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A boy from Afghanistan arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020.  © 2020 AP/Michael Varaklas

(Brussels) – Greece and its European Union (EU) partners should deliver a collective response to Turkey’s new policy of not stopping migrants and asylum seekers trying to leave for Greece, Human Rights Watch said today. The EU’s response should provide for shared responsibility, uphold the right to seek asylum, and guarantee humane and dignified treatment to all migrants.

On March 1, 2020, Greece’s Governmental National Security Council decided to effectively suspend access to the asylum system for a month for people who crossed the border irregularly, a measure for which there is no legal basis or justification. In recent days, Greek courts have handed down prison terms to people who had crossed the border without documents, Greek authorities said, in circumstances that preclude the possibility that the defendants had fair proceedings with due process.

“The EU has an opportunity to show it can respond with compassion to the arrival of people fleeing conflict and persecution by putting their dignity and humanity at the center of its response,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “Greater responsibility-sharing among EU states, respecting the right to seek asylum, and ensuring that people are treated humanely should be the hallmarks of any EU response.”

Following a Turkish government announcement on February 27 that Turkey would no longer stop asylum seekers and migrants from leaving Turkish territory to reach the EU, hundreds of people have arrived on the Aegean Islands and thousands have reached the Greece-Turkey land border. In response, the Greek government reinforced its border with police, army, and special forces and sought greater support by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX).

On March 2, footage emerged in social media showing what appears to be a Syrian man from Aleppo allegedly killed by a rubber bullet shot by Greek border guards as he tried to cross into Greece irregularly. Human Rights Watch has been unable to verify the facts concerning this particular incident. However, Greek forces appear to have used excessive or disproportionate force, including teargas, as women, men, and children from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries have gone to the border hoping to cross into Greece. The authorities claim they are using force in response to organized attacks by asylum seekers and other migrants trying to cross into Greece.

In addition to new arrivals at the land border, there has been an increase in arrivals on Greece’s Aegean islands, where refugee facilities are already severely overcrowded.

In one incident reported by the nongovernmental group Alarm Phone, a speedboat carrying masked men allegedly twice attacked a vessel carrying 49 people and disabled the vessel’s engine. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the incident. In 2015, Human Rights Watch documented that armed masked men were disabling boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea and pushing them back to Turkish waters.

In another incident caught on camera and reported by the BBC, Al Jazeera, and other media outlets, Greek coast guards are seen firing into the sea near a migrant dingy, and shoving it around, as they attempt to force it back toward Turkey with the assistance of a speedboat with what appears to be masked men.

There have been several alarming reports of vigilante violence against humanitarian workers, journalists, and migrants and asylum seekers on Lesbos since February 29. Thugs are violently preventing boats from landing in Lesbos, based on media reports and information that Human Rights Watch received from humanitarian workers on Lesbos.

Some local residents are blocking buses from transferring newcomers to the government’s hotspot facility for asylum seekers and migrants, while local activists reported that men holding bats and chains gathered on the streets leading to the Moria refugee camp. On March 1, there was an arson attack on an empty migrant facility in the northern part of the island, according to humanitarian workers on Lesbos sharing information on social media. A fire destroyed a warehouse used by a nongovernmental group on the island of Chios on March 2, media reported.

Yesterday, the presidents of the EU Commission, the EU Council, and the European Parliament joined Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis for a high-level visit at the Greece-Turkey land border. They praised the actions of the Greek government, Greek border guards, and civilians for their efforts to protect Greece’s border, while ignoring incidents of disproportionate or excessive force, and failed to call on Greece to respect the right to seek asylum and other international and European human rights law.

“Praising Greek border guards using teargas and other violent means to prevent crossing at the land border and engaging in dangerous, and possibly criminal, behavior against asylum seekers and migrants at sea is quite frankly irresponsible,” Leicht said. “If the EU’s highest officials are willing to turn a blind eye to such abuses and violations of international law, they will invite more of the same.”

Greek authorities should urgently act to curb vigilante violence, and investigate and prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said. The EU and Greece’s leadership should publicly and unequivocally condemn such violence, and the criminal justice system should hold those responsible for violence to account.

Greek law enforcement officers should receive clear instructions that any use of force must be proportionate to the need. The authorities should urgently investigate reports of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials and hold those responsible to account.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights recognize the right to seek asylum. While Turkey currently hosts the world’s largest refugee population, mainly from Syria, many asylum seekers in Turkey do not have effective protection and Turkey does not meet the EU criteria for a safe third country to which an asylum seeker can be returned.

The Greek government should immediately reverse its decision to suspend access to asylum for people who crossed the border irregularly, ensure access to its territory for people seeking protection, and ensure that anyone in need of international protection can apply for asylum at the border, Human Rights Watch said.

The situation on the Greek islands has grown more acute due to a spike in arrivals since July 2019, leading to extreme overcrowding in the so-called “refugee hotspots.” The situation is compounded by the authorities’ containment policy to carry out the EU-Turkey agreement, intended to return unsuccessful asylum seekers to Turkey. This has led to perpetual overcrowding on the islands. The European Commission should urgently support Greece to ensure adequate reception conditions, including shelter, toilets, food, and basic health care in areas where large numbers of asylum seekers and migrants have arrived.

The Turkish government likewise has a responsibility to allow asylum seekers at its border to seek protection, a situation that is especially acute for Syrians trapped in the Idlib region, where Syrian regime and Russian forces are carrying out a ruthless bombing campaign, attacking civilians, hospitals, and schools, forcing millions to flee. The EU and its member states should urgently expand the numbers of Syrian refugees to be resettled to Europe.

The European Commission and the EU should build on the experience of the 2015 Emergency Relocation Mechanism, and likeminded EU member states should, without any further delay, step up and urgently process asylum applications and relocate asylum seekers from the Greek islands, including through family reunification and humanitarian visas.

The commission and likeminded EU member states should also collaborate closely with Greece in setting up an emergency decongestion plan for the Greek islands, where over 40,000 asylum seekers and migrants are trapped in inhumane and degrading living conditions, Human Rights Watch said.

“People trapped at the Greek-Turkish border did not choose to be on the move. They are fleeing conflict and persecution,” Leicht said. “European governments should learn from past mistakes, and prevent suffering, deaths, and chaos by embarking on transparent policies guided by solidarity, humanity, and respect of international law.”

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