Those of us working to defend the rights of asylum seekers and migrants in the European Union know how hard it is to fight against abuses taking place at external borders. We also know that small victories can make a real difference.
A recent groundbreaking decision on Greece by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) may just be one such victory. For the first time the court issued an emergency order which was published last week and which ordering the Greek authorities not to carry out the summary return of an asylum seeker to Turkey from the Greek Islands.
Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly documented how Greek law enforcement officers apprehend newly arrived asylum seekers within hours after their landing on Greek islands, and summarily expel them to Turkey. Usually, people are forced onto large Coast Guard boats first and then cast adrift on small inflatable rescue rafts near the Turkish sea border.
On February 15, Aegean Boat Report (ABR), a nongovernmental group regularly reporting on Greek border abuses, asked the European Court of Human Rights to intervene to prevent the summary expulsion of four asylum seekers who landed on an Aegean island after crossing from Turkey. As often happens, the four were forced to hide for three days without access to food, water, and shelter for fear of being pushed backed to Turkey. According to ABR, which submitted the claim to the ECtHR, the group had been pushed back from Greek territory numerous times.
Initially the court issued a provisional decision requiring the Greek authorities to provide first-aid assistance. By that time, all but one had however already been summarily sent back to Turkey without any consideration of their protection needs. Despite the Greek authorities’ denial of any knowledge of the four applicants’ presence in Greece – which in itself is evidence the four were never subjected to formal procedures – the court, on February 22, granted interim measures ordering that the fourth asylum seeker “is not removed from Greece”.
It appears to be the first time that the European court has issued interim measures to prevent a summary removal from Greece rather than just for humanitarian treatment.
The court’s decision could signal a greater willingness to step in to prevent summary returns. The Greek government should immediately comply and put an end to dangerous pushbacks to Turkey of people seeking protection.