EU official calls Greece to further probe asylum seeker pushbacks

Ylva Johansson says Greece ‘can do more’ to look into allegations that asylum seekers are being pushed back to Turkey.

Migrants and refugees arrive in a dinghy accompanied by a Frontex vessel near the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey in 2020
In 2015, Greece was at the front line of Europe's refugee crisis with nearly a million people arriving by boat from Turkey [File: Michael Varaklas/AP Photo]

In a visit to Greece, the European Union’s top migration official has called on the country to “do more” to investigate allegations that its coastguard is pushing asylum seekers back to neighbouring Turkey, as the bloc announced funding for five new refugee camps on Aegean islands.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has said it has received a growing number of reports in recent months suggesting asylum seekers may have been pushed back to Turkey at sea or immediately after reaching Greek soil, or left adrift at sea. Greek officials have always rejected the reports.

“I am very concerned about the UNHCR report and there are some specific cases that I really think need to be looked into closer,” Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, said during a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos.

“I think the Greek authorities can do more when it comes to investigating these alleged pushbacks.”

Johansson pledged 276 million euros ($326m) of EU money for new camps on the islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros, where nearly 14,000 migrants are hosted, saying it was imperative to find “new political solutions” to share the burden between EU states.

“For three years, there had been no progress on finding a political solution,” Johansson said. “I can understand that everybody has a limit to their patience … this limit is close, also here on Lesbos and in some other areas,” she said.

But humanitarian groups working in Greece’s islands said the EU is “replicating the same model that has created so much harm and suffering”.

“It is time to demand dignified alternatives to camps, allow access to a fair and dignified asylum procedure, and ensure adequate and tailored health care adapted to the needs of people fleeing violence, conflict and trauma,” Hilde Vochten, of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF), said in an open letter to Johansson, accusing her of attempting “a positive spin on what is, in reality, a disastrous situation”.

“You cannot repackage the same destructive ideas and tell us they will be more humane,” the letter continued. “As long as the EU prioritises containing and returning migrants at the EU external border over protection and dignified reception, those seeking safety in Europe will continue to suffer.”

Meanwhile Greek Minister Notis Mitarachi, speaking at a news conference with Johansson, said Greece adhered to European and international law.

“We strongly deny that the Greek coastguard has ever been involved in pushbacks,” he said. “We understand we are causing a loss of tens of millions of euros to smuggling networks, and that could have played a role in the kind of fake news we hear about the Greek coastguard,” he said.

Mitarachi said independent investigations, including by the Greek judiciary and by the EU’s border agency Frontex, had not found violations.

Greece wants Turkey better police migration routes and take back hundreds of asylum seekers found ineligible for refugee protection.

Meanwhile, Johansson also said Turkey must “urgently” resume accepting migrants from Greece.

Her remarks come before EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel are set to visit Turkey next week to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over migration and other regional issues.

In 2015 Greece, Lesbos in particular, was at the front line of a refugee crisis that saw nearly a million people, mostly Syrians, fleeing war, arriving by boat from Turkey.

Numbers have decreased dramatically since the EU struck a deal with Ankara a year later, with some 16,000 people arriving in Greece last year, according to UN data.

The country has toughened its migration policy since conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis came to power in 2019.

Border patrols have increased, asylum processes have been quickened and benefits have been slashed, even for refugees who are granted asylum.

Mitarachi said about 14,000 migrants were currently in camps on five islands, down from about 42,000 in 2019. About 58,000 were in camps across Greece, down from 92,000 in 2019.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies