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Greece Is Still Denying Migrant Pushbacks

Prime Minister Denies Growing Evidence of Abuses by Coast Guard and Border Police

The Greek Coast Guard has been accused of using rescue equipment - namely inflatable, motorless life rafts - to leave asylum seekers and migrants adrift in open water close to the Turkish sea border. May 25, 2020 © 2020 Turkish Coast Guard

There is mounting evidence that the Greek government has in recent months secretly expelled thousands of migrants trying to reach its shores. But in a recent interview with CNN, Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, denied the allegations once again.

Confronted with a New York Times article documenting the issue published on August 14, Mitsotakis said, “It has not happened. We’ve been the victims of a significant misinformation campaign,” suggesting instead that Turkey was responsible.

But the evidence and reports describing the abuses are too many to be ignored. At Human Rights Watch, we reviewed credible footage and interviewed victims and witnesses who described how the Greek Coast Guard personnel, police, and armed masked men in dark clothing carried out summary returns from the Greek islands of Rhodes, Samos, and Symi, forcing people onto small inflatable rescue rafts and sending them back to Turkish waters.

Marwan (a pseudonym), 33, from Syria, told us for example that on March 8, the Greek Coast Guard carried out life-threatening maneuvers to force the small boat carrying him and 22 other passengers, including women and children, back to Turkey. “It was like a battle – like living in Syria, we thought we were going to die,” he said.

But pushbacks at sea are not the only illegal practice. In recent years we and others also reported on the systematic pattern of brutal Greek border police pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers at the Evros River, a natural land border between Greece and Turkey. For the first time this year, we also documented collective expulsions of asylum seekers deep inside Greece, from the Diavata Camp in Thessaloniki, who were then forced to cross the land border into Turkey.

The European Commission, which provides financial support to the Greek government for migration control, has done little to hold Greece accountable, turning a blind eye to the horrifying abuses that people seeking protection face when trying to reach Europe’s shores.

Mitsotakis’ denial to CNN has rightly stirred controversy. He should use future interviews to pledge to end the pushbacks and outline steps to make this happen. That would be a better way to explain developments in Greece to an international audience.

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