The European Court of Human Rights issued a historic ruling on July 7 concerning Greece’s illegal and life-threatening practice of pushing boats of asylum seekers back to Turkey.
Eleven women and children, including infants, died off the Greek island of Farmakonisi on January 20, 2014, in what survivors describe as a pushback operation. They said a Greek Coast Guard vessel was towing their boat, carrying 28 Afghans and Syrians, back towards the Turkish coast at high speed in bad weather conditions when the boat capsized. Authorities claim the Coast Guard was in fact towing the boat toward Farmakonisi and that the boat capsized because the migrants on board panicked.
After a Greek prosecutor closed the case, survivors and relatives of the deceased appealed to the European Court in 2015. At least 32 more cases of alleged pushbacks by Greece are pending before the Court.
Eight years later, the Court has ruled that Greek authorities had not done all that could reasonably be expected of them during the operation to prevent the tragedy and protect the people on board. The court also found that authorities had not carried out a thorough investigation capable of shedding light on the circumstances in which the boat had sunk, violating the right to life of the applicants and their relatives. Authorities also subjected survivors to degrading treatment when they strip-searched them in public.
Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly documented how the Greek Coast Guard has abandoned migrants at sea by violently transferring individuals from Greek islands, or from the dinghy upon which they were traveling, to motorless, inflatable rafts, and leaving them adrift near Turkish territorial waters. They have also intercepted and disabled boats carrying migrants by damaging or removing the engines or fuel and towing them back to Turkey, or puncturing inflatable boats.
The European Court’s message is clear: Greece’s failure to address the serious allegations of pushbacks and violence against people at its borders is unacceptable. This judgment contributes to growing evidence that requires Greece to take action now. The government should immediately cease all violations at its borders and establish an independent and effective border monitoring mechanism, unlike its whitewashing National Transparency Authority, to investigate allegations. Parliament should also establish an inquiry into all allegations of pushbacks and examine whether they are part of a de facto government policy.