German media documented Greece's practice of illegal migrant pushback toward Turkish territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, during a patrol with the Turkish coast guard.
Patrolling the area between Greece's island of Lesbos and Turkey's western coasts, the crew of German public broadcaster ZDF recorded a video published Tuesday of two Greek coast vessels guard accompanying a boat belonging to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) blocking the movement of a boat carrying irregular migrants trying to cross the border.
After they were pushed back by Frontex and the Greek boats, Turkish boats rescued the asylum-seekers.
Speaking to the ZDF, a Palestinian migrant rescued by Turkey during the incident underlined the inhumane treatment of Greek security forces and said: "They hit us with fists and sticks. They wanted to sink us. They shouted, 'Go back to Turkey.'"
Another migrant woman also told that she managed to cross onto a Greek island a few days ago. She added that Greek security forces captured her and her children on the island and put them on a rubber boat in the sea to push them back toward Turkey.
The German reporters informed that the European Union has been planning to increase the budget of Frontex in order to strengthen the protection of its borders.
When contacted by ZDF, Frontex said it's under the command of the Greek authorities while the Greek officials claimed the pushing back of asylum-seekers is compatible with international law.
Turkey's Communications Director Fahrettin Altun shared ZDF's footage on his Twitter account, and called the recurring incidents in the Aegean a "tragedy" and pointed to the responsibility of Greece.
In recent years, Turkey and Greece have been key transit points for migrants aiming to cross into Europe, fleeing war and persecution to start new lives. Turkey has accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It has also accused the EU of turning a blind eye to what it says is a blatant abuse of human rights.
Pushbacks are considered contrary to international refugee protection agreements that say people shouldn't be expelled or returned to a country where their life and safety might be in danger due to their race, religion, nationality or membership in a social or political group. Such actions prevent asylum-seekers from making claims for refugee status and if practiced indiscriminately against a group of migrants it can constitute refoulement – a violation of EU human rights laws and the 1951 Geneva Convention.
Earlier this year, the managing board of Frontex said it did not find evidence of rights violations in cases it reviewed where guards were accused of illegal migrant pushbacks from Greece toward Turkish territorial waters. But the body added that its conclusions only applied to some of the disputed incidents, saying it needs additional clarifications to complete the remaining reviews.
Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri has been under pressure for months over the allegations as Frontex takes on a greater frontline role in patrolling EU borders. EU lawmakers and activists have called for him to resign over the operations, but he has refused, insisting the agency is key to the fight against human trafficking. A working group of 14 members of the European Parliament was formed to investigate the EU border agency's involvement in pushbacks of asylum-seekers in Aegean waters.
Whether the Frontex is willing to hold itself liable for the numerous pushbacks and violations against migrants and asylum-seekers at Greece's border with Turkey has come into question, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report last month.
A joint investigation by several international news outlets reported in October that Frontex had been complicit in maritime pushback operations to drive away migrants attempting to enter the EU via Greek waters. A month later, Brussels-based news outlet EUobserver revealed that Frontex exchanged letters with Greek authorities on Athens' orders to push back migrants to Turkish waters.
The pressure intensified after media and rights organizations documented multiple cases of Frontex border officers, alongside national counterparts in EU countries, forcing migrants back, particularly along Greece's sea border with Turkey. At least six incidents in which Frontex units were involved in pushbacks near the islands of Lesbos and Samos between April 28 and Aug. 19 have been documented.
The Berlin-based rights group Mare Liberum also said in January it had documented 321 incidents from March to December 2020 involving more than 9,000 people. Mare Liberum's report said that in addition to the Greek coast guard, Frontex and ships under NATO command were also involved in "systematic and illegal expulsions."
In a statement issued late February, Turkey urged Athens and "all elements involved in pushbacks" to end their violations of international law, human rights agreements and a migration deal between the EU and Turkey. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu also last week called on Europe to act against Frontex.
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