Report accusing Greeks of turning back 2,000 migrants, and ill-treating many, shows the strain put on Greece by EU demands for stricter immigration controls at a time when tens of thousands fleeing conflict and poverty are heading for Europe
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Greek authorities have systematically rejected more than 2,000 refugees fleeing conflict, among them many women and children, and ill-treated some of them in the process, according to a new report by a German group supporting refugees and asylum seekers.
The research by PRO ASYL found the vast majority of refugees who were prevented from entering Greece, by land and sea, in the past year were Syrians escaping the 2-1/2 year civil war in their country and seeking refuge in Europe.
"Our boat was damaged and they had tied it with a rope...They took us to the boundary between Greek and Turkish waters and threw us one by one into our boat," the report quoted one refugee as saying. "One of us fell into the sea and we collected him from the water. They were throwing us as if we were garbage...Then they cut the rope.
"There was no engine, no fuel on the boat and no paddles," the refugee added.
Greece, bowing to pressure from the European Union (EU) to curb the flow of refugees fleeing to Europe, has enforced a strict immigration policy in cooperation with the European border agency, Frontex.
Greece partly sealed its land border with Turkey last year by erecting a 10-km fence in the Evros region. This led to a shift in migrant routes to the Aegean Sea, which led to the death of many people mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, the report said.
Last month, European leaders in Brussels turned down calls from southern European states already hard hit by the euro zone crisis for additional support to tackle the record number of migrants trying to reach mainland Europe on often dangerous journeys arranged by people smugglers.
The PRO ASYL report is based on 90 face-to-face interviews with refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia almost all of whom alleged they had suffered various forms of abuse by Greek coastguard and border patrol officers, such as arbitrary detention, confiscation of identity documents and mobile phones and being forced to retrace their steps.
The human rights abuses alleged by nine male Syrian refugees could amount to torture, the document said.
The report estimated that some 2,000 people had been turned back in breach of international humanitarian law, since the group began its investigation a year ago. PRO ASYL is a member of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).
Some people who were pushed back from Greek to Turkish waters reported that officers carrying out the operations were wearing masks and carrying guns, and all the refugees said the Greek authorities had not given them a hearing before sending them back.
"They beat one of us with a wire," one person said. "He was holding onto their boat, that’s why they beat him on his hands and legs. He had a big wound. Most of us were beaten with punches and kicks."
Many said they feared for their lives when they were left adrift in unseaworthy boats.
"When they heard the women crying, they said: ‘Ok, we will put you in our boat,’" one refugee said. "They told us to give them a big canister with fuel we had on board and after taking that away, they tied our dinghy with a rope on the back of their vessel...They told us they would put all of us in their vessel, but they just pulled us back into Turkish waters.’
Those who were sent to Turkey said they suffered from harsh living conditions and renewed human rights violations.
More than 32,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East have arrived in Italy and Malta so far this year, the United Nations says. Over 550 migrants died last month alone while trying to make the crossing.
While southern European countries which are bearing the brunt of immigration are asking for Frontex to be more involved in their work, the report strongly criticised Frontex’s role in Greek operations, and called on the European Ombudsman to investigate the body’s involvement in the alleged “push-backs”.
The document also urged the Greek government and the relevant European bodies to investigate the allegations and take swift action if they proved to be true.
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