21st Oct 2016

Greek special forces push back Syrian refugees, NGO says

  • Syrian refugees are being forced back into Turkey from Greece, says a German NGO (Photo: YoungJ523)

Armed special-op units in Greece are reportedly repelling asylum seekers and refugees in commando-like operations on its Turkish land border and out at sea.

The allegations, gathered in around 90 anonymous testimonies of intercepted migrants along with two unnamed French journalists, are detailed in a report out Thursday (7 November) by the German-based Pro Asyl NGO.

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“These push-backs happen in a brutal, life-threatening way on a daily basis,” Pro Asyl director Karl Kopp told reporters at press briefing, co-organised by the Brussels-based European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), on Thursday.

Boats with migrants in distress were left to fend for themselves or towed by the special-op units into Turkish waters, he said.

“What is shocking is that masked special units attacked these little boats of refugees,” he said.

In almost all the cases in the Aegean, the people involved in the push-backs wore “black uniforms, carried guns and wore full face-covering masks.”

Syrian testimonies describe the scenes.

They say the masked men confiscated their ID cards, mobile phones, and wallets. Warning shots were sometimes fired in the water near the boats, others had boats rammed or engine outboards confiscated and set adrift.

A Somali migrant, in an incident, which allegedly occurred in May 2013, said the Greek commandoes first tried to calm everyone down on the boat.

He quoted the commandoes as saying “‘Don’t be afraid. Now you have arrived. You are safe’.”

The commandoes then allegedly took away their life jackets and threw them in the sea.

“They took away our engine and the fuel. Then they pushed us back. We stayed there three hours on the sea until we could reach the Turkish coast,” he said.

In another case, Syrian refugees were allegedly intercepted in early August and taken to a Greek military outpost on Farmakonisi Island.

Greek military officers involved in the Farmakonisi incident on the island are said to have been “polite” but some of the commandoes, who had intercepted the boat, treated them with violence.

“Once in Farmakonisi, they made us all lie down facing the floor. This lasted for about two hours. They beat us on the face and in the groin area. They were yelling: ‘Syria, rubbish people,’” a Syrian refugee said of incident, which is said to have occurred on 24 August.

Pressure from other member states

Kopp said some member states are complicit in exerting undue pressure on the Greek state to stem the number of migrants entering the territory.

He noted that the German minister of interior, Hans-Peter Friedrich, in March last year pressured Athens to close its Evros land border with Turkey, while others made threats of kicking Greece out of the border-free Schengen zone.

Greece, following the statements, last summer deployed an additional 1,800 border guards to its land border and erected a 10.5 km razor-wire fence where the Evros river loops back into Turkey.

ECRE secretary-general, Michael Diedring, said the allegations in the Pro Asyl report should “shock and shame us.”

Diedring noted that the EU border agency, Frontex, is making progress institutionalising human rights in its activities.

He noted that Frontex is no way linked to the allegations but says the agency should have taken action if it knew about them.

Frontex, for its part, told this website that it had received around a dozen similar reports in the past year. The reports, sent in to the agency from individual migrants, were immediately followed up, says Frontex.

“When we receive such information, we immediately request the member state hosting a joint operation or the parties involved to launch an investigation upon which results actions are taken,” said a Frontex spokesperson in an email.

He noted that their Fundamental Rights Officer has requested the Greek authorities to provide clarifications, information and a proper investigation on these allegations.

In all cases, he said, the response received from the Hellenic authorities stated that no such practices had taken place.

“There are still few cases being investigated by the Hellenic authorities,” he said.

He pointed out that Frontex has no legal mandate to investigate such cases, but on the other hand it has a duty to effectively monitor compliance with fundamental rights during joint operations.

“The only way to overcome this shortcoming is to work closely with the member states,” he said.

The agency says closer co-operation is set for discussion at the end of the month at the next Frontex Management Board session.

For its part, the Hellenic police told this website it is intending to respond to the allegations.

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