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Renewed scrutiny on Europe's border push backs following death of 19 refugees in Turkey

Migrants being rescued by Turkish coast guards after Greek forces illegally pushed them back into Turkey’s territorial waters in Izmir, Turkey on 24 December 2021 [Mehmet Emin Mengüarslan/Anadolu Agency]
Migrants being rescued by Turkish coast guards after Greek forces illegally pushed them back into Turkey’s territorial waters in Izmir, Turkey on 24 December 2021 [Mehmet Emin Mengüarslan/Anadolu Agency]

As hundreds took to the streets in Athens and Istanbul over the weekend to protest the Greek's government's role in the death of 19 refugees, the controversial pushback policy used across Europe is under renewed scrutiny.

Last week the migrants' bodies were found at the Turkish border town of Ispala in the Erdirne Province of north-western Turkey. They had been stripped of their clothes and shoes and had frozen to death as the worst snowstorm in a decade hit the two countries.

Turkish authorities said Greek border guards had pushed them back over the border as they tried to enter Europe, a systematic practice which Athens has become infamous for, and which the global crisis information source, ReliefWeb, notes is a crime against humanity.

In April last year, 11 Syrian nationals filed a complaint against Greece at the European Court of Human Rights after it towed rafts carrying almost 200 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea back to Turkish waters and left them there, after beating up several of them.

On board, there were at least 40 children and one pregnant woman. It was the fifth legal action filed by the Legal Centre Lesvos after migrants attempting to seek asylum in Greece were tortured, humiliated and abandoned at sea by the Greek authorities.

READ: Hundreds protest in Athens and Istanbul over Greek refugee push back policy

The European Commission is pushing for deeper oversight of the EU's border and coast guard agency, Frontex, which has been accused of helping the Greek authorities push back refugees.

After watching Greek authorities leave a boat with refugees in it adrift in Turkish waters, one crew told the New York Times that it had been discouraged by Frontex officials from reporting what they saw.

Human Rights Watch has said that "the agency has repeatedly failed to take effective action when allegations of human rights violations are brought to its attention". It has also helped the Libyan coastguard send people back to Libya.

Push backs are used across the continent, with a recent spotlight on Polish border guards, who violently pushed back groups of people who had crossed into Europe from Belarus last year.

At least 19 people have died, mostly by freezing to death, since the Polish border push backs began. Now, Warsaw has started building a wall along the border with Belarus.

The tragic consequences of these push backs have been widely reported on, and yet they continue. In 2017, a six-year-old Afghan girl, Madina Hussiny, was killed when a train hit her after Croatian police picked her and her family up in a park and forced them to walk back to Serbia in the middle of the night along the train tracks.

In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Croatian police were responsible for Madina's death and that they had not undertaken an effective investigation into her death.

READ: UK: Tabled amendment to controversial bill makes it hard for women escaping rape to secure refugee status

The Croatian police have asked people to walk barefoot through the forest, have thrown people into the Korana River on the Croatia-Bosnia frontier and forced refugees back to Bosnia, either naked or just in their underwear. Last December alone, the NGO, Border Violence Monitoring Network, shared 30 testimonies of push backs in the Balkans which affected 280 people.

Yet, despite the wealth of ill treatment, the tragic deaths and the evidence of how push backs are conducted across Europe, the UK vowed, in November 2021, to press ahead with its own plans to turn migrant boats around and send them back to France to prevent them landing in the UK after they had crossed the English Channel.

Home Secretary, Priti Patel, went one step further and sought immunity for Border Force staff if someone drowns whilst they are pushing them back and told the House of Lords that push backs would be legal.

In mid-November, 27 people drowned in the English Channel after an inflatable dinghy capsized in a tragic incident which sparked international headlines and highlighted just how dangerous this journey is. Yet, even after the names of the victims had been released, the UK has said that push backs were still on the table, despite being warned that they could lead to yet more unnecessary deaths.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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