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(Brussels) – Members of Greece’s parliament should urgently establish an inquiry into all allegations of collective expulsions, pushbacks, and dangerous maneuvers by the Greek Coast Guard on Greece’s sea borders with Turkey, Human Rights Watch said today. Twelve women and children died off the Greek island of Farmakonisi on January 20, 2014, in what survivors allege was a push-back operation in poor weather.

Parliament should exercise its oversight powers to examine the scope of these illegal actions and determine whether they amount to a de facto policy, Human Rights Watch said.

“Despite government denials, we’ve heard many accounts of pushbacks that put migrants’ lives at risk” said Eva Cossé, Greece specialist at Human Rights Watch. “Parliament needs to step up and do what it can to put an end to this life-threatening practice.”

The Piraeus Naval Court Prosecutor’s office, a military court, has opened an investigation into the Farmakonisi incident, media reported. Survivors told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that a Greek Coast Guard vessel was towing the boat carrying 28 Afghans and Syrians toward the Turkish coast at high speed in bad weather conditions when the boat capsized. Survivors’ accounts from the media and nongovernmental organizations allege that Coast Guard officers refused to help them as the boat sank, and even stamped on the hands of people clinging to the Greek vessel.

The bodies of one woman and one child have been recovered, while ten other women and children are missing and presumed dead.

In a heated parliamentary debate yesterday, Head of the Hellenic Coast Guard Vice Admiral Dimitris Bandias apologized to the victims’ families but authorities continue to insist officers behaved properly and that there is no push-back policy.

Greece’s Merchant Marine minister, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, who exercises political oversight for the Hellenic Coast Guard, has said radar records show the Coast Guard was in fact towing the boat toward the Greek island of Farmakonisi and that the boat capsized because the migrants on board panicked. He also insisted that testimony collected from survivors by Coast Guard officers states clearly that the Coast Guard saved them.

During a news conference organized by local groups on January 26, survivors said the Coast Guard did not provide translators for their languages and that they did not understand what was written on the documents that the Coast Guard gave them to sign following their rescue.

The Farmakonisi incident has prompted Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks, European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, the UNHCR, and nongovernmental groups to urge Greek authorities to conduct an independent inquiry.

Earlier in January, Commissioner Muižnieks had called on the Greek authorities to end collective expulsions of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Greece and to “carry out effective investigations into all recorded incidents.”

In addition to a parliamentary inquiry, the Greek National Commission for Human Rights, an independent government advisory board, should seize the opportunity to examine the issue of pushbacks and summary expulsions, and issue a report with recommendations to the Greek authorities, Human Rights Watch said. Both investigations should examine practices at land as well as sea borders.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Pro Asyl, and the UNHCR have heard numerous direct accounts of life-threatening maneuvers by the Greek Coast Guard to force boats back to Turkey in the past.

“Aziz,” a 20-year-old Afghan, told Human Rights Watch that he was pushed back to Turkey twice by Greek law enforcement officers between mid-December 2013 and mid-January 2014. The first time, Aziz said, a Greek patrol ship towed the boat he was on back to Turkish territorial waters and left him and the other passengers to drift: “They left us there. We couldn’t do anything, the engine wasn’t working. There was water in the boat.” The second time, Greek officers rounded up Aziz and others as they huddled around a fire after arriving on the Greek island of Samos, put them on a boat, and left them in Turkish waters. Both times Turkish authorities rescued him.

“Jafar,” a 31-year-old Afghan, gave Human Rights Watch similar accounts when he described his attempt to reach Greece by boat in November 2013: “It was very dangerous. There was a woman with children and one of her babies fell in the water. They put a chain on our boat. After 30 minutes they pushed us back into free water and left. We spent the next three hours drifting in the water. The boat was filled with water and started to sink.” Jafar said Turkish police rescued them.

Civilian courts should investigate in a transparent, thorough, and impartial manner repeated allegations that Greek Coast Guard personnel are involved in acts that put the lives and safety of migrants at risk, Human Rights Watch said. Any officer engaged in such illegal acts, as well as their commanding officers, should be subject to disciplinary sanction and, as appropriate, criminal prosecution.

Deaths of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach European shores are a recurring tragedy. The death of over 360 migrants and asylum seekers in a single shipwreck in October 2013 off the Italian island of Lampedusa focused Europe’s attention on boat migration. But policy responses have concentrated on surveillance and deterrence, with few new measures to help prevent loss of life by prompt rescue, to assess and provide for protection needs, or to ensure swift and safe disembarkation, Human Rights Watch said.

Increased security along the Greece-Turkey land border in Evros with increased patrols, including by Frontex, and the construction of a 12.5-kilometer fence, rerouted flows of irregular migrants and asylum seekers, including those fleeing the conflict in Syria, to Aegean Sea islands.

Greece assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on January 1, stating an intention for a strong focus on migration and maritime issues.

“As an external border country of the European Union, Greece experiences significant migration pressure,” Cossé said. “But if the country wants to play a meaningful leadership role in the European migration debate, the government needs first to prove that it can uphold its human rights obligations.”

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