Greece's migration minister on Sunday dismissed fresh claims that migrants are being illegally pushed out of the country toward Turkish borders.
He was reacting to reports by rights groups that thousands of people had been forced back into Turkey in recent months in violation of their right to asylum.
"These are part of a broader fake news strategy promoted by Turkey, through certain nongovernment organizations and smuggler networks," Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told To Vima weekly, as quoted by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"Investigations until now by (the EU border agency) Frontex and the (Greek) coastguard have not confirmed any of the claims," he said.
Greece has consistently denied claims by migrant support groups that it is illegally returning migrants to Turkey in violation of international law, including two reports this past month.
Berlin-based rights group Mare Liberum said Friday it had documented 321 incidents from March to December 2020 involving more than 9,000 people.
They had been "violently pushed back to Turkey and thus deprived of their right to asylum," the group said.
Another group, Legal Centre Lesvos, said earlier in February that it had been in contact with more than 50 survivors of 17 collective expulsions.
A Washington-based Syrian rights group, the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, last month filed a case with the International Criminal Court (ICC), calling for an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity by Greece for its mistreatment of refugees, including reported migrant pushbacks in the Aegean Sea.
Mitarachi on Sunday insisted that Greece's borders were being guarded "under the framework of international law and European values."
Since its election in 2019, Greece's conservative government has strongly prioritized border security and adopted a tough migration policy.
Mare Liberum's report said that in addition to the Greek coastguard, Frontex and ships under NATO command were also involved in "systematic and illegal expulsions."
Frontex is currently under investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the EU's independent corruption watchdog, over allegations of illegal pushbacks of migrants arriving in Greek waters from Turkey.
Members of the European Parliament and activists have called for Frontex head Fabrice Leggeri to resign over the operations, but he has refused to do so, insisting his agency is key to the fight against human trafficking.
The pressure came 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 where Frontex units were involved in pushbacks near the islands of Lesbos and Samos between April 28 and Aug. 19 have been documented.
While the border agency is required to rescue migrants, the Frontex vessels patrolling the area sped past the overcrowded, inflatable boats, creating dangerous waves to force them to return to Turkish shores. A Frontex aircraft was also documented passing over migrants, who were seeking help at sea, but did not rescue them.
Frontex maintains there is no evidence of its involvement in such actions, insisting that EU member countries have control over operations in their waters.
In October, nearly 30 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) called on Greece to open an "urgent inquiry" into allegations that it was systematically pushing migrants back toward Turkey. The Turkish coast guard said it rescued over 300 migrants “pushed back by Greek elements to Turkish waters” in September alone. Citing what they say are credible reports, international rights groups have repeatedly called for an investigation.
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 also accused Greece of large-scale pushbacks and summary deportations without access to asylum procedures, which is a violation of international law. It also accuses 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, which 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 can constitute "refoulement" – a violation of EU human rights laws and the 1951 Geneva Convention.
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