RSA and PRO ASYL are alarmed by and condemn the increase in recent months of reported push-back practices from Greek soil and territorial waters to Turkey, as well as reported dangerous and aggressive practices by the Greek Coast Guard seeking to deter refugee boats from reaching the Greek islands.
The Greek Coast Guard operates in the Aegean Sea for the purposes of sea border surveillance and search and rescue and is assisted by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) in the framework of Operation Poseidon. NATO forces are also present and contribute to the operations.
RSA and PRO ASYL monitor developments in the sea area between Greece and Turkey. Since early 2020, RSA has received increasing allegations about push-backs of refugee boats by masked men and Greek Coast Guard vessels or aggressive deterrence tactics. The reports received refer to conduct including: Greek Coast Guard vessel manoeuvres in high-speed near refugee boats; confiscation of fuel and/or destruction of engines; pointing of guns at the individuals on board refugee boats; towing of the boats towards Turkey, leaving people adrift on often unseaworthy and overcrowded dinghies and putting their lives at risk. In some cases, the reports received referred to the following conduct: ramming of the refugee boats; firing of shots near the refugee boats or in the air.
In early March 2020, audio-visual material came to light, showing such practices of deterrence from Greek coastguard officers including even shots fired near the refugee boat into the water. NGOs also documented and reported such incidents. The crew of a Danish patrol boat participating in Operation Poseidon refused an order to push back refugees it had rescued.
RSA and PRO ASYL wish to remind once more that the rescue of people at sea is a fundamental duty under the law of the sea and must be the absolute priority of Greek and European authorities. Push-backs of refugees to Turkey are a direct breach of the non-refoulement principle as enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. These practices also constitute a breach Article 19 (1) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights that prohibits collective expulsions and the right to asylum as enshrined in EU law.
RSA and PRO ASYL also recall the 2014 tragedy where eight children and three women from Afghanistan lost their lives when their vessel sank near the island of Farmakonisi during a reported attempt of push-back and a dangerous towing operation by the Greek Coast Guard. A complaint has been filed by the survivors against the Greek authorities before the European Court of Human Rights and the case is still pending (Safi and others v. Greece). During the same year, two refugees were injured and one of them died from injuries on the head following shots fired against their boat during a chase by the Greek Coast Guard. A case is also pending before the European Court of Human Rights (Αlkhatib and others v Greece). Both incidents took place while the Coast Guard boats were active in the framework of Operation Poseidon.
RSA and PRO ASYL warn of a re-emergence of unlawful practices of push-backs in the Aegean Sea and call upon the Greek authorities and Frontex to act in line with their obligations under EU and international law and save people in danger at sea.