Big Issue North article - 29 March 2021
REFUGEES FORCED OUT OF GREECE
Government accused of 1,400 “pushbacks”
Human rights groups and MEPs speak out
The Greek government has been accused of pushbacks of refugees arriving on its shores. A human rights group has compiled a report claiming that nearly 1,400 people were pushed back over a border in March-July last year, undermining their right to claim asylum. And a group of MEPs has written to the European Commission urging it to make clear their concerns to the Greek government.
The figure of 1,400 is likely to be an underestimate, according to Vasilis Tsarnas of the human rights group Greek Helsinki Monitor, which compiled the report that has now been sent to the Greek supreme court, naval court and military appeals court.
“Clearly we cannot get to know of each incident in which refugees are being denied the right to arrive in Greece by state forces,” said Tsarnas, who claims that NGOs and journalists are being denied access to the Greek islands nearest to the Turkish shore where many people are being turned back.
An Athens bookshop worker, Tsarnas volunteers for Greek Helsinki Monitor, which was founded in 1993 to support human and minority rights, and to campaign against discrimination.
“We record incidents and send them to prosecutors, who generally fail to act by enforcing current legislation,” he said. “It thus requires further efforts to put public and political pressure on state authorities. Where necessary we apply to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights and send reports to the UN in Geneva.”
Thanks to its monitoring, Greek Helsinki Monitor assisted the ruling last year in which the neo-fascist party Golden Dawn was found guilty of running a criminal organisation as it became prominent during the country’s financial crisis, when it systematically targeted migrants and leftwing critics. Former Golden Dawn MPs have now been imprisoned.
Since 2015, most entrants to Greece are refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. They arrive via Turkey. Some Greek MPs have accused the Turkish government of attacking the country by sending refugees.
In February, Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian NGO, reported that 13 people from Afghanistan – including three women and five children – were removed soon after arriving at a Greek statefacilitated refugee camp in Lesbos. They were forced into a container by four men wearing unmarked dark uniforms, beaten with batons, and the women were assaulted. A van transported the 13 to a port and forced them on to an inflatable life raft that was towed out to sea. They were abandoned without life jackets and picked up by the Turkish coast guard off Behram early the following morning.
“Greek Helsinki Monitor is now representing eight of the illegally deported Afghans, who should be allowed to return to Greece and apply to stay,” said Tsarnas.
“We are pleased that a number of MEPs have written to Ylva Johansson, EU Commissioner for Home Affairs.”
In their letter the MEPs state: “The Greek government’s claims that they are complying with all international laws and obligations are highly questionable… we urge you to address this level of pushbacks in the European Union as a matter of priority.”
According to Tsarnas supporting refugees forms part of defending human rights for all. He believes the indifference of many members of the public and politicians to the desperate plight of those seeking to reach Europe through Greece is allowing the police and other state forces to increasingly act violently towards other groups, including workers and students.
“It is inevitable that there will be deaths of people who are risking everything for the prospect of a better life,” he added.
Shot at the border
Between 1993 and 2020, 40,555 refugees and migrants have died after coming to Europe, according to United for Intercultural Action. They include Fatma, a Syrian woman, who was shot by a Greek border guard as she and her husband and six children sought to cross into Greece via the Evros river near Edirne last year. Other Syrian refugees were also shot dead by border guards around this time.
Nearer to home, deaths among migrants and refugees seeking to cross the English Channel included a family of three children who perished in October 2020. Britain has since left the EU. Nevertheless, said Anya Edmond-Pettitt of the Institute of Race Relations: “The UK cannot abandon all those trying to reach here. International conventions still apply, like the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, requiring safe and legal family reunion routes for children.
“Maritime search and rescue of vessels in distress at sea is accepted the world over. We must pressure the government and all parties to uphold these lifesaving measures.”