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Greece must be held to account for deporting refugees during pandemic, says HRW

July 17, 2020 at 2:20 pm

A woman wearing mask at a refugee camp in Greece on 5 April 2020 [Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu Agency]

Greece has apparently been robbing and deporting asylum-seekers and refugees to Turkey during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic without taking “any precautions to prevent the risk” of them catching the virus, the UK-based Human Rights Watch has reported. “We found no evidence that [the Greek] authorities took any precautions to prevent the risk of transmission of Covid-19,” said HRW.

The rights group came to its conclusion after reviewing nine cases, as well as interviewing thirteen survivors and witnesses of Greece’s neglect. The Greek authorities are said to have made their move despite the lockdown and strict measures introduced to curb the spread of the virus.

The government in Athens “did not allow a nationwide lockdown to get in the way of a new wave of collective expulsions, including from deep inside Greek territory,” said HRW’s Greece researcher Eva Cosse. “Instead of protecting the most vulnerable people in this time of global crisis, Greek authorities have targeted them in total breach of the right to seek asylum and with disregard for their health.”

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Amongst those who told HRW of their treatment at the hands of the Greek authorities were six asylum-seekers from Syria, Palestine and Iran, including an unaccompanied 15-year-old Syrian girl. They provided details of at least three incidents in which Greek police, coastguards and unknown masked and armed men intercepted and returned them to Turkey from the Greek islands of Rhodes, Samos and Symi, using force in the process.

There were also incidents in which police entered the Diavata refugee camp – 400km from the Turkish border – and rounded up asylum-seekers for deportation. Following such procedures, HRW was told that refugees were placed on large coastguard boats until they reached the maritime border with Turkey, where they were put into small inflatable dinghies without motors and left to drift.

A dinghy with 15 Afghan refugees, 5 children, 3 women and 7 men, approaches the Greek island of Lesbos on 28 February, 2020 [ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images]

A dinghy with refugees approaches the Greek island of Lesbos on 28 February 2020 [ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images]

One Syrian refugee, “Marwan”, told HRW: “They started pushing back our boat, by creating waves in the water, making it hard for us to continue… It was like a battle, like living in Syria; we thought we were going to die.”

Such reports come only months after video footage revealed in March that the Greek authorities had been stripping refugees of their clothes, torturing them, leaving them in their underwear, and seizing their possessions including documents, phones, and money, before forcing them back into Turkey. It was also revealed that the Greek government was secretly detaining and abusing refugees at black sites close to the border.

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HRW has stated that Greece’s actions and treatment of the refugees are a violation of multiple international human rights laws, and has urged the government to “conduct a transparent, thorough, and impartial investigation” into the human rights abuses. “Any officer engaged in illegal acts,” insisted the organisation, “as well as their commanding officers, should be subject to disciplinary sanctions and, if applicable, criminal prosecution.”

The organisation also called on the European Commission – which provides financial support to Athens for migration control – to “urge Greece to end all summary returns and collective expulsions of asylum seekers to Turkey, press the authorities to investigate allegations of violence, and ensure that none of its funding contributes to violations of fundamental rights and EU laws. The European Commission should also open legal proceedings against Greece for violating EU laws prohibiting collective expulsions.”