"Drift-Backs" AND Torture on the AEGEAN
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THE CASE: Unaccompanied minor challenges systematic pushback practice, alleging torture.
On 3 March 2021, GLAN filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of R, an unaccompanied asylum-seeker child who was apprehended in the Vathy Reception and Identification Centre on Samos and subject to a life-threatening pushback to Turkey, along with another minor, in September 2020. The case challenges the acts of the Hellenic Coast Guard for seriously endangering the lives of two minors by leaving them adrift in an unnavigable raft in the middle of the Aegean Sea.
Pushbacks on the Aegean carried out by the Greek Coast Guard have become increasingly widespread since the beginning of 2020. Since March in particular, Greek officials have resorted to unprecedented methods of border violence to keep out migrants: asylum-seekers arriving on Greek islands or into Greek territorial waters are dragged out to sea by the Greek Coast Guard, forced into non-navigable inflatable rafts, and left to drift. Thousands of asylum-seekers have found themselves in life-threatening situations as a result of these now systematic practices.
The highest echelons of the Greek Government have persistently denied the occurrence of migrant pushbacks before domestic and European bodies, obstructing the investigation of scores of domestic complaints made on behalf of victims. The Greek government continues to emphasise its commitment to international law, while praising the Coast Guard and celebrating the reduced ‘flows’ of asylum-seekers.
NGOs such as Aegean Boat Report, Legal Centre Lesvos, and Mare Liberum continue to document almost-daily abuses against migrants at Greece’s islands and maritime borders. Mare Liberum, an organization monitoring refugee rights in the Aegean Sea, reported on a “dramatic increase of violence and ill-treatment of refugees in the Aegean” to the United Nations Human Rights Office. According to the organization, they counted 321 pushbacks involving 9,798 people between March and December 2020. Based on a cross-referenced account of 17 case-studies and interviews with over 50 survivors, the Legal Centre Lesvos concluded that “Greek authorities are continuously and systematically conducting collective expulsions at Greece’s land and sea borders, putting migrants’ lives at grave risk and violating their rights, including the right to seek asylum”. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and assets belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) are often found in the vicinity of, and hence presumptively aware of, or potentially direct participants in collective expulsions.
A growing number of alleged cases of ‘pushbacks’ by Greek authorities that follow the same pattern have been communicated to the Court since early 2020. Leading media organisations and international press, including Lighthouse Reports, Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, and ARD/Report Mainz, have also investigated and extensively reported on pushbacks from Samos as well as other Aegean islands.
The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and Prakken D’Oliveira lodged a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of R, an unaccompanied asylum-seeker child who was apprehended in the Vathy Reception and Identification Centre on Samos and subject to a life-threatening pushback to Turkey, along with another minor, in September 2020. The case was brought to our attention by Aegean Boat Report, who first documented the pushback incident in September.
The applicant arrived on Samos from Turkey on September 8 with a group of 17 Afghan asylum-seekers. He and another unaccompanied child from the group made their way to the refugee camp in Vathy to apply for asylum.
The following morning, they presented themselves to the authorities in order to register as asylum-seekers. They were taken to a police station inside the camp under the pretext that they would be placed in quarantine for two weeks as a public health measure to ensure that they did not have Covid-19, after which they would be brought back to the camp. They were also told that they could not obtain asylum seeker cards as the Greek Asylum Service was closed due to the pandemic.
Despite having met representatives of international organisations that work in the camp, the two minors were denied the opportunity to register, and instead were abducted from the camp by Greek officers. The officers escorted them to the port where they were forced aboard a Hellenic Coast Guard vessel, handcuffed, and had their phones and money confiscated. Coast Guard officers drove the ship into the middle of the Aegean sea, forced the two teenagers into an inflatable, motorless raft and left them to drift. The children paddled with their hands until they were rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard. They were detained in Turkey for about 9 days, before being released, destitute and without support.
The complaint challenges Greece’s systematic policy of “pushbacks” in the Aegean Sea, and the pattern of abandoning asylum-seekers adrift in non-navigable rafts which, we argue, not only exposes them to refoulement but also amounts to torture. The case relies on the special protection afforded to minors and highlights the systemic nature of this strand of Greece’s collective expulsions policy, and the unprecedented reach of the pushback apparatus inside the camps.
These systematic pushbacks, which amount to serious violations of international and European regional human rights and refugee law, as well as the law of the sea, are occurring within the theatre of Frontex’s Joint Operation Poseidon. The agency is currently under multiple investigations based on independent investigations showing the extent of its complicity in pushbacks. It nevertheless continues to deny its involvement in or acquiescence to such practices. By failing to take action in line with its legal obligations when faced with systematic violations of fundamental rights and ‘serious irregularities’ in Greek border operations, to defund or suspend its operations, the agency legitimises these unprecedented forms of violence at Europe’s borders. A complaint requesting the EU Commission to initiate an infringement procedure against Greece for its systemic breaches of the EU asylum acquis and fundamental rights is pending.
* Thanks are due to Stefanos Levidis for coining the term ‘drift backs’.