Several rights groups in Greece on Monday denounced what they said was the lack of an effective investigation of reports that the country is illegally pushing migrants back over the border into Turkey.
Their statement came a day after Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi denounced previous claims as "fake news."
The Hellenic League for Human Rights and five other rights groups stressed that the alleged pushbacks, which have been reported since March 2020, were not just illegal but were endangering the lives of migrants.
Deploring the lack of "an efficient investigation" by either the country's justice system or any independent authority, they said they had sent a detailed report to the U.N. special rapporteur on Feb. 1.
On Sunday, Mitarachi dismissed past claims of illegal pushbacks to a misinformation campaign orchestrated by Turkey, in comments to To Vima weekly.
"Investigations until now by (EU border agency) Frontex and the (Greek) coast guard have not confirmed any of the claims," he said as quoted by Agence France-Presse (AFP).
But the six rights groups said the reported incidents "concern practices that even put in danger human lives, in addition to the inhumane treatment of people entitled to international protection."
After the illegal pushbacks, migrants "are then found helpless in rafts, near the Turkish coasts at the absolute risk of their own lives," they said.
The signatories included the Greek League for Human Rights and the Hellenic Council for Refugees.
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.
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 last week 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.
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."
Frontex is currently under investigation by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the European Union'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 in which 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.
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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