Migrants arriving in Greece face deportation to Turkey, Oxfam says

Returning asylum seekers to deep sea in rafts a form of torture, Irish researcher claims

about 3 hours ago
Sorcha Pollak

A man holds a newborn baby as migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine arrive on a dinghy after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesbos. Photograph: Elias Marcou

Asylum seekers arriving in Greece have “little chance of a fair asylum procedure” and risk being deported straight back to Turkey, it has been claimed.

A study published by the aid agency Oxfam says the recently reformed Greek asylum system is designed to deport people rather than offer them safety.

Greece’s new international protection Act, introduced in January 2020, has brought “harsher, punitive measures” that have “further destabilised the Greek asylum system”, Oxfam says.

Under the new law, people must remain in “hotspots” while those who arrived in Greece before 2020 have been left in limbo and forced to reside for prolonged periods on the islands, according to the NGO.

The report found many asylum seekers arriving in Greece were unable to secure legal assistance and that if their asylum claim was rejected, they could be “immediately detained in order to be deported to Turkey or their countries of origin”.

Oxfam also criticises the European Union for its use of Greece as “a test ground for new migration policies” and says the Greek legal reforms leave the most vulnerable arrivals at risk of further abuse and exploitation.

Those who are able to stay on the islands are faced with the “inhumane living conditions in Greece’s refugee camps” where people have insufficient access to basic healthcare, clean toilets or handwashing facilities and overcrowding makes social distancing “next to impossible”, says Oxfam.

‘Illegal deportation’

Separately, an investigation by a German news outlet has found that many asylum seekers who have arrived on the Greek islands since March are being towed back out to sea on life rafts.

Greek authorities are “actively putting the lives of migrants at risk and using life-saving equipment to put people in danger”, said the Der Spiegel report in June.

Irish PhD student Niamh Keady-Tabbal has also reported that the Greek coastguard was using rescue equipment for the “illegal deportation” of asylum seekers. In an investigation published by justsecurity.org in May, Ms Keady-Tabbal wrote that new arrivals to the Greek islands were being “rounded up, brought to sea and left to drift in life rafts”.

Ms Keady-Tabbal, who spoke to a number of asylum seekers who say they were pushed out to sea on inflatable rafts, said the coronavirus pandemic had provided a “convenient pretext for cracking down on migrants”.

One of these asylum seekers, who spoke to The Irish Times via What’s App but requested anonymity, said Greek authorities “threw us back into Turkish waters”. He said the group of 31 people on board the small life raft were picked up by the Turkish Coast Guard and brought back to Turkey where they were detained for over a month.

‘Intense violence’

Ms Keady-Tabbal told The Irish Times that sending asylum seekers back out to sea was a “clear violation of international law” and “a form of torture”. “The way in which these pushbacks are happening is an intense form of violence. Many of these people spend weeks in detention in Turkey after being intercepted by the coastguard.”

Earlier this month, MEPs from the European Parliament asked Greek government representatives to clarify their position regarding reports that border guards were preventing migrants from entering Greece.

Greek minister for citizen protection Michalis Chrisochoidis said Greece’s role was to “guard the European border in an efficient way” and that while the country respected people’s right to international protection, it needed to “keep European borders safe from today’s turbulent reality”.

Minister for migration and asylum Notis Mitarachi said coastguard activities had been “significantly enhanced, focusing on the detention of migrant boats prior to their entry into EU waters to prevent unauthorised entry”. Mr Mitarachi added that the country needed to “accelerate returns” for those not entitled to international protection and that enhanced returns should be a key part of the new European migration pact.

The Greek migration minister called for more European support in dealing with the migrant crisis and defended his country’s democratic government which he said “safeguards human dignity and applies faithfully international law concerning human rights”.