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26th Feb 2024

Greece to probe UN allegations of illegal returns

  • Asylum seekers were denied access to lawyers and then sent back to Turkey (Photo: Stephen Ryan / IFRC)

Greek authorities on Thursday (27 October) announced they are probing allegations of illegal returns of Syrian and non-Syrian asylum seekers to Turkey.

The allegations first emerged last week when the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said people had been denied access to lawyers and then sent to Turkey without proper access to asylum services.

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The allegations, if proven true, would mark the first ever illegal returns under the scope of the EU's migrant swap deal with Turkey signed off in March.

“If these refugees were sent to Turkey without due consideration of their asylum claim, this is undoubtedly a case of refoulement," said Giorgos Kosmopoulos, Amnesty International’s researcher on migrant rights in Europe, in a statement.

Greece is under intense pressure to speed up returns under the EU-Turkey deal. Just under 600 people, the vast majority of whom were non-Syrian, have been deported to Turkey under the deal as of last month.

Returns to Turkey are only allowed in cases where asylum applications have been withdrawn, revoked by the applicant, or when legal proceedings and rights to appeal have been exhausted.

The Hellenic Police has denied the UN allegations, but Greek lawyers told this website that the events described by Greek authorities are not entirely correct.

"There is clear evidence for the one [Syrian] family that they didn't declare asylum at the airport like the police are saying," said a contact in Greece.

Administrative errors

Police say a Syrian couple with a two-month old child had requested asylum moments before boarding a flight back to Turkey on 20 October. The couple and child were allowed to remain in Greece, reportedly because of the age of the baby.

But Greek media Efimerida ton Syntakton reported on Wednesday that the couple had filed for asylum on 14 October.

Asked to explain the date discrepancy, Greek authorities cited administrative errors, reports the paper.

The admission poses broader questions over the fate and deportation circumstances of other Syrians returned to Turkey. They too had arrived on 14 October but were sent back a few days later after being detained at the Agia Marina police station on Leros island.

Six were adults including two parents who were travelling with their children aged between one and six. One of the parents had sent text messages to contacts back in Greece thinking he was being flown to Athens, reported Efimerida ton Syntakton. The Hellenic Police said they had not requested asylum.

All were among a group of some 91 people that landed on the island of Milos earlier this month.

"Among the group, were 10 Syrian nationals who were transferred to Kos and subsequently readmitted by plane to Adana, Turkey, without due consideration of their asylum claims," said UN spokesperson Adrian Edwards last week.

No 'incidents' on returns, says Frontex

The EU border agency Frontex said no-one on the flight back to Turkey had showed any resistance. The return flight was monitored by a Greek official. A doctor, an interpreter, and a Frontex officer were also on board.

"We had a debriefing afterwards and there were no reports that there were any situations that would involve somebody trying to say that they were asking for asylum," a Frontex spokesperson told this website.

But Syrians were not the only ones deported.

A second group of nationals from Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, and Pakistan were ferried from Lesbos island to Dikili in Turkey on 21 October. They too had arrived earlier in the month.

"Again we had a debriefing afterwards and there were no incidents," said the Frontex spokesperson.

But the UNHCR says they and their legal representatives had been denied access to the group. The EU commission says it is in contact with the Greek authorities over the UN reports.

Ioannis Mouzalas, the Greek deputy minister in charge of migration, is set to make a public statement about the allegations in the next few days.

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Germany is expanding agreements to return rejected asylum seekers to their countries of origin as part of a wider shift in Europe to curtail migration. Berlin has reached deals with Georgia and Morocco since December.

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