humane and solidary reception system in the European Union.