While many NGOs, such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have accused Greece of using the Covid-19 epidemic to “abandon” more than a thousand migrants at sea since March, Athens denies and condemns “disinformation”.
It’s the UN’s turn to go up to the plate. Following condemnatory revelations from the New York Times, and accusations from several NGOs that Greece has “abandoned” more than a thousand migrants at sea since March, the Greek part of the UN High Commissioner (UNHCR) has indicated, Friday 21 August, to have “reports and testimonies according to which people were spared” in the Aegean Sea without being rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.
UNHCR specifies in a statement that these people “have been left sparsely in the open sea for a long time, often in nasty and overcrowded canoes, waiting for rescue.”
“The reports, which contain a series of direct and credible testimonies, were registered by the UNHCR’s office in Greece and have been brought to the attention of the responsible” Greek authorities, “the statement said. For the UNHCR, the Greek government should “seriously investigate” and “without further delay” the allegations of return to Turkey.
From “disinformation”, according to Athens
Athens denies immediately. Two days before these talks, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, had categorically refuted these allegations, calling them “disinformation” orchestrated by Turkey. “Greece is a country that respects the rule of law, we have granted asylum to tens of thousands of people,” the Prime Minister declared on Wednesday evening, 19 August. during an interview with the American channel CNN.
The New York Times reports that the Greek government has secretly deported more than 1,000 refugees and abandoned them at sea. Greek Prime Minister @kmitsotakis says “it has not” happened: “We have been the victims of a significant misinformation campaign.” pic.twitter.com/FPSjHLj5sG
– Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour) August 19, 2020
For the NGO’s legal center, Kyriakos Mitsotakis is in “an incredible refusal of reality (…)”. “This practice is common, systematic and illegal in the Aegean Sea”, NGO was outraged on Twitter, following the intervention of the Prime Minister.
Same story with Catherine Teule, Vice President of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EuroMed Rights). “This type of pushback is absolutely nothing new, whether it is among the Greeks, Italians or Maltese,” she explains to France 24. “But Greece took advantage of the containment because of the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthen them!”
More than a thousand migrants have returned since March, according to the New York Times
These accusations do not apply today. According to a New York Times survey, published Aug. 14, Greece has “abandoned” migrants at sea to be rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard. According to the American newspaper, the Greek authorities took them to the border of the country’s territorial waters, before leaving them to their fate on “inflatable and sometimes congested boats”.
At least 1,072 people have been rejected during 31 different expeditions, the survey suggests. The prestigious daily declares that it has collected testimonies from survivors and collected evidence from three independent human rights organizations, two researchers and the Turkish Coast Guard.
Athens “exploited Covid-19 pandemic”
According to experts, these illegal methods have increased during the coronavirus epidemic and the inclusion period that followed in Europe. The Greeks “took advantage right now,” François Crépeau, a specialist in international law and former UN Special Rapporteur on Migrants, told the New York Times. “Coronavirus has allowed them to close national borders to anyone,” he insisted.
An observation shared by Matthieu Tardis, researcher at the Ifri Migration and Citizenship Center: “The Greek government used the pandemic to tighten its migration policy”, he summed up to our colleagues at InfoMigrants.
For Catherine Teule, the Greek authorities have gone far beyond what is acceptable: “We even have cases of asylum seekers already on the Greek islands, who were led to believe that they would be moved to the mainland … but who was sent back to Turkey “These are expulsions, clean and simple,” she said angrily.
Lifeboats that were damaged were then sent back to Turkey
As International Organization for Migration (IOM) , Legal Center had already heard the alarm bells in July last year. This organization, based on the island of Lesbos, the main port for asylum seekers to Greece, then indicated that it had gathered information and testimonies about the migration of 30 migrants into the Aegean Sea between March and June.
According to the NGO, the Greek authorities have made a habit of damaging the boats before leaving them. Methods confirmed by testimonies compiled by the New York Times, which tells how Greek coastguards transferred migrants to substandard rescue ships … before returning to Turkey.
Ankara and Athens face a number of issues. Among the prickly issues is the issue of migration, but also that of hydrocarbon surveys conducted by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean in areas disputed by Greece and Cyprus.
In March 2020, Turkey announced that it would open its western borders with Greece to allow refugees to pass. It was at this time that Greece increased the number of refoulements, according to the UNHCR.